Ornithology, one of the foundational disciplines of Victorian science, is also one of the great enterprises in crowd-sourced research. So noted Oxford ornithologist Ben Sheldon in his review of the stellar Ten Thousand Birds. A standout moment for today’s great community of aficionados — amateurs and academics — was the arrival of the online Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. In celebrating it, ecologist Stuart Pimm notes it “allows the compilation of instant, custom-made field guides”.
And as ornithologist John Marzluff reminds in Welcome to Subirdia, no travel is actually necessary: the average backyard is a bite-sized world of birds.
Mark Cocker followed up last year’s monumental Birds and People, which explored the complex nexus of humanity and birds from the falconers of Mongolia to gourmands concocting bird’s-nest soup, with a minutely focused look at his own parish in East Anglia, UK. In Claxton (reviewed here), a birder’s-eye view is everywhere evident — try him watching wigeons “peel off the water as a continuous blanket that instantly atomises and falls back to earth amid a downpour of contact notes”.
Observational brilliance emerges too in Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk (reviewed here), a gleaming skein of focused nature writing, memoir and literary history that won this year’s UK Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. Macdonald’s portrait of the goshawk she trained as part of her recovery from bereavement exquisitely captures a bird both companion and killing machine.
Ornithologist Noah Stryker’s The Thing with Feathers is a broader take on avian ethology, looking at how the science on cockatoo dancing, the “spontaneous order” in starling murmurations, or snowy owl irruptions casts light on aspects of human behaviour.
Owls and hawks are hunters nonpareil, but human beings are past masters at picking off abundant game, as two assessments of the passenger pigeon’s demise show — Joel Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky and Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha. It took less than a century to drive those billions to extinction. Now, a tamed cousin — the chicken — exists in a shifting average population of around 19 billion. And the bird has nudged its way into thousands of human cultural niches, chronicled in Andrew Lawler’s Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? (reviewed here).
Flight, song, scintillating beauty, stunning variety, intriguing evolutionary past — it’s easy to see why we’re so entranced by birds. Their scientific and metaphoric power was lost neither on Darwin, Shelley nor the hordes who birdwatch today.