Book Review: The Meaning of Birds by Simon Barnes

. By John Elliot

Simon Barnes says, “you impoverish yourself if you accept only science, just as you impoverish yourself—perhaps more greatly—by ignoring science.” This book ranges so widely through history, literature, symbolism, evolution, extinction, and more that it may earn its rather grand title. Barnes is also a sports reporter; his references to cricket will be foreign for most Americans, and his British and European focus may put off some Americans. I enjoyed stepping across the pond to enter a different avian area. Though the birds are different, his take on song and territory, for instance, is as valid in Illinois as in England. I enjoyed quotes from Shakespeare that come from falconry, and learning that “lure,” “haggard,” “pounce,” “turn tail” and “under my thumb” originated in falconry. Barnes is no slouch with language of his own. On the change of seasons he says, “A person with tuned-in ears—a tuned-in mind—can start counting down the days of winter several weeks earlier than a person who assesses the time of year by the number of garments that can be cast aside.” And for an amusing take on the differences in American and British English, check out his account of the words hen, chicken, cock and rooster. While birds as symbols fly throughout the book (pun intended), the chapter on eagles and doves is particularly relevant to Americans. We share religious eagles and doves, and we have our political hawks and doves as much or more than any other nation. Barnes asks, “What is an eagle? That’s not a straightforward question, particularly when we are talking about symbolic eagles. For a start there is a clash between ‘vernacular eagles and ornithological eagles.’” Our bald eagles are well represented in Barnes’s discussion. Conservation is never far from Barnes’s narrative. His scathing opinion of Britain’s “shooting industry” is one aspect of the different approaches our countries have taken to conservation and habitat preservation. Brief but insightful sections on Darwin and the evolution and function of feathers will be interesting to all. The chapter Birdwatchers, Birders, and Twitchers is thoughtful and amusing. The book is nicely illustrated with drawings and woodcuts from several 19th century works. If not the definitive “meaning of birds,” it surely will prompt the reading birder (or birdwatcher) to search for personal reflection and meaning. By John Elliot