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Birds in a Cage: Four British Birdwatchers, the Unlikely Beginnings of Modern Wildlife Conservation

Biography / Memoir

By: Derek Niemann(Author)

312 pages, b/w photos, colour & b/w illustrations

Short Books

Paperback | May 2013 | #202398 | ISBN-13: 9781780721361
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £8.99 $12/€10 approx
Hardback | Nov 2012 | #202397 | ISBN-13: 9781780720937
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £19.99 $26/€22 approx

About this book

"In the summer of 1940, lying in the sun, I saw a family of redstarts, unconcerned in the affairs of our skeletal multitude, going about their ways in cherry and chestnut trees." Soon after his arrival at Warburg PoW camp, British army officer John Buxton found an unexpected means of escape from the horrors of internment. Passing his days covertly watching birds, he was unaware that he, too, was being watched. Peter Conder, also a passionate ornithologist, had noticed Buxton gazing skywards. He approached him and, with two other prisoners, they founded a secret birdwatching society.

This is the untold story of an obsessive quest behind barbed wire. Through their shared love of birds, the four PoWs overcame hunger, hardship, fear and stultifying boredom. Their quest would draw in not only their fellow prisoners, but also some of the German guards, at great risk to them all.

Derek Niemann draws on original diaries, letters and drawings, to tell of how Conder, Barrett, Waterston and Buxton were forged by their wartime experience into the giants of postwar wildlife conservation. Their legacy lives on.

"A wonderfully crafted hymn to the life-giving qualities of birds"
– Simon Barnes

"Immensely moving [...] a beautiful and gripping story"
– Tim Dee, BBC Wildlife Magazine

"The most gripping and illuminating tale of a hidden side of PoW life in WWII"
– Toby Little

"A wonderful story [...] gives you that warm feeling that a shared love of Nature conquers all"
– John Beard


"John Barrett, John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston were four of the most significant British ornithologists to be born in the 1910s. All wrote papers for British Birds at various times and each made his mark on bird study in a different way. By chance, they each joined a different regiment in the Second World War and, by tragic coincidence, all found themselves imprisoned at different places during that war, having been captured in Germany, Norway, France, and Greece respectively.

The war brought together so many people from different backgrounds, often in very challenging situations. Friendships were forged in the toughest of circumstances – not least in Prisoner of War camps across Germany. These four ornithologists were all moved between different prison camps in varying locations but all four were held at the same place between October 1941 and September 1942. That place was the Oflag VI-B camp for officers at Warburg in Germany – roughly halfway between Hanover and Cologne.

This book tells the story of their wartime service, but particularly the time they spent together. If anything, their interest in birds was strengthened by their enforced imprisonment. There were relatively few things that inmates could do, but each of them had noticed birds around the camp, and – despite the absence of binoculars – they had started to record what they saw. In particular they observed the spring migration of 1942, with a daily log being kept of every bird seen over a period of almost two months. In addition Buxton focused his attention on the Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus. Their interest in birds attracted the attention of security guards, who suspected them of plotting an escape plan. Not surprisingly, some of the inmates thought that they were an odd group – not least when they started to correspond with a German ornithologist. All but Barrett were later moved south to another camp in a wooded valley at Eichstätt, where Conder studied the Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis and Waterston focused on the Wryneck Jynx torquilla. The latter study totalled an astonishing 1200 hours of observation for Waterston and his ‘assistants’. Eventually, the men were split up before the war ended in 1945 and all returned home safely.

In their own ways, each of the four men went on to make their impression on the world of ornithology and bird conservation. John Buxton became a teacher and academic and wrote up his studies of the Common Redstart in a New Naturalist monograph (The Redstart, Collins, 1950); John Barrett became the warden of Dale Fort Field Centre in Pembrokeshire and wrote highly popular guides to seashore wildlife; Peter Conder became the warden at nearby Skokholm, eventually joining the RSPB staff in 1954 and becoming the Society’s Director General; George Waterston, who founded Fair Isle Bird Observatory, also ended up on the RSPB staff and is widely accepted as the man who made sure that the Osprey Pandion haliaetus successfully reintroduced itself to Scotland in the 1950s.

The great value of this book is that it brings together the story of what these men experienced. These are stories that have rarely been told, as each of them remained relatively tight-lipped about their experiences – even to close family. Peter Conder did write up some of his thoughts but never completed them, and John Buxton even wrote a book on the subject, which was rejected for publication. The strength of this book comes from the fact that you are drawn into their lives and it feels as if the men are in a room talking about what had happened. All four died a long time before Derek Niemann had the idea for this book, but despite having never met any of them, he has brought to life their different attitudes and experiences with great ease."

Keith Betton, 25-04-2013,


"I received an email in mid-November from a reader suggesting that we should review Birds in a Cage. My curiosity was piqued and I emailed the charming folks at Short Books to secure a copy. We are more used to reviewing field guides, site guides and avifaunas, so the prospect of reviewing a "proper" book was rather a novelty.

First impressions were certainly favourable. The book is a hardback with a pleasing heft and a well-designed cover. Four uniformed men are pictured thereon: Peter Conder (who would go on to be director of the RSPB), George Waterston (who established Fair Isle Bird Observatory and the Loch Garten Osprey watch), John Buxton (poet and author of The Redstart) and John Barrett (whose books would inspire millions to enjoy natural history). All four were separately taken prisoner in 1940/41 and would see out World War II in a variety of prisons, eventually coming together at Warburg PoW camp in autumn of 1941. They were united in relying on their love of birds to provide a figurative escape from their confines.

The book starts with an introduction and cast list, which lends very helpful context. As the years since the end of the last great war begin to stretch beyond living memory, it is a sobering reminder that six million men fought for Britain during the campaign. However this book is far from being miserable, maudlin or moralising. It is instead insightful, inspiring and uplifting. It is also beautifully written. The author, Derek Niemann, will be familiar to many as a contributor to The Guardian's country diary as well as the author of many books. He puts his considerable skills to good use weaving these threads of history into a compelling yarn. The book is liberally sprinkled with line drawings, photos and reproductions of letters and telegrams.

Birding in the 1940s wasn't a straightforward pastime. Telescopes and "field glasses" were only available to a favoured few, and reliable field guides were thin on the ground, and nigh-on impossible to find in a prison camp. The literary John Buxton wrote home asking not for cigarettes or spare socks, but exhorting his father to send Gilbert White's Natural History of Selbourne. However, the men had plenty of time on their hands, and they filled it by observing nests, building nest boxes, counting birds, noting dates of arrivals and departures, all recorded in detailed and fiercely guarded notebooks. The central European avifauna was unfamiliar to our cohort of British officers, and tricky species such as crested lark gave them the runaround.

In addition, these men were surely the first proponents of vis-migging. They spent hours gazing at the skies noting the species that flew over. In March 1942 they noted some spectacular movements. On the 14th of the month they had nearly 7000 skylarks over, and noted a daytime passage of 7659 rooks and jackdaws. At night they heard cranes passing over – although it took until a daylight party flew over the camp to work out which species was making the haunting honks. The irony of their observation of migration was not lost on the prisoners. The German guards eventually began to look upon the birding prisoners as harmless enthusiasts and tolerated or even encouraged the hobby, a fact that tunnel-diggers were to exploit to their advantage. Some unlikely friendships born out of a love of birds and natural history were to flourish.

Birds in a Cage is not simply a book about birds, nor is it a biography of Conder, Waterston, Buxton and Barrett, and nor is it a history book about the PoW camps of World War II. It contains, of course, elements of all three. It is a tale of survival, endurance, adventure and resourcefulness all bound inextricably to a love of birds. Anyone who has sat miserably at a desk gazing out of the window willing a waxwing to appear in a nearby sorbus has some insight into the minds of these men. This is a fascinating and engrossing book, a perfect Christmas gift, but make sure you buy one for yourself at the same time."

- Fiona Barclay, Monday 17th December 2012,

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Derek Niemann is the editor of the RSPB's children's magazine and has written several books on nature and conservation for young readers. He lives in Bedfordshire with his family.

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