An abundance of bird obsessives

An abundance of bird obsessives

Perhaps the only thing more interesting than the incredibly diverse, intensely beautiful, and often amazingly intelligent birds that grace our planet are the stories of the bird lovers themselves. Those who traverse the Earth, searching for new species, obtaining new knowledge on the species we already know, or simply chasing the birds that haunt their dreams: that one species they must see, that one individual in their garden with the peculiar behaviours, that one bird in most need of their protection. The stories of these bird lovers can teach us as much about human behaviour as they do about that of the birds.

Image: Allen & Unwin

There are so many enthralling stories out there about birds and bird lovers that it can be hard to keep up. What Bernd Brunner’s Birdmania does is bring some, or indeed a lot, of these stories together into one stunningly illustrated volume. Brunner highlights the highs and lows of ornithology, birding, birdkeeping and, yes, bird hunting. From Aristotle as the first person to describe the habits of the cuckoo, to Helen Macdonald’s well-known love for the goshawk and her time spent training one in the wake of her father’s unexpected death, Brunner brings unheard, inspiring and downright weird birding stories to the reader’s attention. Despite this, though, there are a few problems with Brunner’s extensive exploration of bird obsessives.

My main criticism is that many of the book’s chapters read almost like Wikipedia entries – not in terms of the writing style necessarily, which is engaging, but rather that Brunner tries to squeeze as much information as possible into each section. Some shorter stories, told over as brief as three-sentence paragraphs, are found unceremoniously sandwiched between two larger, far more interesting narratives.

With so many remarkable people, birds and stories thrown into each chapter, there is subsequently not much room left for a deeper exploration of what the human relationship with birds really means. Perhaps this wasn’t Brunner’s purpose when he set out to write the book, but with almost too many texts being published on birds at the moment, it would make a bigger statement to investigate these stories in a more philosophical manner than just telling them as they are.

It must also be acknowledged that the work we read in Australia and other English-speaking nations is a translation from Brunner’s original German work by Jane Billinghurst. It is cliché to say that things can be lost in translation, but with this text it may be something to consider, especially when so many of the included stories seem to lack a distinct purpose within the overall narrative (if there is one, which there isn’t really). One might say that stories don’t require a purpose and can just be read as, well, a good story. My criticism is that some of the stories in this book aren’t really stories at all; there was a man or woman, they studied this bird in this country during these years, and that was that. Where is, to put it simply, the introduction, the climax, the conclusion? That being said, there are many excerpts from this book that indeed make great stories – which makes me wonder why Brunner didn’t just stick with these and forget about mentioning certain snippets of larger stories just for the sake of including them.

What Brunner does do well, though, is include an interesting selection of bird enthusiasts who are both well-known and not known at all (at least by the general public). With those who are well-known, Brunner reveals aspects of their birding lives that have largely gone unheard of, so even readers who already think they know it all will be surprised. One of the most interesting sections for me was his discussion of the hummingbird and bird-of-paradise crazes of past centuries. I guess we now take for granted that we’re aware of the existence of these unusual birds, but Brunner reminds us that this wasn’t always the case.

Heliodoxa schreibersii whitelyana in John Gould’s Hummingbirds. Image: John Gould [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He also highlights the problematic nature of collecting bird specimens to better understand certain species, in turn leading to the significant decline of some populations. It is safe to say that we would not know what we know today without the work of past collectors, but it is ironic to think that their collecting habits may have led to the decline and, in some cases, eradication of their favourite species from some areas of the world.

Brunner also doesn’t try to hide the fact that many of these collectors were just that – collectors, and not necessarily in it for the pursuit of knowledge. Money, fame and an absolute obsession with collecting rare bird skins, or as many birds as possible, all played a role in the devastating consequences of going crazy for collecting. There are also some interesting discussions of bird collectors turned conservationists, or those that remained collectors and still considered themselves conservationists. This demonstrates that we live in an incredibly grey world where hunting versus conservation is not always so black and white.

I would also have liked to see a stronger focus on indigenous peoples from around the world, and the influence that birds have had on their knowledge and cultures. (There is a brief mention of the thunderbird in Native American culture but apart from that, Brunner leaves much to be desired.) There is certainly a slight bias towards post-17th Century white birders and their escapades. A bit more diversity would not have gone astray, and no doubt there are plenty of stories out there that don’t necessarily involve post-Enlightenment ornithologists and twitchers.

Additionally, there is also a slight bias towards male birders. This is, of course, inevitable due to the time in which many of them lived, but Brunner does still try to include the stories of the many women who have contributed significantly, and often go unacknowledged. Perhaps the biggest gender bias in this book, though, is the fact that the its synopsis mentions one woman out of seven birders when describing the amazing stories to be found within, when in reality the book covers a much more decent ratio of female birder stories. I know plenty of women birders and it’s enough to put me off wanting to read the book due to the blurb’s implication that they would not be represented at all. But I suppose we should pick our battles, eh?

Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin, Minna Hall, were 19th Century Boston socialites who boycotted the plume trade: the harvesting of the feathers of wild birds for ornamental purposes, such as ladies’ hats. Their work eventually resulted in the establishment of the National Audubon Society. Image: John Singer Sargent ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Birdmania is indeed a great light read – it is entertaining, and flicking through the incredible illustrations makes for some pleasant, Sunday afternoon entertainment. It is impressive to see how far we’ve come in the human pursuit of bird knowledge. There is still so much to learn, but it is important to stop and appreciate the dedication and passion of past scientists, birders, conservationists – anyone with an interest in birds – who have contributed to our current knowledge base. Even if you think you know birds and the people who love them, I can guarantee that this book will reveal at least one story that you haven’t yet heard. The trade-off is that there are perhaps just too many stories, when less stories and a more detailed discussion would have sufficed.

Purchase your copy of Birdmania from Allen & Unwin.

Banner image courtesy of Bruno Martins on Unsplash.

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