American Birding Podcast



If You Look, Your World Will Change

A review by Julia Zarankin

The Meaning of Birds, by Simon Barnes

Pegasus Books 2018

208 pages—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14938

The first time I went birding, I ended up in a park on the western edge of Toronto face to face with a flotilla of ducks. According to my fellow birdwatchers, we were having an extraordinary day: four species of grebe in one place! Almost in a single binocular view! And yet, the word grebe meant nothing to me; I had no idea what to look at. Not only that, but I didn’t know how to focus my binoculars, and the more I watched the waves on Lake Ontario, the more seasick I felt. 

I spent the walk back preparing my exit speech. Thanks so much for showing me those grebes, but I just don’t think birdwatching is for me. I was looking for a hobby that’s a bit more… exciting. 

A few moments before reaching my car, I stopped. Right in front of me was a bird I’d never seen before, balancing on a cattail: Transfixed, I watched this otherworldly creature with crimson epaulets set off against a jet-black body throw its head back and belt out a song. Just when I was about to quit altogether, intimidated by everything from the optics lingo to the plumage talk to my own lack of skill with my binoculars, I accidentally saw my first bird. I really looked.  

I hold the Red-winged Blackbird and Simon Barnes’s How to be a Bad Bird Watcher responsible for igniting my birding habit, which has since turned into a mild obsession. Barnes’s book made me feel like there was a place for me in the birding world, even though I didn’t know how to use a field guide and couldn’t ID much beyond a pigeon.

My “spark bird” sighting stopped me dead in my tracks, and Barnes explained it perfectly: “Before the understanding comes the wonder, comes the delight.” For him, “birdwatching is a state of being, not an activity; it is about life and it is about living. It is a matter of keeping the eyes and ears and mind open. It is the habit of looking.” Barnes’s ebullient voice convinced me that birding didn’t have to be a rarefied world. The beauty of birding was in the act of looking. If you look, your world will change. And mine did.

The Meaning of Birds picks up where How to be a Bad Bird Watcher left off. Written for the novice and experienced birder alike—basically, for anyone “with birding in the blood”—Barnes’s new book celebrates not only the wonder, magic, and pure joy of watching birds, but also the remarkable feats of prowess of the birds themselves. Barnes is awestruck by birds: their endurance, their near-magical capacity for flight and migration, their acute sensory perception, their evolutionary resilience, and their often phenomenal beauty. 

Filled with fascinating anecdotes about everything ranging from natural history to mythology to the perils of modern factory-chicken farming, The Meaning of Birds does an admirable job of connecting the world of birds to our own, human landscape. When Barnes ends his chapter about the domestication of chickens with the line “chickens tell the history of humankind,” not only has our knowledge of the domestication of the Red Junglefowl expanded, but we’ve begun to see the ubiquitous galliform in a new light, one that also shines on our own life and development. 

The title encapsulates Barnes’s central argument: The book explores both what it means to be a bird and also, perhaps more importantly, the meaning that birds bring to our lives and our ecosystems. Birds are everywhere in our symbolism, mythology, heraldry, branding, and commonplace expressions.“Birds,” writes Barnes, “bring us the most vivid understanding of the nonhuman world that we are capable of experiencing.”

Barnes’s curiosity about all things bird-related shines through in the wide range of topics covered here. What makes The Meaning of Birds so delightfully readable is its impressionistic style. Chapters are composed of bite-sized vignettes filled with anecdotes and odd facts and spiced with jokes. At times some of the anecdotes feel repetitive, and some of the transitions between stories need a little smoothing out. But these are minor quibbles.

Beyond all its chatty lightheartedness, the overarching message of The Meaning of Birds is one of deep concern: If we don’t protect the birds we’ve come to love and the ones that teach us so much about what it means to be human, we run the risk of losing them. The specters of human nearsightedness, habitat destruction, and extinction hover on the margins of this fine, often emotionally resonant book. Barnes powerfully reminds his reader of the connection between birds and their natural habitats. “A bird is the place it lives in. It eats the place. It makes the sound of the place; a bird is the spirit or the embodiment of the place.” With this knowledge comes the imperative that runs as a leitmotif through The Meaning of Birds: “If you want to look after birds, you have to look after places.”

The Meaning of Birds never shies away from the dangers facing birds, but Barnes writes anything but dreary prose. His exuberant descriptions, filled with luscious detail, are at the heart of what makes this book a joy to read. A crossbill with a predilection for pine nuts becomes an unforgettable “pesto bird,” and Carmine Bee-eaters are “way over the top: a deep, rich cherry red, with an electric-blue face set off with a load of black eyeliner…. When they take to the air all together they turn it into a hallucinogenic overload of color, challenging your ability to accept reality for what it is.”

Some of the heroes to emerge in this book—beyond the birds themselves, of course—are the naturalists who devoted their lives to protecting the landscapes around them. What strikes Barnes most about the 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White, in addition to his groundbreaking work in ecology (he also pioneered the disciplines of ethology and phenology), is his ability to dissect the minutiae of his landscape. When Barnes calls White a “brilliant noticer,” this is high praise indeed: “He was a genius of the commonplace: the great master of the ordinary.” White’s meticulous attention to the flora and fauna of his parish lands yielded an important scientific discovery: that the Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, and Wood Warbler are three distinct species. Not only does deliberate attention pay off, but it changes our relationship with the ordinary. 

Simon Barnes’s greatest strength is that he maintains his light touch even while he gets us thinking about serious topics. Never understating the ways humans have endangered birds, he also directs our attention to successful conservation projects, and ultimately show us how much we can accomplish. This book celebrates birds and birding as a call to pay attention, look closely, listen intently, and tune in. And what could be more important than that?

– In a former life, Julia Zarankin was a university professor specializing in Russian literature. Today she lives, writes, teaches, and watches birds with gusto in Toronto. Her recent writings have appeared in such publications as Orion, The Walrus, The Threepenny Review, and Maisonneuve.

Recommended citation:

Zarankin, J. 2019. If You Look, Your World Will Change [a review of The Meaning of Birds, by Simon Barnes]. Birding 50.2: 65-66.