Sunday book review – When There Were Birds by Roy and Lesley Adkins

This book is described by its publisher, on the jacket flap, as a social history of Britain that charts the complex connections between birds and people, and in a way it is. But if it were that, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did. For me, this is a book full of stories from quite long ago about birds and people. There is little synthesis or analysis in here but much in the way of rivetting anecdotes from nineteenth century newspapers and books, and some from earlier, or much earlier, too.

After a slightly odd prologue and before a short postscript, there are fifteen chapters with titles such as Vermin, Hunting, Shooting, Stuffed, Weather, Food and By-products. Each is a collection of quotes and accounts about people and birds, very often people being nasty to birds. They are fascinating. As with any collection of stories, one wonders at the things that happened, and sometimes whether they really did happen, but I was hooked on them.

For example, the Weather chapter has accounts of coastal seabird wrecks where the numbers of dead birds washed onto the shore seem vast. They are beyond my experience and I wonder whether they are accurate but suspect that they are – at least more or less. Hard winters killed lots of birds but today we would probably not collect frozen Rooks for our tables, partly because no-one needs them quite as much when Ocado delivers and partly, I suspect, because there aren’t the number of Rooks. Later there is a fascinating story from Deal, Kent, in 1856 when, in mid-summer, a plunge in temperature and rain made Swifts fly unsteadily, crash into things and fall from the sky. I’ve never seen anything like that and nor have I seen hordes of children rushing around killing hundreds of the grounded and vulnerable birds. Later in the chapter, by way of weathercocks on churches, we are told that in mid nineteenth century Northamptonshire dead Green Woodpeckers were hung by their feet to act as weather forecasters; a protruding tongue means rain is coming whereas a shrivelled one means nice weather ahead. I must get one and try it as we don’t have much seaweed to hand, and I find the weather forecasts a bit unreliable.

Every chapter is replete with such anecdotes which, for me at least, made the book a page-turner.

The authors are historians and archaeologists but there aren’t any howlers about birds that I spotted here. They used their research skills and experience to put a different type of book together, and I am grateful to them because it is a very good read. I think many readers of this blog would enjoy this book and I recommend it.

It’s good to be reminded that a while ago, say the time of your great grandparents, there were so many more birds and that we are now looking at crumbs where there were once stacks of loaves.

The cover? Quite adequate – I’d give it 6/10.

When There Were Birds: the forgotten history of our connections by Roy and Lesley Adkins is published by Little, Brown.

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2 Replies to “Sunday book review – When There Were Birds by Roy and Lesley Adkins”

  1. I remember reading books by Margaret Powell who wrote about her life cooking for rich families in ‘Below Stairs’ and others. One included a recipe for rook pie, which contained hard-boiled eggs. The birds had to be skinned not plucked and some other care taken, which I can’t remember, to make them palatable.

  2. This does sound like a fantastic and much needed book. Over the years I’ve read snippets which at least show attitudes towards birds are changing even if populations are generally declining. Caged birds being blinded in Victorian Britain because it was thought this would increase their singing – a practice still being occasionally carried out in the Mediterranean. From the same era boats being taken out so parties of shooters could blast cliff nesting seabirds, and weren’t birds on the Thames once shot for fun from London Bridge? I think there’s a lazy assumption that because people were/are physically closer to wildlife this automatically instilled/instils a greater love, respect and care for it. This is dangerous as among other things it helps the NFU posture that farmers are conservationists as standard.

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