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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

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