June 2019

Vol. 47, No. 3

About Books: A Sense of Wonder Now and Then

Mark Lynch

Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience. Jeremy Mynott. 2009. Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press.

Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words. Jeremy Mynott. 2018. New York, New York. Oxford University Press.

Is this why birds inspire such a sense of wonder? (Birdscapes, p. 1)

I’m a wreck through lack of sleep here,
What with these owls calling all the time
(Aristophanes, Lysistrata 760-61 quoted in Birds in the Ancient World p. 38)

After decades spent birding, chasing rarities, participating in counts, and traveling all over the globe to see new species, most birders will have a sobering moment of reflection. This moment may come while standing out in subzero temperatures waiting for a Boreal Chickadee to come to a feeder or getting soaked to the bone while doing a CBC or experiencing your blood pressure rise while you speed to the Cape in the hopes of seeing some “just found” first for Massachusetts. At some point, you cannot help but start to think to yourself: “What am I doing?” “Why am I spending so much time and money pursuing birds?” “Why chase birds as opposed to say dragonflies or salamanders?” And finally: “Is this obsessive behavior normal?”

Most birding literature is of no use in helping you find answers to these questions. The most popular bird books are utilitarian guides to identification or where to find species. There is no place in these books for psychological, philosophical, or metaphysical questions. There also are the accounts of Big Years and celebrations of the spectacle of migration, of course, but all of these books take it for granted that you want to read about and watch birds. Only a very few books attempt to answer the big questions of why do I care about birds at all and why do I actively seek them out?

In two recently published books, Jeremy Mynott has shown that he is currently one of the most interesting and scholarly writers about the intersecting lives of birds and people. In both Birdscapes and Birds in the Ancient World, Mynott takes the reader on an unexpected journey to learn what birds can mean to us as individuals and as a culture.

Mynott is uniquely qualified for this task. He is a long time avid world birder. But he is also the former Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press and Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is a regular reviewer for the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) and founding member of “New Networks for Nature.” He has done radio and television and even edited and translated Thucydides. When he brings all these considerable talents and interests to the topic of birds, the results are books that belong in every birder’s library.

I keep interrupting myself with all these questions, musings, and asides. But then, why should I move in straight lines any more than swallows do? (p. 4 Birdscapes)

By his own admission, he wrote Birdscapes quickly, over the course of a year. Each chapter begins with Mynott at some location birding, and the book proceeds through a birding year till it ends up back where it started: watching swallows on Shingle Street in September. It is while watching the careening flight of swallows that Mynott’s mind turns inward and he asks some of the basic questions about what he is experiencing. These questions, which become the framework for the rest of the book, are listed on page 5. Here are a few of them:

What are our favorite birds and why? Are there charismatic species (or just special experiences)?

Why are rare birds so important to birdwatchers when rarity is obviously just relative to time or place (gannets in London, Tufted Ducks in Central Park, swallows in December)?

Does our concern with lists and counting indicate something we should worry about in ourselves? Is this acquisition or experience?

Can you enjoy a bird’s song just as much if you don’t know what it is? (could anyone mistake a Nightingale?)

Why is it so satisfying to see the first swallow or swift of the year?

Is there some realm between sentimentality and science in which we can relate to birds for what they are? (p. 5)

Mynott is a master of digression, and every one of these questions leads to more questions, until he brings his diverse experiences to bear to finally wrestle some answers for himself and the readers. When writing about “charismatic” species, he brings back a delightful word used by British natural historian Gilbert White in the 18th century: “amusive.” Today this is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “(1) Deceitful, illusive. (2) Fitted to afford relaxation from graver concerns. Recreative.” (p. 28)

I love rails. Others love shorebirds or raptors. Why do we find certain species attractive? Is it their beauty and appearance, their voice, or even their movement? Mynott considers each possibility. In lists culled from the British public of their all-time favorite birds, he looks for clues and finds that the answers are not so obvious. For example, the nightingale always rates as one of the British public’s favorite birds, even though, as Mynott reveals, most people who voted for the bird have likely never seen a nightingale because it is a notorious skulker, or even heard their legendary night song because its breeding range in Britain has diminished dramatically. Has a nightingale ever sung in Berkeley Square as the famous song indicates? Mynott writes that it is not likely. When you ask birders for a list of their favorite birds, the results are quite different. These lists reflect not just the physical appearance of the bird, but often personal experiences with those species. How about your lists of favorite species? How many are birds you have seen, perhaps under unique experiences, or hope to add to your list? So what ultimately makes a bird amusive has more to do with us than some characteristic of the actual bird.

What constitutes a rarity to a birder? This is brought home to Mynott one May morning when he is experiencing a wave of migrants in New York City’s Central Park. Even though he resides in Britain, he has birded here several times before. This day he is hoping he will get to see some of the more uncommon yearly migrants, like a Prothonotary Warbler. But his search is interrupted as word spreads among the birders present that a rare duck has been found in one of the ponds. Rushing along with the masses, Mynott arrives to see what all the hoopla is about. It’s a Tufted Duck, a species he commonly sees at home, but for most of the other birders present it is a major rarity. His emotional reaction to seeing this bird is very different from the other birders’ excitement. The excitement of finding a rarity most often has less to do with the bird species itself than where it is being seen. This is true even within our state: a Purple Sandpiper on the coast in December is no big deal, but finding one in the Berkshires at any time would be a record of ornithological importance. It’s not that the bird is in itself rare, it is the circumstances and places in which we see the bird.

What authentic pleasure can we take in rare and unusual birds, then? We have to accept straight away that all rarity is relative and is not a primary quality of the birds themselves (like wing-bars and red legs). (p. 106)

There are no exotic birds any more than there are exotic languages, people, or places. There are just exotic experiences. (p. 197)

Mynott creates his own Beaufort Scale of rarities and the human reactions to them. He calls it his Linnaeus Scale and it goes from “0,” a time when no birds are around and there is total peace and calm. This scale ends with an “11” sighting, which is “the rediscovery of an extinct species—great auk, Eskimo curlew,” but this report is immediately “widely disbelieved” and it is considered by the birding community as worthwhile as “searches after Elvis, Bigfoot, Nessie, and the Abominable Snowman.” (p. 99)

Why do we feel such passion for these rarities? This discussion of what we consider rare leads, naturally, to a chapter about listing. Mynott begins this section with a trip to an art museum:

If you visit the Louvre in Paris and make your way to the Mona Lisa you will encounter a sight of some ornithological interest. You will see a great crowd clustered excitedly around the exhibit, all facing more or less towards it but many of them looking at it through the view-finders of their cameras and mobile phones, which they are holding up to capture an image. After inspecting the results they usually move on quite quickly to the next highlight on their itineraries. They are clearly all very keen to have seen the Mona Lisa but they don’t actually want to look at it very much. What they want is a souvenir to confirm the occasion and add to their collection. Some birdwatchers behave in a similar way at a major twitch, to use a technical expression. They may desperately want to have seen some celebrated rarity like the Central Park tufted duck, the Scilly semi-p or the Irish Canada warbler and may travel miles to do so at great personal cost, but they may not want to examine it too closely or prolong the experience. (p. 89-90)

Why do we spend so much psychological energy fretting over our lists? Mynott reveals that humans have been keeping lists ever since writing was invented, and this includes lists of birds. It seems listing is practically in our DNA. Perhaps this listing habit is related to an instinct for hunting. For many birders, listing becomes an all-consuming passion, the be-all and end-all of their lives, leading Mynott to consider the possibility that such single-minded pursuits may be related to something else, like Asperger’s syndrome (p. 104). In an interesting digression, Mynott looks at other kinds of natural history listers of Britain, like those who pursue native wildflowers and butterflies, and how they have written about their passions. Unlike birds, where new vagrants are always a possibility and a personal list is only completed with the death of the birder, for butterflies and wildflowers the British list is relatively short and finite, so it is possible to actually collect them all and come to the end of your list.

By the end of Birdscapes, Mynott concludes that there are many ways to enjoy birds, and the important take-away is for the birder to expand their experiences with birds beyond the quick view and the tick on the list.

There is scope here for many modes and levels of engagement—for study, curiosity, discovery, play, imagination, and affection. Wondering about birds is one way to explore and enjoy things. (p. 302)

Birdscapes is unique in birding literature in that it is a book as much about birders as the birds they pursue. In posing some of the most fundamental questions about why we birders do what we do, Mynott makes us more aware of our behavior and introduces us to new ways to think about those birds we chase.

Go, go, go said the bird, human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.” (T. S. Eliot quoted on page 302)

In Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words, Mynott focuses on Classical Greek and Roman culture and every way that birds were part of their world:

This book is organized thematically to illustrate the many different roles birds played in the thousand years between about 700 BC and AD 300. As markers of time, weather, and the seasons; as a resource for hunting, farming, eating, and medicine; as pets, entertainment, mimics, and domestic familiars, as scavengers and sentinels; as omens, auguries and intermediaries between the gods and humankind. There are also selections from early scientific writing about taxonomy, biology, and the behavior of birds—the first real works of ornithology in the Western tradition—as well as from more incidental but revealing observations in the works of history, geography, and travel. (p. v)

This is a scholarly and highly entertaining book, and the pleasures it offers are many. There are color illustrations, maps, and timelines. Every page contains quotes from poetry and writing by some of the most famous authors of the ancient Classical world. What becomes abundantly clear is that the Greeks and Romans were passionate about birds, not just as pets and food, but as poetic metaphors and emissaries to the gods.

The first reference to birds in the whole of European literature is Homer’s comparison of the Greek forces mustering for the assault on Troy with the sights and sounds of cranes and wildfowl on migration. (p. 7)

Birds as symbols and metaphors are commonly found in the ancient Greek and Roman literature, poetry, and epithets.

There are also plenty of grisly references to corvids feasting on both animals and human carrion and pecking out the eyes of their live victims (usually sheep and cattle). ‘Go to the crows’ was a common curse, cosigning someone to such a fate, and Aeschylus gives us this terrible image of Clytemnestra after the murder of her husband, Agamemnon:

Perched over his body
Like a hateful raven
She croaks her song of triumph (p. 173)

There are, of course, many differences in the way we look at birds today because our culture is more separated from the natural world. Most people today wouldn’t understand a metaphor that cited crane or even crow behavior. But there are also similarities between then and now. Remember how often people in Britain cited the nightingale as their favorite bird, even though very few had seen one? Well, it seems the Classical world was likewise inordinately fond of this small, nondescript skulker.

With the possible exception of the eagle, the nightingale must be more often invoked in ancient literature than any other bird. (p. 49)

I am always interested in recipes in ancient literature, and Birds of the Ancient World cites numerous directions on how to cook everything from thrushes to ostriches. Roman satirist Martial’s dining recommendations are quoted at length. One example:

Ringdoves obstruct and dull your loins: so if you’re thinking of sex, don’t eat this bird (p. 100)

Good to know.

People had odd beliefs about the behavior of a number of bird species, or these birds figured in the culture in some other unusual way. Quails were in both categories:

When quails are in their mating season, if one sets up a mirror in their path and then positions a noose in front of the mirror, they will run towards the reflections in the mirror and be caught in the noose. (p. 84)

There was also the bizarre sport of ortygokopia, ‘quail tapping’, when one contestant’s quail was placed on a board and the other contestant, the ‘tapper’, would prod it and tap its head; if the quail stood its ground the owner had won its bet. But if it ran away he lost it to the tapper. Aristophanes says the nickname ‘quail’ was given to a man who always looked rather dazed, as though he had been hit on the head too hard by a heavy-handed tapper. (p. 161)

I would love to know if anyone, ancient or contemporary, has ever attempted to catch a quail with a noose and mirror, and I think it’s high time that quail-tapping became an Olympic sport.

Erudite and fascinating, Birds of the Ancient World is a unique study of how nature is viewed from all aspects of a culture, in this case an ancient one. The focus of these two books is, of course, birds, but both Birdscapes and Birds in the Ancient World are more generally concerned with how human cultures, now and then, have looked at nature as a primary source of meaning and pleasure to enrich our lives. In Birds in the Ancient World, Aristophanes’ famous play The Birds is discussed at length as a fine example of the use of birds as satiric symbols of society. Mynott ends his book with another quote from the play:

Yes, it’s by words that the mind is uplifted And humankind soars aloft (Aristophanes, Birds 1436-49)

Flight was the prerogative of birds and a good part of their fascination for earth-bound mortals. Language, meanwhile, was supposed to be the unique distinguishing feature of humankind. But here, in an artful metaphor, Aristophanes forges a connection between the two faculties and with them the two realms of birds and humanity. The birds have successfully challenged human domination, and through winged words the power of imagination has transcended the limitations of human experience. (p. 361)


In Memoriam: The birding community was saddened to learn of the death of Bill Thompson III on March 25, 2019. Many knew him as an enthusiastic lecturer and global trip leader, but it is important to remember that he was also a prolific writer. He wrote the famous “Bill of the Birds” blog, which many considered his title. He was an avid podcaster as well as the publisher and editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest. In addition, he authored quite a list of books, often for the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt here in Boston. These included The New Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (2014) and Bird Homes and Habitats (2013). My all-time favorite book written by Bill was The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (2008). This book was written with the help of his (then) young daughter Phoebe and her classmates and is a milestone in natural history writing for young people. I had the genuine pleasure of interviewing Bill and Phoebe about this book and talked with him about a number of his other publications. Bill, in everything he did, was passionate about getting everyone birding, and always geared his writing for the beginning enthusiast as well as the seasoned hard-core birder. He was ever warm and enthusiastic, and I always looked forward to talking with him. He will be sorely missed by many.



Comments are closed.

Showing 0 Comment