Magazine article The Spectator

Best of Friends

Magazine article The Spectator

Best of Friends

Article excerpt

DUCKS , GEESE AND SWANS edited by Janet Kear OUP, Volumes I and II, £150 the set, pp. 908, ISBN 0198546459

Birds are our pals. They awaken us, sing us happy songs and delight us with their plumage colours. In the garden they are undemanding visitors, not inferior to neighbours or family.

The migrating species perform feats of navigation that in a human would have that person crowned upon landfall. They can fly at great speed and do amazing acrobatics. The literature on them is huge. Languages are stuffed with references to our friendship.

Every house in Britain has a bird picture somewhere. And all this stems from what is, most often, a tiny frame. That little scolder the wren weighs the same as a green table grape.

Moreover, they're big business. Along one flyway alone in the USA wildfowlers have an annual expenditure of $58 million.

And they're big in politics. The RSPB was founded a century ago to get the plumage trade banned and now has more clout with government than some trade unions. In this book there are four double-column pages detailing the international agreements on habitat and species protection.

And they're perfect for feeling guilty about. They don't threaten us (unlike some mammals, and many snakes and insects) and except for raptors and corvids are as douce as babies. If things had gone differently, could they have been us? Are we a little jealous of their innocence? At any rate we pamper them inordinately. The consequences for bird life may now be the greatest deterrent to nuclear warfare. The persecution of migrating species by various Mediterranean tribes is considered elsewhere to be a crime close to genocide. We attach tracking devices to their bosoms, we measure, plot, count and graph them. We are indefatigable on their behalf. How many of us, including hunters and birders, are involved with them? This is about the only question not addressed by this important work, which is the 16th in Oxford's Bird Families of the World.

Bird books don't come any better than this: 171 pages of double-column text followed by the species accounts, some of which run to five pages. Sandwiched between are the colour plates, with five or six subjects per plate. Under the editorship of the late Janet Kear, whose cheerful phiz lights up the dustwrapper, she and her 73 international experts stride past all the petty arguments that so consume the British. …

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