If you live in a part of England famous for its rare and interesting bird life, as I do, some sort of acquaintance with the birdwatching fraternity is taken for granted. Its adherents appear at all seasons and in all weathers, toting telescopes and tripods across a windswept marsh or field. They are not exactly solitary figures, but, unlike ordinary country ramblers, they seem self-contained and detached, absorbed in their private quest. Although anyone who loves country life takes pleasure in the sight and sound of the birds of the air, these specialists convey a different kind of appreciation – innocent enough, surely, but slightly mysterious too.
This fascinating book by Jeremy Mynott explores many aspects of this and related matters. He explains some of the birdwatcher’s obsession in a rather unexpected way, by recalling a familiar scene in the Louvre. A great crowd clusters excitedly around the Mona Lisa, all facing more or less towards it but many of them looking at it through the viewfinders of their cameras or mobile phones. After inspecting the results they move on quickly to the next highlight on their itineraries. They are clearly all very keen to have seen the Mona Lisa but they don’t actually want to look at it very much. What they want is a souvenir to confirm the occasion and to add to their collection.
Much the same, it seems, is true of the dedicated birdwatcher. He is above all devoted to the compilation of his List or Lists of birds seen and identified. Typically, he has a lifelong list, another list devoted to a particular place or country, a local list, and so on. He is satisfying an enduring human urge to classify and impose order. After all, some of the earliest surviving texts are essentially lists, for example the Linear B tablets of palace records in ancient Crete.
Mynott, who was formerly head of the Cambridge University Press, is an author who enjoys such explanations. The subtitle of his book, “Birds in our imagination and experience”, hints at the wide sweep of his interests but not, perhaps, at the liveliness and originality of his writing. He is interested in the patterns of bird life, as seen by a lifelong student of the subject, and no less interested in the nature of human responses thereto. I would call him a master-birdwatcher, had I not learned from his pages that among the initiate, “birdwatcher” has been superseded in favour of “birder”. (The fraternity has its own argot.) He is certainly more than a “twitcher”, defined here as a birder whose principal or only interest is finding rare birds to maximise his list. Mynott is as interested in human specimens as in the feathered kind.
The heroes of this book are such engaging figures as Gilbert White, whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has survived the centuries with undimmed freshness, and John Clare, the poet-naturalist whose stature is increasingly recognised today. But what emerges from this survey is the great variety of the men and women who have nurtured an interest in what Gilbert White called “amusive birds”. There is, to take a random name, Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the Foreign Secretary who sadly observed in 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe”. He, in retirement, wrote The Charm Of Birds, a pleasant little work which – helped by a photograph of Grey with his pet robin on his hat – became a bestseller. (Mynott might also have cited the case of Neville Chamberlain who, at the height of his dealings with Hitler, caused some astonishment by supplying an observant birdwatcher’s note to The Times.) Those who appear in this book range from Icarus to Bill Oddie, which gives an idea of the breadth of the author’s interests and reading. He has distilled it all into an original and enjoyable compendium.