Review: Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Lev Parikian

Lev Parikian is a professional conductor, a writer and, until the beginning of January 2016, a lapsed birdwatcher. Then, while he was on a simple walk through the park, eight Canada geese flew low overhead and left his year transformed in their wake. The “everyday beauty of the spectacle” reawakened a long-neglected interest in birds. Reviewing a childhood list that was, in birding parlance, rather ‘stringy’, and considering the birds one could realistically hope to see in a year, Parikian formulated his New Year’s resolution: 12 months, 200 birds.

Why anybody would lose interest in something quite so wonderful as birds is a profound mystery. But I sympathise. It’s happened to so many of us. As a child I was keen on birds – on the shelf I still have my copy of Spotting Birds, with its un-lifelike illustrations (already old-fashioned when it was published in 1964), which nonetheless I pored over, dreaming of seeing a white-spotted bluethroat, roller or woodchat shrike. Pity I didn’t realise at the time that the book was a translation from the Czech and came with no warning that I would have a hard time finding any of those in England circa 1990.

Anyhow, the world is full of interesting things and some have to fall by the wayside; besides, we’re encouraged to give up ‘such fripperies’ when we ‘grow up’ – aren’t we? Thankfully, I found birds again a few years after graduating; or rather, I should say they found me. They made themselves too obvious to ignore, from the oystercatchers stark and incongruous on the lawns of a Scottish castle to the sudden white flash of a wheatear’s rump skipping over a coastal rock. And so it is that I’ve been Considering Birds in the field since about 2005 and on this corner of the web (perhaps the name should have been Reconsidering Birds) since 2011.

Not coincidentally, that’s also the year that I, too, resolved to see 200 species. I don’t remember exactly why I decided on 200, but it seems to be a sweet spot: enough to ensure a bit of a challenge and plenty of varied birding adventures whilst not unduly risking family, finances, career or sanity. Many birders see a fair few more than 200 in a year – 300, even – but unless you’re spectacularly lucky the only way to reach those heights is to spend pretty much all of your spare time twitching – that is, pursuing rarities already reported by somebody else, and often criss-crossing the country to do so.

I don’t particularly hold twitching against anybody (though consider my eyebrow raised at the carbon footprint), but Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? won me over from the start by obviously not being another  straightforward narrative of twitching and listing, as much as I enjoy books like The Big Year. I admire the way the author set about building his list: for the most part, planning extended stays in good birding areas and trying to track down the species that are usually found there*.  This book is much more about the journey, the joys and frustrations of birdwatching, and the assortment of characters you meet in the often strange but ultimately wonderful community that is Britain’s birdwatchers. In pursuit of his target, Parikian never loses sight of the things that matter most to him, with the elements of family memoir woven into the narrative lending a touching emotional depth.

Obviously, the developing bird list does have to feature, and this is a potential pitfall for any bird writing. I’ve read plenty of trip reports that end up as total yawn-fests despite describing an extremely exciting day’s birding. Fortunately, this aspect of Why Do Birds is handled notably well. The ornithological cast of the book parades before us in entertainingly varied fashion without getting tedious.  The pace is helped along throughout by pithy prose that’s sprinkled with wry humour, the overall effect calling to mind Douglas Adams: a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Birdwatching, if you like.

Many of Parikian’s experiences along the way will be happily, or occasionally grimly, familiar to fellow birders, from the travails of describing the location of a small, well-camouflaged bird in a large, homogenous patch of vegetation to shadily toting binoculars through a residential area in pursuit of waxwings (honest, officer!) to the reticence to speak up in a bird hide for fear of sounding like an idiot. But above all, Why Do Birds is a timely reminder of the pleasure of watching birds in an increasingly distressing and confusing world. It isn’t a book solely or even primarily for bird-nerds: I can see many uninitiated folk being prompted by this book to pick up a pair of binoculars for the first time. Those of us already devoted to birding will be reminded why we started in the first place – for the love of birds, for their beauty, for the sheer exhilaration and fun of engaging with these wonderful, wild creatures that are all around, waiting for us to notice them.

This post is part of the blog tour launching Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Do check out the other posts! 

*I don’t begrudge him the odd twitch, and enjoy the various ways he attempts to justify them to himself. I wouldn’t have made it to 200 in 2011 without a bit of indulgence; indeed, by my rough calculations, I would have ended up four species short. Did Parikian make it? Sorry, you’ll find no spoilers here!  

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Review: Mozart’s Starling

In 1784, Mozart heard a starling in a shop sing a variation on the theme from his Piano Concerto No. 17. Enchanted, he took it home. Just over a century later, New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin, a member of the American Acclimatization Society, imported 80 starlings from England – apparently as part of an attempt to introduce to the Americas every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays – and released them in Central Park. Another century on and starling numbers have exploded in North America – there are perhaps 150 million.

Thanks to starlings being an introduced species that may out-compete native birds for nest cavities, they are probably the most hated bird species in North America today. But anybody who has ever looked at a starling close up, especially when its plumage catches the sun, will have noticed that they’re quite beautiful birds with fascinating behaviours. When naturalist and author Lyanda Lynn Haupt noticed these qualities in a flock of starlings feeding in her garden, she recalled the strange little story about Mozart and, to paraphrase her description of how book projects come about, “an idea flew into her brain.”

Recounting in parallel the twin tales of Mozart’s relationship with his bird and the author’s own experience of raising a nestling starling, Mozart’s Starling is a thoughtful reflection on the relationships between humans and our wild neighbours. It is also an insightful commentary on how that relationship is complicated by perceptions of invasive species; Haupt points out the contradiction between how we judge individuals versus a whole species: “Do I want starlings gone? Erased from the face of North America? Yes, unequivocally. … And do I love them? Their bright minds, their sparkling beauty, their unique consciousness, their wild starling voices? Their feathers, brown from one angle, shining from another? Yes, yes, I do.”

For a relatively short book this has an impressive blend of genres, moving through popular science, nature writing, philosophy, a smattering of travel (as the author explores Mozart sites in Vienna and Salzburg) and an exploration of the creative process. The real star of the narrative, though, is the nestling Haupt sneakily rescued and raised – keeping a starling is illegal in Washington State, where she lives. Named Carmen, the bird becomes an essential part of the household. The many little observations about her behaviour scattered through the book are quite charming but not merely included for the sake of whimsy, instead providing a fascinating glimpse into the often surprising world of wild bird behaviour.

Seen close up in this way, the intelligence of birds can be misinterpreted as making them seem more human, but what the two starlings portrayed here teach us is not to see birds as pseudo-people but as more fully birds, while seeing in the possibility of relationship with them a way of becoming more fully human ourselves. Continuing a common theme that runs throughout Haupt’s work, Mozart’s Starling shows that the key to a life enriched by nature is most often found in the commonplace, often overlooked wildlife right on our doorstep. “Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.”

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A tree full of starlings at Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire

Book Review: A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth

SWNI’ve never found learning birdsong particularly difficult, though when I started birdwatching something over a decade ago I certainly spent a lot of time staring at a singing bush waiting for the songster to reveal itself and thus its identity. In 2011 I agreed to take on an MSc research project that involved surveying woodland birds by ear, and suddenly the need to be able to identify birdsong took on a fresh urgency. That spring I finally sorted out nuthatch trills, great tit improvisation and the perennially tricky blackcap vs. garden warbler* and now consider myself a passable bird listener, though my talents are as nothing to the true masters of the art. It’s a useful skill, whether for utilitarian purposes such as surveys or the mildly smug feeling of knowing something that many people don’t.

But as Richard Smyth shows in A Sweet, Wild Note, there are many more ways to listen to birdsong, as varied as the songs themselves and the experiences of their human audience. ‘Birdsong is a wonderfully malleable material’, as he puts it, beginning a learned yet lighthearted tour through poetic and other literary interpretations of birdsong stretching from Old Testament times to the present. These can be ecstatic, often metaphorical and sometimes stretch birdsong to the point of subversion—thinking particularly of how poetry ‘planted an English flag in the skylark’s song’ even though larks are equally likely to be singing over German or Spanish fields.

When not playing with birdsong as poetic raw material, human culture has tried to capture it altogether. Smyth takes us through the history of recorded birdsong and how this has fed back into culture through its use in music. A form of captured song that is perhaps less obvious to us today is the practice of caging birds and the surprising follow-on idea that birdsong’s natural state can be improved upon. Yet of course birdsong is, as Smyth writes, ‘tied in tightly with lots of other things—ideas of place, nature, of biophony … diminished when it’s made to stand alone.’ Today this is recognised by ecologists: for example, Smyth touches on Bernie Krause’s fascinating work on soundscape ecology and the acoustic niche hypothesis.

Ultimately birdsong is, together with other natural sounds, the sound of the landscape itself. It becomes for us ‘a means of orientation’, a phrase I particularly appreciated, thinking of how the sounds of birds bring up memories or impressions of particular places and times:

In this context, when we ask ‘what does the bird’s song mean?’ we don’t give an answer like ‘freedom’ or ‘exultation’ or challenge’; we might say ‘Wytham Woods in spring’ or ‘a saltmarsh in winter’, or ‘a seabird colony in the breeding season’. It’s about what it means to us.

As a self-confessed recent ‘birdsong sceptic’, Smyth has been accumulating his own meanings and shares them throughout. Though the experiences are his own, I recognised and enjoyed his delight at the mad beauty of blackcap song or the thrill of hearing your first turtle dove. The fact that one needs to seek out a first turtle dove at all is a good clue that all is not well in the world of birdsong, and Smyth does not shy away from talk of future silent springs. Even for those with no particular appreciation of birdsong, the idea of a world where the birds are silenced is probably an ominous one. Smyth points out that this is an effect exploited by filmmakers to induce a sense of threat, one in fact deployed pre-cinema by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He summarises the threats to songbirds with a single word: neglect. I think that’s a fair assessment, and his proposed solution of greater attentiveness captures well the starting place for all the best endeavours of human culture, whether poetic or scientific.

Smyth writes: ‘Birdsong … comes with baggage. But maybe we could work with that’. This brief yet comprehensive reflection on the meaning of birdsong works through baggage very well indeed. I would highly recommend it as a thoughtful, accessible and witty introduction to the world of birdsong and defy anybody who reads this book not to resolve to pay more attention themselves.

A Sweet, Wild Note: What we Hear When The Birds Sing is published today (April 13th) by Elliott & Thompson. Thanks to E&T for providing a review copy.

*When I say sorted out, that’s not to say we don’t all need our annual period of getting our ear in. That’s part of the charm of migrant songsters.

A few singing birds I’ve filmed in a very amateur way. Much better to go out and listen to the real thing!