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Please note: not to be confused with the 2007 book by Nigel J. Collar by the same title.
There are 10 500 species of bird worldwide and wherever they occur people marvel at their extraordinary beauty and wonder at their powers of flight. We also trap and eat birds of every kind. Today one species, the domestic chicken, is the single biggest source of protein for all of us. Yet birds have not just been good to eat. Their feathers, which keep us warm or adorn our costumes, give birds unique mastery over the heavens. Throughout history their flight has inspired the human imagination so that birds are embedded in our religions, folklore, music and arts. Today their images are everywhere – on our national emblems, flags, stamps, coins, banknotes – and bird imagery entwines the political rhetoric of freedom and informs our vocabularies of birth and death.
Birds and People explores and celebrates this extraordinary relationship. Eight years in the making and vast in both scope and scale, Birds and People draws upon Mark Cocker's forty years of observing and thinking about birds. Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics and the environment. In the end, this is a book as much about us as it is about birds. Birds and People has been stunningly illustrated by one of Europe's best wildlife photographers, David Tipling, who has travelled in thirty-nine countries on seven continents to produce a breathtaking and unique collection of photographs.
Birds and People is as important for its visual riches as it is for its groundbreaking content. Birds and People is also exceptional in that the author has solicited contributions from people worldwide. Personal anecdotes and stories have come from more than 600 individuals of eighty-one different nationalities. They range from university academics to Mongolian eagle hunters, and from Amerindian shamans to some of the most celebrated writers of our age. The sheer multitude of voices in this global chorus means that Birds and People is both a source book on why we cherish birds and a powerful testament to their importance for all humanity.
Mark Cocker is one of Britain's foremost writers on nature and contributes regularly to the Guardian and other publications. All of his seven books, including the universally acclaimed Birds Britannica, deal with modern responses to wilderness, whether found in landscape, human societies or in other species. His latest book, Crow Country, was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2008 and won the New Angle Prize for Literature 2009. He lives deep in the Norfolk countryside with his wife Mary Muir and their two daughters.
"[...] Mark Cocker's magnum opus is a magisterial survey of what people think about wild birds the world over. [...] It is first-rate cultural natural history on the biggest possible canvas: the entire planet. [...] Behind all the wonder and fun, Birds & People explains as well as any book ever written exactly why we love and cherish birds and why our lives would be immeasurably poorer without them. "
– Peter Marren, British Wildlife 25(1), October 2013
"[...] "This is an unusual bird book in that it is as much about human beings as it is about birds." So begins Birds & People, and it is certainly true. Birders of all knowledge levels will learn much about birds from this book. But it’s the insight provided into our own species that is truly remarkable. It’s amazing to me just how much we get from birds, be it inspiration, pleasure, or food. Birds & People is an amazing resource, a pleasure to read, and one of the best bird books of the year."
– Grant McCreary (17-12-2013), read the full review at The Birder's Library
"This is an astonishing work [...] This is a book for everyone. There could be many like it, for there is just so much to tell about the cultural significance of birds, and the authors here admit a current, personal perspective of two people. For me it is the book I would take to a desert island – for a life defined by birds it is affirming and surprising. Lay your hands on a copy!"
– Andy Clements, BTO book reviews
"[...] When, in my enjoyment of the book, I started to think of people before birds, I did experience some disappointment. Looking for my mentors and reprises of their infectious interpretations I found no mention of Roger Tory Peterson, Peter Scott and Bill Bourne to name just three exemplars. Also I wanted more of the avian casts of Norse, Celtic and native American legends. Then the penny dropped; Birds and People was giving me a new deeper thirst for the amazing culture that welds us and birds together. And anyway, I already had Birds Britannica on a near shelf. More exploration and re-exploration lies ahead, aided not least by the book’s well-constructed reference lists and indexes. To all the book’s makers, I express my admiration for their work and my delight in their product. It is a truly wonderful bargain."
– D. I. M. Wallace, British Birds, 22-09-2013
"Mark Cocker’s work at the interface of ornithology and human culture has already borne literary fruit in very different but widely-admired works like Birders: Tales of a Tribe (2001), Birds Britannica (2005) and Crow Country (2007). As a birder and naturalist, his work comes with a stamp of authority that much of today’s ‘nature writing’ simply lacks. Seventeen years in gestation, Birds & People is undoubtedly his most ambitious work, an expansion to the global scale of the encyclopaedic Birds Britannica. The format is very similar, so those who have enjoyed dipping into the British book will undoubtedly relish the prospect of perusing an expanded version.
Information has been compiled from three principal sources: folklore (including, in our region, many references to diverse pre-Columbian peoples from Aztecs to Warao), literature (from Homer, through Aristotle and Pliny, to W. H. Hudson and José María Arguedas), and the written contributions of 650 correspondents in 81 countries. In fact, the author has cast his net even wider than that, pulling in references to paintings, advertisements, films (The Exorcist!), music and, of course, birding lore. The vast amount of data is presented as sections covering each of the world’s 200 or so bird families in systematic order. Some of the accounts are short and pithy, while others enter into some detail. For me, the extended essays are the most fascinating aspect of the book; they explore topics such as Parrots and Amerindians, The names of hummingbirds and New World blackbirds as symbols of landscape. Much of the content celebrates our empathy for, and love of, our feathered friends, but the author does not shy away from the rather less savoury impacts of humans on birds, with essays on themes such as Rails and extinction and The Eskimo Curlew. Indeed, conservation is a preoccupation that runs throughout the book, as the author exposes the killing of migratory birds, the impact of fishing by-catch on albatrosses or the extraordinary and disturbing Yawar Fiesta of Peru. Although I was aware that the killing of birds to make hats was a serious issue a century ago, I was astonished to read that between 1899 and 1912, 3–15 million egrets were exported from Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, to provide feathers for the distant millinery trade.
The photographs deserve separate praise, all the more so because they are largely the work of just one photographer: David Tipling. They are always excellent, often truly stunning, and several – like the Snow Geese Chen caerulescens on p. 85 or Sunbittern Eurypyga helias on p. 176 – are works of art in themselves.
In short, a sumptuous, informative and delightful book with plenty for the Neotropical birder to savour between trips."
– Christopher J. Sharpe, Neotropical Birding 15 (Autumn 2014)