Birds and Us: A 12,000 Year History, from Cave Art to Conservation
by Tim Birkhead
Viking 2022, £25, 441 pages
Our relationship with birds has changed and this book entertainingly explains how, from neolithic cave paintings and Egyptian veneration to today’s “behavioural ecology” or “real science”, when increasing “empathy” – a key word – in our avian understanding is aided by plastic rings, satellite transmitters, electrophysiology, thermal cameras and DNA analysis, as technology advances.
Aristotle particularly liked birds, “probably because they are similar to us in many ways. They walk on two legs, they have excellent eyesight and hearing, and their ability to sing – and in some cases to speak – sets them apart from other organisms”. The ornithologist Pierre Belon’s 1555 engraving demonstrates the similarity of the vertical skeletons of human and bird.
The relationship Greeks had with birds was pivotal to subsequent western attitudes. Birkhead as a scientist is indebted to Aristotle for his observations on their sexual reproduction; both as a writer and in popularising Pliny, who provided the model for Renaissance natural history (even if the substance was Aristotle’s). Pliny described Romans eating a roast wild boar filled with live songbirds. Mrs Beeton later explained bird “tongues” meant “breasts”.
We have often been the enemy of birds, and never more so than now. The dominion of man over earthly life can also be ascribed to Aristotle, who wrote: “Plants exist for the sake of animals … and animals for the good of humankind”. An idea confirmed in the Bible by man’s God-given dominion of the Earth, with the result that “birds were and are a resource”.
This has taken several forms. From the fall of the Roman empire to the Renaissance, falconry was the apogee of hunting for royalty and nobility, brought to an end by the “fowling piece”, ancestor of the game-shooting shotgun. The Renaissance’s scientific revolution was caused by global exploration and new technologies, notably printing; and the rediscovery of Greek philosophy introduced an emphasis on observation rather than Christian dogma.
Ornithology was transformed at the conclusion of the 17th century by two Englishmen, Francis Willughby and Willughby’s Cambridge tutor John Ray, respectively the subject and hero of Birkhead’s last book The Wisdom of Birds. Both were members of the newly formed Royal Society (motto: Nullius in verba – Take nobody’s word for it).
It is ironic, considering Birkhead’s admitted secularism, that the clergy has played an enlightening part in ornithology. The Reverend Ray’s book The Wisdom of Man Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691) caused a seismic shift by imploring naturalists to study birds in the wild. His natural theosophy was the beginning of “empathy”: birds no longer soulless automata but still proof of God’s providence.
Birkhead’s eighth chapter is titled The End of God in Birds – Darwin’s natural selection replacing Ray’s natural theology, although not in the opinion of Darwin’s friend the Reverend Charles Kingsley: “God made the world to make itself”. To Darwin we owe the scientific study of animal behaviour, ecology and evolution; to Alfred Newton, “greatest of all Victorian ornithologists”, the need for bird protection. This helped to stop fashionable feather wear and the “ghoulish’” destruction of birds in the name of scientific research, before binoculars replaced guns and ushered in bird watching.
Just as Birkhead expresses his dislike of Christianity’s hostility to science in asides, so does he dismiss the land-owning shooting fraternity. He cites Elizabeth I’s 1566 An Acte for the Preservation of Grayne which declared open season for the destruction of “Noyfull Fowles and Vermyn”, and states “the effect of these Acts on British wildlife cannot be underestimated. They were equivalent to inserting a vermin-killer gene … Subsequent efforts to eliminate, or even reduce, the gene – or more accurately meme – have so far failed”.
If you have a sporting history or own a sporting estate you are unmentionable – even that great conservationist Sir Peter Scott, inspiration of Sir David Attenborough, that secular saint, as the pioneer presenter of nature programmes on television. Scott’s crime? In youth he was a wildfowler and wrote and illustrated wildfowling books. Similarly, there is no mention of “wilding” and other conservation efforts practised today with great effect on so many sporting estates from Sandringham down; an enterprise led by Prince Philip – like Scott a founder member of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature – and the Prince of Wales.
My experience as a bird lover is that a well-keepered and forested sporting estate is far superior in bird diversity to any nature reserve. Last year my three most thrilling bird experiences were being shown skylark nests in Dorset, spoonbills in Norfolk and a blackcock lek in Angus. All were on sporting estates, my guides, gamekeepers, and an estate manager, each an expert ornithologist.
Birkhead’s prejudice may please birders but it is not science.
John McEwen edited The Birdman: Memories of Birds by Henry Douglas-Home (HarperCollins). He writes a column about birds for the Oldie.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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