Stories from the skies

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Birds and humans share a common history. Nicola Davies enjoys a soaring account

Birds Britannica

By Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey

Chatto Windus pound;35

In modern western education, arts and science suffer from an early divorce.

This results in artists who don't know their ohms from their volts, scientists who don't know their Orton from their Virgil, and a society that is increasingly compartmentalised in its thinking. Fortunately, natural history is on hand to save us from this narrowing of intellectual horizons; it has always had a foot in both camps, and used science and art to explore and communicate the glories of the natural world.

This happy marriage of disciplines is the great joy and triumph of Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey's new book, Birds Britannica, the companion volume to Mabey's earlier work, Flora Britannica. The culmination of eight years of research, Birds Britannica is a tour through the biology, history and cultural significance of British birds. There are fascinating scientific and historical facts, personal observations, and examples of the literature and art that birds have inspired, illustrated with wonderful photographs (my particular favourite is an endearing shot of the young Liz Taylor feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square), all bound together by Mark Cocker's clear and lucid prose.

As a slightly anorakish zoologist, I adore the ornithological nitty-gritty in this book: number of fish eaten by a kingfisher per day, 115; lifetime mileage of a swift, 1.28 million. Even more delicious are some of the nuggets of historical detail. Did you know, for instance, that James I had an aviary of cormorants on the Thames at Westminster, and appointed a Keeper Of The Royal Cormorants? (I wonder if Oliver Postgate knew about this when he created Noggin the Nog and his faithful sidekick, an exceptionally large cormorant.) These stories from the long association between birds and humans bring events and periods to life more vividly than any history book. What could convey the absolute power and ostentation of a medieval monarch more clearly than Henry III ordering 351 swans for his Christmas bash in 1251?

Historical accounts reveal more than scenes from vanished human lives; they also show the extraordinary abundance of bird life in Britain before we destroyed so much of it. Reading that cranes and bustards were once part of our normal avifauna, I found myself longing for a time machine. Often Cocker and Mabey's very specific stories illustrate much larger truths. In the population fluctuations of great crested grebes we can read the entire history of British transport and environmental policy: they were killed for their feathers in the 19th century and then saved by the flooded gravel pits that resulted from the motorway building of the late 20th. The conflict between bird lovers and anglers over cormorant numbers reflects our national penchant for eccentricity: it culminated in the accusation that "extremist bird watchers" had introduced cormorants to sabotage favourite fishing spots. Just imagine: balaclava-clad birders, sneaking about on the banks of Home Counties reservoirs with bags stuffed full of contraband cormorants.

It's possible to dip into Birds Britannica (the appendices on birdy pub names and birds in Welsh are wonderful for this), choosing species at random and flitting from one favourite bird to another. But this is by no means a book made from bits of information, stuck together like tiles in grout; each account of a species is a coherent whole, segueing effortlessly between the realms of science and art. So, in the section on the song thrush, the scientific fact that each bird has a repertoire of 100 musical phrases is embedded in a discussion of the emotional significance of thrush song to humans, as manifested in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes and Edward Thomas.

This is the very best sort of non-fiction writing; clear and accessible, tacitly acknowledging that we absorb information best holistically, while engaging mind and heart in an eclectic, playful process; it looks for connections between disciplines, rather than sticking to artificial boundaries. In my work with children I find that this is exactly the way they think, and want to write, about the natural world. They are entirely comfortable combining their emotional response to an animal with their knowledge of the scientific facts of its life history, and its place in human culture. So it's sad that many children, while having an excellent knowledge of TV wildlife - lions, zebras and so on - struggle to identify the flock of starlings on the school field.

Birds Britannica shows clearly what I've always felt: that the wild birds to be found within reach of even the most urban school are a potentially valuable teaching resource, a medium through which to communicate a whole curriculum. From now on Birds Britannica will go with me to every school I visit, for children and teachers to enjoy.

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