“Two Essential Books
For the Birder’s Library”
A Review of
Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience.
by Jeremy Mynott
and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Birds in our Imagination and Experience.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds.
Paperback: Princeton UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Princeton University Press has recently released two books that are essential for the library of any birder. Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds. Mynott’s Birdscapes is a broad, sweeping collection of reflections —from a variety of sources— on birds and the practices of birding. Mynott is a philosopher at heart and one of his main tasks here is to explore the meaning of birds in human experience. He is particularly interested in tackling questions about the aesthetics of birds over the course of the book. For instance, he devotes chapters to the questions: “How does the beauty of a bird
differ from that of a butterfly, a tree, or a landscape?” and “can you enjoy a bird’s song just as much if you don’t know what it is?” He also raises some pointed questions about birding as a human pursuit – e.g. “Why does the act of identification play such a large role in the experience (of birding)? And why is that more about species than individual birds?” or “Does our concern with lists and counting indicate something we should worry about in ourselves?” However, despite Mynott’s probing tone, this volume should not be dismissed as an obtuse, philosophical work; it is anything but that; although he is inquisitive throughout, Mynott is driven more by a child-like sense of wonder than the philosophers compulsion to analyze. In fact, in the book’s first chapter Mynott examines the wonder of the birder and thus lays a foundation for the rest of the text. Following in the footsteps of naturalists past and present (e.g. Liberty Hyde Bailey and Lyanda Lyn Haupt), Mynott demonstrates a keen sense that wonder is the driving force behind all the explorations of the naturalist. In this chapter, Mynott looks to the British poet-naturalists John Clare (referencing his poem, “The Landrail” – see below) and John Keats as key examples whose writings reveal a deep wonder about the mysteries of birds.
Although Mynott is engaging throughout, two chapters stood out to me as particularly excellent. The first of these chapters is the one in which he raises a storm of questions about birding practices. This chapter begins with a personal story of Mynott’s birding in Central Park. As of 1986, he had observed 149 different species in New York City’s Central Park, but as he is searching for an elusive warbler, he is hit by the thought (and I suspect that many a reflective birder has been struck by a similar question at one time or another): “Do I really want to see a protho notary or do I just want to find my 150th bird for Central Park” (82)? He goes on to explore briefly the history and psychology of listing. Mynott makes no judgments here about the reasons that birders seek rare birds, but instead concludes: “Birds as a key part of our present biodiversity—distributed unevenly across the world in nearly ten thousand species, all with their own special characteristics and attractive to us in all kinds of ways, not least in their variety. No wonder we want to see as many of them as possible” (108).
Another particularly striking chapter is aptly entitled “A Time and a Place.” Here Mynott probes the crucial importance of time and place in observing certain birds, which is of special importance to the birder – in contrast to the observer of other animals – because of the migratory nature of many birds. He also reflects here on the meaning of birds within a landscape and drawing on diverse examples from sources such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Julian Huxley, Mynott makes a convincing case that birds are an integral part of any landscape.
This tendency to draw from diverse sources and Mynott’s adeptness at weaving these bits together with his own reflections on birds and birding make Birdscapes required reading for any birder.
Although even the most ardent birder will likely not read it from cover to cover, the new Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds is no less essential for a birder’s library. This encyclopedia, edited by Oxford ornithologist Christopher Perrins, is in no sense a field guide. With over 650 oversized pages and weighing in at almost five points, it is not the sort of volume that the birder would lug out into the field. However, since its scope is international, this book will be particularly valuable to the birder who travels to foreign corners of the world. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds is full of excellent color photography and illustrations and, the entry for each bird is complete with brief writings that distinguish the habits of that particular bird. The birds are organized here by their biological classification: first birds in the super-older Palaeognathe (five orders: ostrich, rheas, emus, kiwis, and tinamous) and then ones in the super-order Neognathe (“all other modern birds” – 23 orders from penguins to passerines). Thus, some familiarity with the classification of birds will be necessary to facilitate navigating this encyclopedia, but for those with only a basic understanding of classification, there is a thorough index that will help one find the entry on any given species.
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds is well-worthy of its noble Princeton name and is an essential reference for the birder, and especially one who travels the globe in hopes of sighting new birds.