I'm delighted to be able to present the first of two guest blogs by Mark Cocker, author of Nature's Home's "Book of the issue", Birds and People (see page 84). Mark also writes about starlings in the current issue. Enjoy.
Christmas is looming now with all its attendant concern for ritual. In fact the thing our daughters cherish most about the holiday is that everything we’ve always done, we’ll do again this time. It gives a sense of reassurance and continuity, but one element that’s omnipresent for most people in this country is the fundamental role of birds.
Birds, I hear, you murmur with a hint of surprise? Yes. Birds.
It’s more than just the central place of the roast turkey on the dining table, although it’s worth recalling that we eat 10 million of them and 300,000 geese every festive season. And behind those statistics lies the wider place of poultry in the entire British diet. Every day our nation consumes a million eggs and worldwide chickens provide us with more protein than any other animal and about half of all the meat consumed by humanity (the exact figure is a staggering 147 million tonnes). If the old adage – we are what we eat – has genuine meaning, then we are definitely more bird than any other organism.
Robin Erithacus rubecula, in sweet briar with rosehips in snow, Aberdeenshire, December by Genevieve Leaper (rspb-images.com)
Yet food is only one way in which we ‘consume’ birds. Our imaginations are stocked with an ecosystem of feathered friends, where they serve as symbols and metaphors or simply as reminders of our most cherished experiences. To prove it look along the mantelpiece as the 25 December draws near and you’ll find a growing flock of owls, robins and doves coming to roost in all those Christmas cards.
Robins are virtually synonymous with the season, in part because their red breasts chime with so many other holiday fixtures: the red in the holly, the scarlet of Santa’s suit and, lest we forget, the blood of Christ (it was this that once gave the robin its sanctified status among the British).
The presence of owls on Christmas cards is intriguing because at one time these birds were omens of ill fortune. Mercifully the British have come to appreciate these glorious creatures for what they truly are - birds of enormous beauty and integral elements of the natural environment. Perhaps they also supply a hint of mystery – a touch of Christmas magic if you like – to a celebration that seems to be assailed by consumerism and commercial pressures. The owls on the Christmas cards reminds us, in this season of short days and cold weather, to reflect how, together with out immediate family, there is a wider community of life – trees, flowers, insects, birds – that fills every day with pleasure and meaning and real value. Christmas is a time to give thanks for it all.
Save £10 on Birds and People if you buy from the RSPB shop
Birds and People by Mark Cocker and David Tipling (Random House £40) is a hugely acclaimed and encyclopaedic exploration of the cultural place of birds in human lives.
You can save £10 on this superb book by purchasing the book from the RSPB shop website
The perfect Christmas Present!
When was the last time you saw a bird and your view was exactly the same as that perfectly-posed, beautifully lit, fine-detail close up field guide image of the species? I’m struggling to think of the last time it happened to me.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a guide that helped you identify birds as you see them – as you REALLY see them. Well, look no further. The Crossley ID Guide – Britain & Ireland is one of the most "honest" field guides around. It shows you how you will actually see birds, offering a range of images on a typical landscape in which you actually see the species. There are the close-up shots that you'll find in any guide, but you will find "bum" shots of small birds high in the canopy, flight shots of the birds you inadvertently flush off into the distance, those brief views of reedbed skulkers as they scuttle between sedges - and images of the birds the size of the ones you get in your 'scope and binoculars.
I’ve been a fan of the Crossley approach to fieldguides ever since I saw the North American guides to “Eastern" birds and raptors. I thought how fabulous it would be to have a UK version, so I was delighted when I learned that one was coming out. I was also pleased to see Nature’s Home regular columnist Dominic Couzens involved in the project.
Standing out from the crowd
One of the great things about my job is that I get to see a lot of bird and natural history books. Choosing the four featured books for each issue of Nature’s Home, just four times a year, takes a lot of time and thought. It takes a really special one to jump out from the crowd and I was delighted to see that the Crossley guide to UK birds lived up to my expectations.
I was also really chuffed to be asked to be a part of the Crossley blog tour, especially to given the honour of wrapping up the tour. We’re in the final stages of completition of the second ever issue of Nature’s Home, so it was great to sit back with a good book - for a short while at least!
In the field
To realy demonstrate the inovation that is this guid, have a think about the last time you saw some wild geese. Not the flock of feral greylags or Canadas in your local park, but proper wild winter geese on a windswept coastal marsh with your eyes watering and the wind whistling through your ears.
Let’s take the brent goose page from the book for the perfect example, for me. The location looks very much like one of my favourite goose grounds on the North Norfolk Coast and in fact almost certainly is. I have enjoyed searching flocks of dark-bellied brents for black brants and pale-bellied brents from this very spot. I've stood on that seawall where those people are gathered and seen all three of the brents depicted on the plate. As an aid to ID, it doesn't come much better than this!
Wild goose chase
Geese are not only some of the most difficult winter birds to ID in the UK, they are also among the very hardest to track down and get good views. Even at traditional goose watching hotspots, including many RSPB reserves, you really have to put in the time and effort to get the sort of views that enable you to scrutinise the birds. That’s why I love them so much!
Not only do I love the way the guides look, the work that has gone in to really think about how birders see birds is truly impressive. The images are not just plonked on the pages; scenes are depicted that are exactly what you see with the birds shown in a variety of poses, including those awkward "sitting down in vegetation" shots when you have no chance of seeing if it is an orange-legged bean or a pink-legged pink-foot!
Up front approach
I love the way that the white-fronted goose plate really shows just how different Greenland and Eurasian birds are - this is no token drawing of an orange bill to demonstrate the Greenland race. Here you can appreciate the subtle differences in the sturdier structure of Greenland, the larger bill and that darker browner plumage with heavier barring below. Look at the mid-range “line” of feeding birds – exactly as you see these geese in many of their typical wintering hotspots. This is exactly what you would need to have with you when confroted with a flock of white-fronts this winter.
You’ll be able to read a bit more about the book in the January issue of Nature’s Home – but do make sure you buy a copy before that issue comes out – it 's a brilliant Christmas present for the bird-lover in your life, or a treat for yourself.
Go on tour and win a signed copy of the book!
You can see all the other posts from a variety of other bloggers here and if you'd like to enter the prize draw to win a copy of the book, try your luck by clicking here
You can also enjoy the Shindig event for the book - a live internet video chat presentation to which all are invited. The authors will discuss the book and take questions from the audience. It is on Thursday 21 November 19.00-20.00 GMT, so don't miss out.