Best of 2018, Three: Nonfiction, part one

December 26, 2018 at 12:12 am (Book review, books, Nature)

  One does not expect to encounter, in a book about birds, an anecdote concerning Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless…

It seems that for the famous Cheek To Cheek dance sequence in Top Hat, Ginger Rogers wanted to wear a dress  that was festooned with a multitude of feathers. Problem: As she and Fred Astaire whirled around the dance floor, the feathers flew off the dress in large numbers. According to Astaire, “‘It was like a chicken being attacked by a coyote.'” Ginger, however, was adamant – she wanted that dress.

Now I’ve watched this dance sequence many times and I always assumed those feathers were fake. No such thing!



Simon Barnes’s book has many delightful anecdotes like this. But even more, it has an abundance of facts about birds: their flight, sounds, migratory and mating habits, their significance in myth and legend, the art of falconry, the slaughter and the irony inherent in the hunting of birds, and their endangerment through loss of habitat. Barnes has a deep knowledge of the avian world. Yet when he writes about it,  he has a light hand; his tone at times is almost whimsical. And yet he could not be more serious.

The book is filled with wonderful black and white images like the one above. These are drawn from a variety of sources.

Wandering Albatross


And the cover art, as you can see above, is gorgeous. Be sure to click on it, in order to enlarge it as much as possible.

A swanfall is one of those routine miracles that the wild world throws at us, and it’s as wonderful a thing as I’ve ever seen. First the lake was open and pretty empty: within the hour you could see nothing but swans. It was like watching Bank Station in the City of London in the morning: a place that is at first sparsely populated turns into the busiest place in the world before your eyes: not gradually but all at once.

Apparently New Zealand was once a veritable paradise for birds:

If time travel were possible, I’d take my Tardis to New Zealand a few years before 1280. This is the ultimate destination in time and space for anyone with birding in the blood. New Zealand was the kingdom of the birds and it remained so until the arrival of humans in the thirteenth century.

A flightless parrot that is barely hanging on there is called the kakapo. Barnes mentions Douglas Adams’s search for this curious creature as described in his book Last Chance To See. I remember reading that book when it came out in 1990 and enjoying it immensely – at least, as much as Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

Barnes has much of interest to say about eagles, but I really loved this story:

My dear Aunt Barbara used to tell a story about a vicar—I have long forgotten his name and parish—who took evensong after a protracted and agreeable lunch. With his belly full of claret and port and other vicarly delights, he approached the lectern but, alas, misjudged his descent from the steps of the altar. He made a dramatic lurch in the general direction of the congregation but saved himself by clasping the outspread wings of the lectern, for this traditional piece of ecclesiastical furniture was, of course, in the form of an eagle, its wings supporting the Book. He muttered, in tones audible to the front row, ‘If it hadn’t been for this bloody duck, I’d be on the floor.’

Eagle lectern at St Nicholas Church, Blakeney, Norfolk, England

One  reason it’s taking me so long to get through this book is that I keep running to the computer to find videos on birds. In addition to the kakapo footage above, I particularly like the these two, on the barn owl and on falconry respectively:



One day a couple of weeks ago, while I was observing nature from my kitchen window, I saw a bird – I don’t know what kind – leave its perch on the bare branch of a tree and float gracefully down to the ground. At that moment, I thought, I could really get into birds. A dangerous notion, I know. Birders can be an obsessive lot.

Not long after that, I found The Meaning of Birds on the new nonfiction shelf at the library and was intrigued by its square shape and striking cover. I had never heard of it, despite the fact that I read loads of book reviews. It’s now bristling with post-it notes and has been renewed up to the limit. I finally gave in and downloaded it from Amazon.

The Meaning of Birds, it must be said, is primarily concerned with the nature of England. But Simon Barnes has traveled all over the world in search of bird knowledge. This book is a rare gift to nature lovers. I cannot recommend it highly enough.



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