Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Death of British Birdsong/a Bird in the Bush/how to Be a Bad Birdwatcher

Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Death of British Birdsong/a Bird in the Bush/how to Be a Bad Birdwatcher

Article excerpt

Birds, stuffed and unstuffy THE STRANGE DEATH OF BRITISH BIRDSONG by Michael Waterhouse Landmark Countryside Collection, £24.95, pp. 304, ISBN 1843061260X £21.95 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

A BIRD IN THE BUSH by Stephen Moss Aurum Press, £16.99, pp. 375 ISBN 1854109936 £14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

HOW TO BE A BAD BIRDWATCHER by Simon Barnes Short Books, £9.99, pp. 200 ISBN 190409595X

Three new birdbooks, and each as different from the others as they could be. The most conventional is the one with the startling and misleading title, The Strange Death of British Birdsong. Misleading because birdsong is still with us, and the book is not about it. Instead, it is 137 well-produced Victorian colour prints of birds that have at various times pleased the author, accompanied by a page of his thoughts about them. The birds, incidentally, and oddly, are in alphabetical order, so that the Great Spotted Woodpecker is under G, and Peregrine comes near Puffin. From the text we learn some wonders: the feathers of the night-feeding barn owl are especially soft, so it makes as little noise as possible when it swoops.

The introduction by Rob Hume, editor of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Magazine, contains some laments, certainly; and it is he who has flagged the illustrations 'Decrease', sometimes 'Dangerous Decrease', but there are other labels which say 'Stable', and even 'Increase' (robin, garden warbler, and they can both sing). Nevertheless, insecticides, new farming methods and destruction of hedges have all had their effect. It is hard not to flinch at Hume's description of plovers nesting on cleared Welsh uplands in the 1970s; then along comes the farmer with his tractor and roller, to improve the grass, and the plovers 'hardly raised a chick between them, just began to die of old age ... the arithmetic fell apart ... they have gone, completely.'

But the RSPB, which now has a million members, does its best, with its protected sites and its powerful lobbying. The beautiful avocet ('Substantial Increase') at one time vanished from England altogether. It is now breeding so successfully that the RSPB has made it their logo.

A Bird in the Bush, by a member of the BBC Natural History Unit, takes us from the time when the first reaction of anyone interested in a bird was to shoot it, for classification, or to have it stuffed. The 19th century was the great age for taxidermists, as those glass cases testify, full of stuffed and faded birds, in every country museum. …

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