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:

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living