BOOK REVIEW: ‘ A History of Birds’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  A History of Birds

Author: Simon Wills

Total Number of Pages: 180

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

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In the final paragraph of this volume’s Introduction, the author writes the following: ‘The world would be a miserable place without birds, and in this book I hope to show how the relationship between us and our avian counterparts has evolved. Our modern attitudes are very much shaped by our ancestor’s beliefs and experiences’. It is an excellent precis of the book’s content.

In addition to the afore-mentioned paragraph, the Introduction also discusses the place that birds have played in human society throughout the centuries. It is followed by an Acknowledgements section, within-which those who assisted with this volume are thanked. The 30 sections which comprise the majority of the volume follow. The book contains no Chapters per se’, but rather Sections devoted to individual bird types. These are unnumbered, but include both the common (Blackbird) and the exotic (Flamingo). Although not stated, the qualification for inclusion with this volume seems to be that at some stage such birds have either been resident in the British Isles or are familiar parts of British culture (the Ostrich being a case in point). Within each Section, the reader is introduced to the subject, and given details of both its behaviour and its place in British and European legend and folklore. Subsections enclosed in boxes within each section provide additional, frequently-idiosyncratic details about the bird-type under discussion.  The Seagull on Stage (page 67) is one such example.  Where appropriate, the author includes personal reminiscences about the bird he is describing. The volume contains numerous illustrations. These are largely photographic in nature and comprise both monochrome and colour images. However, where required by the narrative, there are also reproductions of etchings, drawings, manuscripts and trademarks. While the sources of some of these photographs / images etc. are noted, many do not provide that detail. The Index and Contents pages contain no reference to the existence of illustrations within the work.  Numerous quotes also appear throughout the volume. Regrettably these lack source-citations, and as a result their authenticity must inevitably be questioned. A two-page Index completes the volume. Despite the fact that some species are range-specific while others migrate over considerable distances, the book contains no Maps.

That this volume is readable and well-researched is very evident. This reviewer does however have reservations concerning the Index. During the review process, words were randomly sought from within the Index.  Included were such terms as Publius Claudius Pulcher (page 13), Ostrich Racing (page 104) and Heyhoe (page 176).  No Index entry was found for any of these terms. In addition, although the Index noted that the term Falconry appeared on pages 34 and 71-72, that term also appeared on pages 126 and 127. Why the latter entries were omitted is unknown. As these were the results of random Index searches; what else may be missing cannot be known.

As already noted this volume is readable and well-researched. Despite the previously noted ‘limitations’, it is likely to have wide reader appeal. ‘Bird lovers’ of all persuasions and interest-levels are likely to find it a delight and it could well become a standard reference work with their libraries.  Readers who simply see a bird and want to learn about it, are also likely to find this volume of use. The unusual information it contains may also appeal to the compilers of ‘Pub-quiz’ competitions, while visual artists could find the photographs a useful resource.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘ A History of Birds’