In its press release, Birdmania is described as giving context and background to the human-bird relationship and being a fascinating history of ornithology. A leaf through the pages revealed lots of beautiful full-colour illustrations interspersed with text and a quick glance at the dust jacket informed me that to buy a copy on the shelf, I would have to depart with £24.99. “Wow, that’s expensive!” I thought. I was so, so wrong.
Birdmania opens with a foreword, providing a lovely overview of birds in American life, backed up my stunning illustrations – these overviews and images are the running design theme throughout the book – making it particularly easy to read. Even in the opening pages, I found myself learning about aspects of birds and birding that I didn’t know about, such as the history of falconry. History is a running theme in the book and I found myself engaging with the authors own research and journey in to the history of ornithology – a topic that, again, I knew little of. On page 18, the history of ornithology moves into the realm of science and we learn about the early days of research and classification – setting the foundations for the rest of the book.
The book creates an easy-to-follow timeline of notable figures in ornithological history. It then seamlessly progresses onto birds in the arts of birds, crossing over different artistic strands, such as painting, to writing about the behaviour of birds. The anthropomorphic observations of captive birds, that the author has researched and outlined, are fascinating and not something I’ve really considered before. I also didn’t realise the volume of these observations that came from large-scale aviaries. Accompanying this is a beautiful double-page illustration of Karl Russ’s ‘bird room’ – probably the most stunning picture in the book.
It continues by looking at some of the oddball bird-lovers in history, in a punchy chapter named ‘lost in the misfits of time.’ This led me to learn more about the origins of the conservation movement and interestingly, the creator of the birdbox – Hans Von Berlepsch. The next chapter is noticeably long, in a book of short chapters. 36 pages under the name ‘in the company of birds’, looks at those people who choose to share their home lives with birds. The chapter also deals with the anthropomorphising of birds and features pigeons, owls and parrots among others. Further topics include the notion of humans trying to understand the mindset of birds – focusing the story of Mrs Wilkinson and her Lyrebird; a poignant tale. This before the book swings back into science and morals, exploring hunting and conservation. Here we learn the story of the paradoxes between the two, with notable stories such as that of the Carolina Parakeet on page 159. Further scientific aspects are covered next; from bird migration to oology. Egg-collecting presents another paradoxical debate where collection, conservation and hunting are intertwined in difficult ways.
The following chapter identifies those who are ‘mad for birdwatching – sharing eccentricities of birdwatching past and present. Including the wonderful obituary of Leonora Rintoul on page 211. The penultimate chapter covers extinct bird species and the stories of famous extinctions, like the Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Dodo. The final chapters review birdsong and flight with interesting passages on the Nightingale and the science of Leonardo da Vinci respectively.
On page 259, the epilogue opens with the line “Birdwatching is one of the many ways to get involved with birds” and that is the beauty of this stunning tome. It transcends not just birdwatching, but every aspect of birds that makes them so appealing to us – clarifying and pulling together every strand that forms this attachment. Because of this, I can’t recommend this book enough.