American Birding Podcast



Birds and People

A review by Robert O. Paxton

Birds and People, by Mark Cocker, with photographs by David Tipling

Random House, 2013

592 pages, $65.00—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14189

This sumptuous volume is a bit like a double chocolate sundae. It’s too rich for one sitting, but you can’t stop eating. It explores a sweeping range of human responses to birds, along with avian responses to humans. Across 530 double-columned pages, Cocker and Tipling present ornithology as you have probably never imagined it, enriched with anthropology and folklore; art, music and literature; religion, mythology, and magic; medicine; cookery and gastronomy; etymology; and commerce and systems of land use. The lavish illustrations include spectacular bird-based artifacts and rituals as well as the birds themselves. Birds and People is good for a lifetime of reading, marveling, and reflection.

Cocker has organized his material in phylogenetic order, family by family from the tinamous to the grosbeaks. But he does not treat every family. He omits fifty-nine of the world’s approximately 200 families because, he explains, they have left little trace in human arts or culture. Some of the missing families have considerable biological interest, however, like the woodcreepers and the accentors (the randy marital behavior of the Dunnock did not make the cut). Other absent families like the Ibisbill, the Plains Wanderer, and the owlet-nightjars rank high among birders’ quests.

The longest entry of all goes to the Red Jungle Fowl because of its global economic, culinary, and symbolic significance, along with ethical objections to cruel avicultural methods. The behaviorally fascinating antbirds get one of the shortest entries. Anthropology tends to trump both biology and listers’ excitement in this book, though there is still plenty of both.

A typical family account starts with its geographical distribution and general characteristics. Then come the history and meanings of names—commendably, both the English and the scientific Latin. Even if nomenclature is not one’s favorite subject, it can lead to some arresting observations. Older bird names testify to a host of religious, medical, or sexual associations and reveal how closely our forebears observed birds.  And how closely they listened to them: many names refer to vocalizations.

After nomenclature comes a sampling of noteworthy species within the family. Physiological matters may appear at this point, particularly if expressible in superlatives: the tallest, the smallest, the loudest, and so on. Swans, for example, “possess elongated tracheae that wind round their breast cavities to give them great horn-like organs of sound.” From there we are off to the ancient legend of swan song and its possible physical basis, from there to neolithic images of swans, and finally to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We learn how a Bar-tailed Godwit was tracked in 2007 in a non-stop flight from Alaska to New Zealand, a distance of 10,440 miles over eight days at an average speed of 37 m.p.h., during which her body weight shrank from 17.6 oz. to 8.8 oz (Cocker values numbers and is gratifyingly exact with them). Then we learn of a festival of welcome for these birds in New Zealand (where it is spring when the godwits arrive).

BINbuttonPhysical features and cultural reflections seem to me to receive more attention than bird behavior. The gull entry, for example, has room for Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull and Hitchcock’s film The Birds, but not for the experiments on gull communication that won Niko Tinbergen a Nobel Prize, even though Cocker borrows one of Tinbergen’s terms, “the long call.”

Bird behavior is, of course, not entirely absent. The classic oddities are here. Bowerbirds construct their trysting places; male Emperor Penguins cradle a solitary egg on their feet through the antarctic winter; and the female hornbill is walled up in a tree cavity with her progeny. I looked in vain for tool-using among birds, but that is, I suppose, just “birds” and not really “birds and people.”

Cocker gives thoughtful attention to bird sounds. He recalls the “torrent” of lark song in Europe before the advent of industrial agriculture. Mimicry is familiar enough, but Cocker’s assertion that parrots and lyrebirds may preserve fragments of vanished human languages and other older sounds is astonishing.

The heart of most accounts is the way that birds have “colonized our imaginations.” People have attributed nearly infinite decorative, honorific, magical, curative, or aphrodisiac qualities to birds or their body parts, attributions that usually meant trouble for the birds. Birds also stimulated more artistic expression than any other natural creatures except trees.

Cocker’s references range far beyond familiar western cultures to neolithic bird sculpture and painting, classical observers of nature like Pliny and Elder and Aristotle, Persian poetry, ancient Egyptian funerary art, and feather costumes in Latin America and Oceania. Species endowed with cultural significance are not always showy. The skulking nightingale is the “most versified” bird (and not only in English), and little-seen owls and cuckoos possess the weightiest symbolism. Some species have been considered bad omens and were consequently exterminated upon sight. Others have been cherished and protected. Within a nearly infinite range of human responses to birds there is one constant: Every people seems to have paid close attention to at least some birds.

One of this book’s more unusual features is a collection of over 600 personal statements by ornithologists, birders, and ordinary citizens worldwide about what birds have meant to them. I am not sure how these were recruited, but I enjoyed encountering a few old friends among them. Other readers will, too. Some contributors even work for this magazine. These add atmosphere and human interest, and display a democratic wish to be inclusive.

Cherishing birds and killing them are the warp and the woof of Birds and People. The book spends approximately equal time on the myriad ways humans have appreciated birds and on the equally endless forms of massacre. Ironically, the former seems only rarely to preclude the latter; the same Mediterranean peoples who idolize nightingales and larks in poetry and song slaughter them by the thousands for eating.

Cocker is free from any romantic illusion that indigenous peoples protected nature better than modern ones. Some indigenous peoples developed sustainable harvest practices, as with the fabulously costly edible swift nests of southeast Asia, ostrich feathers, or Moluccan megapode eggs. Sustainable management seems exceptional, however. More commonly, people have killed as if the supply were infinite. Mass extinctions followed the arrivals of the first humans in Madagascar, New Zealand, and most Pacific Islands. Modern peoples’ killing of birds may be more impersonal, but today’s suburban sprawl, chemical-dependent industrial agriculture, and intensive forestry threaten whole biotopes.

Cocker makes no secret of his emotional engagement in these matters. He tells the famous extinction stories—the Dodo, the Great Auk, the Passenger Pigeon, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker—with passionate indignation. The slaughter has not stopped with “civilization,” only changed character. He movingly evokes pre-industrial landscapes and “soundscapes,” and admires the rare cases where birds and people live in harmony.

Some human actions have actually favored the proliferation of adaptable species. Family agriculture and leafy suburbs in Europe, North America, and Australia opened up vast stretches of new habitat for American Robins, European Blackbirds, Australian Magpies, European Starlings, Skylarks, House Sparrows, Ring-necked Pheasants, and the like (a process reversed today by pesticides, herbicides, and monocultures).

There may be mutual benefit or even symbiosis between people and some species of birds. In the most remarkable human-avian partnership, honeyguides may take the initiative in recruiting humans for their joint raids on a hive (though Cocker is careful not to accept all the legends: ratels were probably not involved, and not all humans left something for the honeyguide, who wanted only the comb, anyway). Some of us believe that raptors use us as beaters—my wife once flushed a Clapper Rail while walking in our marsh, and a Peregrine Falcon, watching from a nearby Osprey platform, picked it off in front of her. Every reader will have a story they wish they had sent to Mark Cocker.

As I worked my way through the families, I kept wondering whether there might not be a better way to organize this book. Perhaps, I thought, one might construct it around major themes instead of families. The fatal introduction of alien predators such as cats, rats, brown snakes, and indeed humans (“a primate whose original home is Africa”) to islands recurs in numerous family accounts. But the phenomenon is never examined exhaustively in one place.

Nomenclature, too, is ubiquitous, but family-by-family organization provides no one occasion to explain how, for example, we passed from a cacophony of local popular names to official names, country by country. Cocker remarks that few bird names in English or Latin came from indigenous languages (without adding that indigenous people often have names for every species, even the most obscure). He also does not note how many English names refer to bellies, vents, throats, and other body parts more visible to museum men examining a specimen on its back on a table than to field observers (think Red-bellied Woodpecker). There could even be a sociology of bird names. Organization by theme, however, would turn this book into yet another encyclopedia, and then we would miss this glorious parade of families.

Cocker’s writing can sometimes turn earnest, but he is capable of magically evocative phrases: the “fizzing kinesis” of African sunbirds; or the champion migrant Arctic Tern as “little more than a heart enclosed in wing muscle, arced around by shining flight feathers.”

This reviewer found remarkably few errors worth mentioning in a mammoth 530 pages in dual columns. Cocker says that storks declined have most in Spain, but the figures he quotes show that Scandinavia was worse. The word that Americans use to signal a massive arrival of migrants is not “fall” but “fallout.” Walt Whitman is portrayed welcoming a pioneer Northern Mockingbird to Paumanok as if it were a town, but Paumanok is an Indian name for Long Island that Whitman enjoyed using alongside “the Manahatta” for that other nearby island.

The British authors and publishers have tried hard, and mostly successfully, to adapt this text to New World readers, even to the point of including both names where there are cross-Atlantic differences (for example, loons/divers), or even using exclusively the North American name (for example, Bohemian Waxwing, Winter Wren), a major concession. Figures are given first in the metric system, before adding those American medievalisms, ounces and inches. But a few notable North American matters were missed. Cocker says that there were no inland gulls until recent times, and thereby misses the story of how Franklin’s Gulls saved the Mormons of Utah from a plague of grasshoppers. His Northern Mockingbirds sing animatedly but fail to leap into the air. Evening Grosbeaks, once considered the greatest beneficiaries of bird feeding, are missing.

On other continents, one major cage bird, the Straw-headed Bulbul of Borneo, is absent despite repeated discussions of the bird trade and the human urge to keep captive birds. Cocker admits that his book, however massive, “is in no way exhaustive.” In fact, almost everything turns up sooner or later. We finally get to the prodigious impact of bird feeding when we reach the tits and chickadees. Ecotourism finally appears with Demoiselle Cranes. The science is current, and there are 29 pages of bibliography and notes (although the cross-referencing is cumbersome). Other than the omitted families, in the end very little is missing from this remarkable smorgasbord.

You may need to reinforce your coffee table, but you will enjoy this book.

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– Robert Paxton began birding at the age of nine. He has served as regional editor for North American Birds and its predecessors since 1963, first in California, and, since 1975, in New York. As professor of history at Columbia University, his scholarly work focused on Vichy France and fascism in Europe.

Recommended citation:

Paxton, R. 2014. Birds and People [a review of Birds and People, by Mark Cocker and David Tipling]. Birding 46(1): 74.