Rob Hardy on books


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A Bird Book Half About People



Rob Hardy


Humans have always had a close relationship with birds. We eat them, and sometimes they eat us. We hunt or fish with them, and teach them to talk, and we feed them for no reason except for enjoying their presence. They hint at the way we imagine our gods and goddesses, and they make us long for their power of flight. They are everywhere humans are, and we are devoted to classifying them and watching them as they feed, make their homes, and migrate. Any book that presumes to show a comprehensive picture of how humans and birds get along is going to have to be encyclopedic, and here it is: Birds & People_ (Jonathan Cape) by Mark Cocker with photographs by David Tipling is enormous, almost six pounds, with five hundred big, double-columned, small-fonted, glossy pages. Cocker, who has written a previous book on Britons and birds, has here gone worldwide, looking at how birds and humans get along in diverse regions. It is not surprising that he has worked on the text for seven years. Tipling's fine, colorful photos (supplemented by a few that show what we have made of birds) grace all the hundred-odd chapters here. It isn't a volume for reading from page 1 to 592, though your dutiful reviewer has done so, and it is really too heavy to read in bed (your reviewer has tried); but it should prove inexhaustible for dipping into at random or invaluable as a permanent reference. 




In the very first line of his introduction, Cocker states, "This is an unusual bird book, in that it is as much about humans as it is about birds." There is plenty of scientific information on birds here, but ornithology is not uppermost. Not all bird families are here; some were judged to be of little cultural importance. Birds that have been the subject of artworks are well represented, as are those who have entered the language in different ways. Barn Swallows, for instance, make huge annual migrations, and inspired the proverb "One swallow does not make a spring." Cocker traces a first instance of this proverb to an ancient Greek playwright Cratinus, and has found it in the language of Argentina, Croatia, Macedonia, and many more. There is no version in the Armenian language, for some reason, and in Iraq and Iran they ditch the birds, and say, "One flower doesn't make a spring." And in Czechoslovakia, they say "one swallow doesn't make a spring," but they mean it ironically - that first swallow means that spring is finally here. Birds are such a part of our lives that everyone knows what we are talking about when we say a politician is a hawk or a dove, and we know what an owlish person is, and other people might be vultures or dodos. Birds are part of our way of thinking about people. 




Plenty of pages here are devoted to birds whose flesh we eat. There is a full-page picture here captioned "We are so accustomed to turkeys as frozen blocks of meat from the supermarket that we can easily overlook how weirdly magnificent the Wild Turkey can be." You can't easily overlook this picture, however, showing a turkey with puffed up metallic black feathers, a dangling warty red and blue wattle, and a beard of hair-like feathers emerging from its chest. We seem to have mixed linguistic feelings about turkeys (and this is not the only bird for which this is true). "Gobbledegook" comes from the turkey's gobble, but we also "talk turkey" when we favor plain speaking. We do not deal just in bird meat. Bird's nest soup is made from the saliva of swiftlets, and the nests within caves are so valuable that hunters climb high up on risky, rickety bamboo ladders to harvest them. It may be that it will be easier to induce the birds to nest on human buildings, and sustainable colonies maintained; after all, by weight this is some of the most expensive bird stuff on the market. Feathers make for pillows, but ostriches have feathers that have caused a boom-and-bust trade in fashion, and whole ostrich eggs are used as canteens for water and are decorated as sacred art, with pieces of shell being used in jewelry. The phallic beaks of hornbills are used to promote virility, and are even worn as penis sheaths in New Guinea.  




Birds are our aides in the field. Among the pictures here is one of a Kazakh hunter with a magnificent Golden Eagle on his arm. The bird, says the caption, caught all the foxes that are in the fur coat that the hunter wears. His eagle is essential for his way of life, but falconry as practiced by the wealthy in the Middle East is an expensive hobby. It used to be that such falcons were the subject of complicated treatises that recommended medicating them with concoctions of breast milk or dragon's blood, but today, "Arab sheiks are far more likely to rely on hi-tech veterinarian services to oversee their treasured birds, and to track their movements with expensive satellite equipment." Cormorants in China dive to bring up fish, and each has a neck ring that prevents it from swallowing the catch. The birds might get rewarded by smaller tidbits of fish when they bring back the prey, but there is one community that has a tradition, possibly centuries old, which "involves the neck ring being removed after the bird's seventh catch. Observations of these fishermen suggest that the cormorants 'know' when they are due their reward and refuse to budge until the collar is removed and they are allowed to feed. The inference is that the birds can count." The honeyguides in Africa are adept at leading humans (and perhaps badgers) to hives. At the hive, the bird's collaborator can bust open the hive (which the honeyguide cannot do) to get the honey, leaving wax and larvae for the honeyguide to eat (honeyguides do not eat honey). Easily available sugar may wipe out this long collaboration, and at least one "young honey hunters club" has been formed in a school near Kenya to keep the tradition alive. 




Birds are often part of our religious lore, but they have a special duty in the Parsee religion, whose believers favor a sky burial; vultures descend upon the body within a special enclosure and leave nothing but bones. It is a clean and odorless way of passing on, and it is fast; a troop of vultures were supposed to get rid of all the flesh in sixty minutes. Unfortunately, the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac has widespread use in animals, and vultures who eat such animals die from the drug; sky burial may have no future, and of course not having vultures around to clean up other carcasses has ecological implications. 




It isn't the only instance in Birds & People showing people vs. birds, of course. There are plenty of explanations of how humans stupidly exploit birds or ruin their habitats. There are many instances of cooperation benefiting both sides, however, and even some altruism. People put up houses for Purple Martins for no reason other than that they want to help out, and individuals, communities, and nature reserves have ensured that an estimated six million birds have become tenants of such houses. Cocker is obviously pleased to write that these populations of birds "benefit from this act of national kindness." It isn't the only instance he documents of how birds make us better people.



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