This review first appeared in the September Birdwatch and I am grateful to them for permission to reproduce it here (subscribe to Birdwatch here).
This book is about the 15 species of raptor which breed in Britain – each gets a chapter. The author assesses whether their populations are doing well or badly (many, of course are doing well) and the reasons for their population changes. But that stuff can be found in lots of places: where this book excels – and it does excel – is in the stories told of, and by, people involved with these different species.
I’ve never met David Cobham, though we have spoken on the ‘phone, and he strikes me as a born raconteur. He is at ease telling a story, an anecdote, an amusing tale. This book is full of them and they involve many of the names that one would expect to find in a book about raptors; Roy Dennis, Roger Clarke, Ian Newton, Steve Petty, Jemima Parry-Jones, Peter Davis, Chris Packham, John Love, Dave Sexton, Steve Roberts and the list goes on and on.
Cobham does well in trawling the older literature for history, evidence and stories. He talks to grouse moor owners, scientists, falconers, birders and conservationists. This is a wide-ranging assessment of UK raptors and their place in our lives.
In every chapter I learned things. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the Hobby where we largely get away from people being nasty to raptors and hear some good stories, and that on Montagu’s Harrier which reminded me of summer days in north Norfolk.
Bruce Pearson’s illustrations, all in black and white (and a lot of grey), punctuate the text and there are no graphs, tables or photographs. There is little by way of introduction and less in terms of synthesis at the end. There is no index – which I regretted. The chapter headings are set unusually high at the top of the page and there is little empty space to show you that you are at the beginning of a chapter. Somehow this layout gave me the impression that the book was full of words and the author and publisher had been struggling to get them into the pages available. And the title is well chosen but strikes a sombre note.
The combination of title, word density and a lot of grey illustrations put me off starting to read the book as quickly as I otherwise would have done. That was my mistake, and my loss, as the book is an uplifting tale of wonderful birds, some great places and a lot of gifted raptor enthusiasts. Read it and you will smile much more often than frown.
The book starts in a way that I will always remember (and I bet you will too) and ends very powerfully with a reminiscence about Gerald Durrell (we’ll remember that too!).
A Sparrowhawk’s Lament by David Cobham (illustrated by Bruce Pearson) is published by Princeton University Press.