Get money off this title at The Independent's online book shop

Book review: Birds and People, By Mark Cocker, photographs by David Tipling

This sumptuous survey celebrates our bond with birds – and warns that we risk breaking it

As soon as human beings discovered symbolism, they invented augury. The canary in the mine whose death warns miners of gas, the dove whose green twig tells Noah the Flood is going down, the wisdom of the raven or song of the nightingale: all feed an ancient, apparently universal feeling that birds have something to tell us. They are sign-bearers, omens, messengers of gods. We find meaning in their calls. Twitter gives a new spin to the medieval alchemists' language of birds, which translated what was divine and of the air – now of the ether - into the earth of humanity and the mundane.

Birds call to us over distance. They speak of other lands, other ways of being. We throw out crumbs for them, read ourselves into them. They belong to two worlds, earth and sky, and offer an image of renewal. "Hope," says Emily Dickinson, "is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul."

Some birds do this in specialist mode: when hummingbirds sleep, they enter a hibernation-like torpor and breathe so slowly they look as if they were dead. So in the Peruvian Andes they have become a symbol of rebirth. But any ordinary migration incarnates the wonder of a fresh start, of regeneration. Ancient Greek children welcomed the swallow as messenger of spring; last March, I was in Crete the day the swifts suddenly returned and the air was miraculously full of their darting shapes and high-pitched calls.

Birds offer human imagination mystery, beauty, and a sense that the planet is working as it should. As the huge global industry of garden-bird nurture testifies, their presence make us feel good. The RSPB is one of the biggest lobbies in the UK. But what about when we interact with birds directly and face their physical and ecological reality?

Mark Cocker is a magic name in the bird world and a between-two-worlds phenomenon himself. He is a founder member of New Networks for Nature, an alliance between naturalists, scientists and artists. Alarmed by the low political priority our society places on nature, they speak for wildlife and landscape not only in environmental terms but as a resource at the heart of human creativity. Cocker's sumptuous and poignant new book sums up the this message: that culture and nature are interdependent, and losing nature is losing ourselves.

Cocker began by writing about people. In the Eighties, he wrote two biographies focusing on European exploitation and colonial destruction of indigenous peoples. Since then he has specialised in natural history, especially birds, but his gaze is always two-way. Birds Britannica is on titanic scale, a compendious study of British birds humming with literature, history and anthropology. Crow Country, one of his best-loved books, fuses natural historical observation of one bird tribe with human mythology: the charming Birders is Crow Country's mirror volume, examining the self-selected family of people obsessed with birds.

This new title sums up what Cocker's writing life has been about. Birds and People is as rich, weighty and authoritative as Birds Britannica: ten years' labour and a monumental record, both hefty and extraordinarily sensitive, of human interaction with birds from the beginning of human time and across the planet. With research and support from two respected natural historians, Jonathan Elphick and John Fanshawe, Cocker invited the whole world to contribute observations and experience of birds and got tens of thousands of emails. His acknowledgements reflects a global chorus of voices from over 80 countries, welded into a panoptic vision of human interaction with birds. The project includes an internet forum: anyone can access it to add bird thoughts, bird stories.

Birds and People is a treasure trove of bird lore, science and mythology, from the role of the goldfinch in Italian paintings of the Virgin and Child (this bird with a scarlet face which loves thistles and thorns, and so presages the Crown of Thorns) to Emerson's poem to the chickadee in a blizzard. The other shaping factor which will put this book on everyone's wish list for Christmas (beach reading it is not - and make sure your coffee table is strong) is the contribution of Cocker's collaborator, the award-winning wildlife photographer David Tipling.

For ten years Tipling travelled the world to create an exquisite collection of photos documenting the roles which birds play in human lives on every continent. Facing each other, for instance, are two photos which sum up the glory and tragedy of how we interact with birds of prey. On the left, a Kazakh "an eagle hunter" watches the huge golden eagle, which caught the foxes whose furs he is wearing, land on his well-padded arm. Perfect partnership, human and bird. But on the facing page a sparrowhawk, both wings broken, hangs upside down alive from a cage in a Beijing market, waiting for someone to put it out of its misery and eat it.

For be warned: Cocker does not do sentiment. This is a record of everything we do to and with birds. Birds sum up, he suggests, the unspoken bond between ourselves and the rest of nature, which includes ways in which we fear and abuse it. Owls seem to bring out our most conflicted thinking about nature, and receive some of the worst treatment. Reviled and feared everywhere as ill omens, spirits of the dead, they are spat at by visitors to Khartoum Zoo and go up in flames when they land on a South African roof at night and a burning brand is thrown.

But there's humour, too. The tit family shows unusual trust in people and we respond with affection for "the punch packed into that tiny puff of feathers". But bird-ringers beware: when handled, the great tit goes unerringly for the cuticle, or any sore place where your nerve-ends are inflamed.

Birds and People is a beautiful anthem to the history and diversity of relationship between birds and human beings. Summing up the current state of birdlife (declining everywhere), Cocker shows how this relationship has enriched human culture at every level. If we let birdlife die out, a large, immeasurably rich element of human life goes too.

Ruth Padel's book 'The Mara Crossing' is on human and animal migration. She is curating a summer series of writers' talks on endangered animals at ZSL London Zoo: www.zsl.org/writerstalks

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all