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What draws us to the beauty of a peacock, the flight of an eagle, or the song of a nightingale? Why are birds so significant in our lives and our sense of the world? And what do our ways of thinking about and experiencing birds tell us about ourselves? Birdscapes is a unique meditation on the variety of human responses to birds, from antiquity to today, and from casual observers to the globe-trotting "twitchers" who sometimes risk life, limb, and marriages simply to add new ...
What draws us to the beauty of a peacock, the flight of an eagle, or the song of a nightingale? Why are birds so significant in our lives and our sense of the world? And what do our ways of thinking about and experiencing birds tell us about ourselves? Birdscapes is a unique meditation on the variety of human responses to birds, from antiquity to today, and from casual observers to the globe-trotting "twitchers" who sometimes risk life, limb, and marriages simply to add new species to their "life lists."
Drawing extensively on literature, history, philosophy, and science, Jeremy Mynott puts his own experiences as a birdwatcher in a rich cultural context. His sources range from the familiar—Thoreau, Keats, Darwin, and Audubon—to the unexpected—Benjamin Franklin, Giacomo Puccini, Oscar Wilde, and Monty Python. Just as unusual are the extensive illustrations, which explore our perceptions and representations of birds through images such as national emblems, women's hats, professional sports logos, and a Christmas biscuit tin, as well as classics of bird art. Each chapter takes up a new theme—from rarity, beauty, and sound to conservation, naming, and symbolism—and is set in a new place, as Mynott travels from his "home patch" in Suffolk, England, to his "away patch" in New York City's Central Park, as well as to Russia, Australia, and Greece.
Conversational, playful, and witty, Birdscapes gently leads us to reflect on large questions about our relation to birds and the natural world. It encourages birders to see their pursuits in a broader human context—and it shows nonbirders what they may be missing.
Mynott, a birder and former chief of Cambridge Univ. Press, is fascinated by birds and by the human response to them: why do we expend so much effort to observe, catalog, describe, listen to and study birds? Citing a broad range of sources (Romantic poets, Japanese haiku masters, the Song of Solomon, Monty Python, Thoreau), Mynott ponders our perceptions of worth, our emotional responses to landscapes, and the process of vision itself. Most people respond only unconsciously to birds-a flash of color, a burst of melody, wheeling flight-and Mynott encourages active observation, springboarding to a discussion of general awareness. Elsewhere he tackles the human penchant for collecting, but he also addresses birder-specific idiosyncrasies like "twitching," when a flock of birders convene on the location of an unusual sighting, where they mark their lists and disappear just as quickly as they arrived. Mynott is also happy to goof on himself and his fellows, presenting a bird-spotting version of the Beaufort wind speed intensity index (level 9 birder behavior includes "high anxiety, traveling long distances at great expense... losing sense of humour (or job or partner)." Though Mynott provides ample references for further reading, this leisurely, thoughtful, generous book provides ample information and amusement.
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"Essential for the library of any birder. . . . Birdscapes is a broad, sweeping collection of reflections—from a variety of sources—on birds and the practices of birding. Mynott is a philosopher at heart and one of his main tasks here is to explore the meaning of birds in human experience. . . . [The] tendency to draw from diverse sources and Mynott's adeptness at weaving these bits together with his own reflections on birds and birding make Birdscapes required reading for any birder."—Chris Smith, Englewood Review of Books
"I have dozens of books on all aspects of birds; from their behaviour, habitats and distribution, to their keeping, feeding, and breeding. But until recently, I didn't have a single book on the remarkable effects these little feathered creatures have on us. Fortunately, that has now changed. Princeton University Press has recently published this wonderful book on just that—the human perspective on how birds influence our lives. . . . This book would be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in birds in the wild or in captivity. . . . A fascinating ramble through the culture of birds."—Susan Anderson, Australian Aviculture
"This book is stimulating, thought provoking, informative, amusing at times and uses our often abused language to full potential. I confess to having resorted to my dictionary on a few occasions but have now added ornithomorphism and ornithomancy to my vocabulary!"—Simon Cox, Essex Birding
"Though it is well illustrated by black and white line drawings and photographs, together with an eight-page colour section, it is the thoughtful and entertaining words that make this volume so easy to recommend."—Birds Illustrated
"Of all those who have intellectually delved into the myriad ways, from science to symbolism, in which birds have played a role in human society, Jeremy Mynott, former chief executive of Cambridge University Press, is certainly among the most eloquent and expansive of mind. . . . Birdscapes is a veritable smorgasbord of food for thought."—The Well-read Naturalist
"Just as wonderful is Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience, by Jeremy Mynott, who turns out to be a skillful and flexible prose stylist. Reading this book will prepare one for hours of listening (Mynott is superb on bird sounds) and watching pleasure—but just reading it enriches one's perceptions."—Tom D'Evelyn, Providence Journal
"An unusual but hugely interesting book which takes a completely different angle on birds, and investigates how we perceive them, and how birds have informed our history, folklore and everyday lives. Jeremy Mynott draws on a quite astonishing range of sources, and the book is illustrated throughout, reading this will be an excellent way to spend a wet weekend!"—British Trust for Ornithology Newsletter
"This is a book for birdwatchers, yes, and it would make an excellent gift, but it's also a book for anyone who appreciates the out-of-doors."—R.G. Schmidt, Citrus County Chronicle
"Here is almost everything that you might ever want to know about birds in Western culture. . . . Because Mynott writes so well, he never bores. This is an engaging and amusing book, even if you are not a bird lover."—Celia Haddon, Salisbury Review
"[A] wonderful book. . . . I'd recommend it not only to anyone interested in birds but also for anyone who has a husband, wife, son or daughter who's nuts about birds and can't understand why—this will tell them."—Jonathan Elphick, FiveBooks
"Fully deserving of the tag 'an instant classic' . . . [Birdscapes] moves from the more technical and theoretical aspects of ornithology right the way through to bird folklore and the representation of birds in the arts. Best of all, it's thorough readable, packed full of the sort of avian tidbits that'll make you unbeatable at your next bird club quiz night."—Bird Watching magazine
"[Mynott] brings to bear with deft sureness an extraordinary erudition in literature, art, philosophy, science, history, anthropology, mythology, linguistics, nature writing, and popular culture."—Brayton Polka, European Legacy
"With this marvelous look at what birds mean to the human imagination, lifelong twitcher Mynott offers a birdwatching memoir which takes graceful swoops around art, philosophy, and science."—Benjamin Evans, Sunday Telegraph
List of illustrations vii
Chapter 1: Wondering about birds
Shingle Street — Witnesses and prophets — Birds and ourselves 1
Chapter 2: Amusive birds: Attraction and association
Horsey — Favourites and fancies — Meanings and masks — Charisma and beyond 28
Chapter 3: Seeing a difference
Isles of Scilly — Distinctions and differences — Species and individuals — Observing and perceiving — Illusion and self-deception — Patterns, profiles, and all that jizz 54
Chapter 4: Rarity value
Central Park — The listing habit — Collection and possession — The hunting instinct — Extreme pursuits — Discovery and diversity 80
Chapter 5: Beauty and the beholder
Volga Delta — Signs of life — Image and imagination — Colour and form — Art and nature 109
Chapter 6: The sense of sound
Little Thurlow — Sound and silence — Sounds different — Signs of sound — "And the winner is . . . " — The sound of music 145
Chapter 7: A time and a place
Flannan Isles — The sense of a season — Birds in a landscape 182
Chapter 8: Wild nature: The politics of preference
Old Hall Marshes — Disturbance and disorientation — Intervention and conservation — Belonging? 207
Chapter 9: Naming matters
Kakadu — What's in a name? — Facts and fancies: Naming the birds — Invention and discovery — Regulation and resistance:
The Esperanto illusion 229
Chapter 10: Birds are good to think with
Delphi — A bird told me — Signs and symbols — Eagles and emblems — Why birds? — Seeing what you believe — Like a bird 262
Envoi: "Stirred for a bird"
Shingle Street 297
Appendix 1: Some notable lists: The Sumerians, Thomas Jefferson, John Clare 303
Appendix 2: Birds and bonnets: A New York hat story 310
Appendix 3: Nightingale mysteries 312
Appendix 4: Some Australian bird names 318
Reference matter: Abbreviations — Notes, sources, and further reading 323
Index of birds 347
General index 355
Acknowledgements and permissions 365