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
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness