Sunday book review – Birding in an Age of Extinction by Martin Painter.

This is a good read if you are a birder or if you’ve ever chased after a rare bird anywhere in the world. The author has done a bit of that, with what appears to be the usual mixture of success and failure. He has travelled widely and visited such places as remote Norfolk Island to see rare birds and add them to his list. There will be some people who know why you might go to Norfolk Island and will be interested to read how many, and which, of the island’s birds were seen by the author, and this book is definitely for them, but there will also be others who are puzzled that anyone, particularly a grown man, might spend time, effort and money travelling to bump up a bird list. This book is probably for that latter category too, because it’s written in an honest and thoughtful way, and it deals with the absurdity of world-listing and other types of birding. So, if you think the obsession with seeing lots of bird species is a bit odd, but interestingly odd, then this is a book for you because you will gain some insights from it. Only if you think that chasing around looking for rare birds is very peculiar and you are not the least bit interested in the whys and wherefores of it should you turn your back on it completely.

Now I would happily call myself a birder but I’m pretty bad at keeping lists of what I’ve seen. By complete chance, I did add up how many bird species I’ve seen in the UK earlier this week – I came across a UK checklist in the house and spending 10 minutes working my way through it was more appealing than the thing I ought to have done instead – but I’ve already forgotten how many species I have seen, except that it was more than 300 and fewer than 350. Whatever! And yesterday I noticed that an example of the commonest UK bird species that I haven’t seen (depends what you mean by common of course) was flying around Pitsford Reservoir about 25 miles from home. Did I rush off to see a Leach’s Petrel for the first time? No, but I did think about it.

Many birdwatchers or birders go through the stage of being mad keen to see loads of new birds and many grow out of it, but there’s still a remnant of it that remains, just a mostly-controlled urge, a fleeting thought, a conquered addiction.

But Martin Painter is a much better person to tell you about all this than am I – he’s spent more time engaged in the pursuit and he has lots of stories to tell, but has also thought quite deeply about it. He deals with bird identification, taxonomic splitting and lumping, trophy birds and listing and listers. But he also discusses the role of wildlife tourism in protecting some speces (a bit) and the emission of greenhouse gases in increasing extinction rates. He’s quite good at facing up to the uncomfortable truths.

I’d say that dedicated world listers should get a copy of this book and read it on their next long-distance flight, maybe to Norfolk Island. And bird observatories should keep some copies for their residents and visitors to read on those long October nights when it’s too dark to look for rare birds. And it is a good read – slightly long for me, but probably not quite long enough for others.

An excellent thing about it is that the book doesn’t say much about birds in the UK and Europe but concentrates on faraway places such as Australia, China, North and South America and Madagascar (and many others). I’m not planning to go to any of them in the rest of my life so I was very happy to read about birds I haven’t seen, and a few that I have, and not feel even a tad envious.

It’s a good read if you are interested in listing or listers.

The cover? Bit gloomy isn’t it? And, personally, I loathe the typography. So I give it 4/10.

Birding in an Age of Extinction by Martin Painter is published by Whittles Books.


1 Reply to “Sunday book review – Birding in an Age of Extinction by Martin Painter.”

  1. “Fiddling while Rome Burns” might be a useful alternative title! I’ll definitely keep my purse closed on this one.

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