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Wild Anecdotes and Curious Asides

A review by Lori Potter

 Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds, by Bernd Brunner, translated by Jane Billinghurst

Greystone Books, 2017

292 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14791

The book jacket of Birdmania advises that its contents are “quirky.” Soon enough, we learn that this disclosure is not misleading. The book’s quirkiness can be charming, or it can be maddening, or perhaps it takes turns being one or the other. To be sure, Birdmania is never dull.

Dipping into Birdmania is like poking around in your grandmother’s attic. There are treasures, there are surprises, and there are eye-rollers. Like your grandma’s attic, Birdmania is what a hipster would call “not well-curated.”  Instead, this is a book constructed around wild anecdotes and curious asides. For example, Chapter 3 concerns Richard Meinertzhagen (1878-1967), the British soldier and collector of bird skins. We learn that he “was born early enough to know Charles Darwin personally,” and that he “even sat on Darwin’s knee.” He fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia, and notoriously pilfered bird skins from a museum to pass them off as his own. Without missing a beat, Brunner goes on to inform us that Meinertzhagen was also the “proud possessor of a comprehensive collection of 600,000 bird lice.” 

In bizarre contrast to all this substantive miscellany, the level of the book’s organization—it concludes with complete indexes of illustrations, of species, and of people—is first rate. Go figure.

Birders, beware. Birdmania is not actually a book about birders, as we conventionally think of those of us who are crazy about birds. Instead, Bernd Brunner’s latest should be approached as a book primarily about people who seem to have been made crazy by birds, or if not crazy, then at least wildly, uncontrollably passionate in their desire to collect birds, to kill them, to hunt with them, to draw them, to collect their eggs, or to keep them in captivity for entertainment.  

Indeed, in a New York Times review of Birdmania, the ornithologist Richard Prum questions whether the author even likes birds. It turns out, though, that Brunner is an avian enthusiast, and he writes a stout pitch for bird conservation in the book’s Epilogue. But most of the subjects he treats in Birdmania don’t exhibit what could objectively be called an affection for birds.  Instead, birds seem to unlock some mysterious obsessive quality in the people Brunner profiles here, such that Birdmania is ultimately more about human psychology than anything else, with birds and birding creating a grand set for this human drama. 

The art that provides the backdrop to the text of Birdmania—264 illustrations in all—hits a very high note. Brunner effectively uses paintings, drawings, and photographs, many of them from another century, to draw readers in and keep them turning the pages. The print quality in the hardcover edition of the book is glorious. 

In the final analysis, Birdmania is a provocative book. It is a book of ideas that will provide plenty of fodder for a birder book club. Discuss it, critique it, laugh with it; but if you read Birdmania, you won’t soon forget it.

Lori Potter birds, often by bicycle, on her home turf in Colorado. She is also a regular in New York’s prolific Central Park. Come to think of it, there’s rarely a business trip or vacation that doesn’t include some birding. Lori has written previously for Birding about Dorian Anderson’s Big Year by bicycle.

Recommended citation: Potter, L. 2018. Wild Anecdotes and Curious Asides (a review of Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds, by Bernd Brunner). Birding 50 (6): 67-68.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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