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What draws us to the beauty of a peacock, the flight of an eagle, or the song of a nightingale? Why are birds so significant in our lives and our sense of the world? And what do our ways of thinking about and experiencing birds tell us about ourselves? Birdscapes is a unique meditation on the variety of human responses to birds, from antiquity to today, and from casual observers to the globe-trotting "twitchers" who sometimes risk life, limb, and marriages simply to add new species to their "life lists".
Drawing extensively on literature, history, philosophy, and science, Jeremy Mynott puts his own experiences as a birdwatcher in a rich cultural context. His sources range from the familiar – Thoreau, Keats, Darwin, and Audubon – to the unexpected – Benjamin Franklin, Giacomo Puccini, Oscar Wilde, and Monty Python. Just as unusual are the extensive illustrations, which explore our perceptions and representations of birds through images such as national emblems, women's hats, professional sports logos, and a Christmas biscuit tin, as well as classics of bird art. Each chapter takes up a new theme – from rarity, beauty, and sound to conservation, naming, and symbolism – and is set in a new place, as Mynott travels from his "home patch" in Suffolk, England, to his "away patch" in New York City's Central Park, as well as to Russia, Australia, and Greece.
Conversational, playful, and witty, Birdscapes gently leads us to reflect on large questions about our relation to birds and the natural world. It encourages birders to see their pursuits in a broader human context – and it shows nonbirders what they may be missing.
List of illustrations vii
Chapter 1: Wondering about birds
Shingle Street -- Witnesses and prophets -- Birds and ourselves 1
Chapter 2: Amusive birds: Attraction and association
Horsey -- Favourites and fancies -- Meanings and masks -- Charisma and beyond 28
Chapter 3: Seeing a difference
Isles of Scilly -- Distinctions and differences -- Species and individuals -- Observing and perceiving -- Illusion and self-deception -- Patterns, profiles, and all that jizz 54
Chapter 4: Rarity value
Central Park -- The listing habit -- Collection and possession -- The hunting instinct -- Extreme pursuits -- Discovery and diversity 80
Chapter 5: Beauty and the beholder
Volga Delta -- Signs of life -- Image and imagination -- Colour and form -- Art and nature 109
Chapter 6: The sense of sound
Little Thurlow -- Sound and silence -- Sounds different -- Signs of sound -- "And the winner is . . . " -- The sound of music 145
Chapter 7: A time and a place
Flannan Isles -- The sense of a season -- Birds in a landscape 182
Chapter 8: Wild nature: The politics of preference
Old Hall Marshes -- Disturbance and disorientation -- Intervention
and conservation -- Belonging? 207
Chapter 9: Naming matters
Kakadu -- What's in a name? -- Facts and fancies: Naming the birds -- Invention and discovery -- Regulation and resistance:
The Esperanto illusion 229
Chapter 10: Birds are good to think with
Delphi -- A bird told me -- Signs and symbols -- Eagles and
emblems -- Why birds? -- Seeing what you believe -- Like a bird 262
Envoi: "Stirred for a bird"
Shingle Street 297
Appendix 1: Some notable lists: The Sumerians, Thomas Jefferson, John Clare 303
Appendix 2: Birds and bonnets: A New York hat story 310
Appendix 3: Nightingale mysteries 312
Appendix 4: Some Australian bird names 318
Reference matter: Abbreviations -- Notes, sources, and further reading 323
Index of birds 347
General index 355
Acknowledgements and permissions 365
Jeremy Mynott has been watching, listening to, and thinking about birds – and birders – for much of his life. He is the former chief executive of Cambridge University Press and is a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.
"[...] Birdscapes has much in common with Jonathan Rosen’s The Life of the Skies [...]. Not least among these similarities is that it makes you think. That alone is reason enough to recommend this book. But by making you contemplate birds and your experience of them, it may also help you to enjoy birding even more."
- Grant McCreary (23-06-2009), read the full review at The Birder's Library
"Who watches the bird-watchers? This inventive disquisition is alert to both the dawn chorus of birds and the great choir of poets, travellers, and naturalists who have rhapsodized them [...] For Mynott, much of the appeal of birds stems from the inexhaustible variety of our response to them: he celebrates the fact that, contra Keats, the nightingale's song might not have the same meanings for the modern birder as it has for Ruth among the alien corn."
- New Yorker
"The finest book ever written about why we watch birds [...] Mynott's lightness of touch, combined with his depth of knowledge, experience and above all perception, create a thought-provoking and compulsively readable book."
- Stephen Moss, The Guardian (U.K.)
"An absolutely fascinating book, exhaustively researched, beautifully written, both learned and humorous, and endlessly stimulating [...] A book which informs and delights at first reading and will continue to be relished on subsequent re-readings."
- Bryan Bland, Birding World
"Fascinating [...] An illuminating, light-hearted philosophical tour of what it is that fascinates us about birds [...] Jeremy Mynott's Birdscapes is a journey across uncharted ornithological terrain. He is the ultimate guide: knowledgeable, entertaining and gentle. The result is a wonderful rumination on birds and birders through space and time for anyone interested in our relationship with nature."
- Tim Birkhead, Times Higher Education
"Mynott's outstanding achievement [...] is to have decoded how birds rank among our closest kindred spirits."
- Evan Dunn, Times Literary Supplement