Friday, August 03, 2012

Book Review - Adventures Among Birds

Adventures Among Birds
by W H Hudson
Published by Collins  2012  (HarperCollins UK)

Written by an outstanding and dedicated ornithologist and conservationist who truly delighted in all aspects of the natural world, this remarkable and absorbing book was first published by Collins in 1913 and now is re-issued with a superb and affectionate introduction by Robert Macfarlane.

Hudson, born in 1841, was unabashed about forcefully expressing his point of view, making his writings frank, refreshing and disarming. The book is primarily about the variety of relationship between humans and birds, and is divided into chapters covering different birds and their habitats although there are several references to animal species too. His unusual childhood (he was born in Argentina) saw his love of birds begin with the gift of his captive Cardinal bird, whose attempts to escape taught Hudson a salutary lesson, that even to a bird, freedom is a goal and a blessing.

Hudson's descriptions of places are very evocative and almost poetic in their beauty; I have visited Wells-Next-The-Sea myself on a few occasions, and he captures the spirit of this remote Norfolk spot wonderfully. One of his favourite places, it was and still is a veritable haven for all wildlife and is especially good for observing coastal and migratory birds.  It is wild, untamed and contains a large variety of habitats in a fairly small geographical area, yet Hudson delights in observing and describing the locals and visitors to the area as well as his painstaking and wonderfully detailed depictions of the birds, and he does this throughout the book to a pleasing result. Many snippets of history and folklore are mentioned, and apt excerpts from poetry both well-known and little-known appear at intervals throughout the book.

Hudson proved himself to be good at understanding what motivates much of the human behaviour he has observed, and although understanding and sometimes truly sympathetic, his ability to produce often caustic wry comments  regularly made chuckle.

One chapter stands pre-eminent for me, and that is the chapter about the common blackbird entitled Avalon and the Blackbird. Hudson dexribes his meetings with  Mr Blythe Bond, responsible for the restoration of Glastonbury Abbey who had carefully chronicled the variety  of songs and calls made by  his local blackbird, which leads Hudson to investigate in greater detail and outline the research done by others into the wide mimicry of which birds are undoubtedly able, and to discuss whether or not they are capable of true innovation and evolution of their own song patterns as opposed to the simple mimicry of other sounds in their environment.

However,  it is his commentary on the way birds were persecuted and hunted almost to extinction even during his own lifetime which tugs at the heartstrings.  Hudson was a founder member of the RSPB  and a fervent supporter of attempts to introduce the legal protection of threatened species and efforts to secure tracts of land which would be able to act as nature reserves in a determined attempt to halt the seemingly wholesale destruction of iconic species. His passionate commentaries about the need to regulate the hunting of birds are thankfully nowadays to a large extent at least partially redundant due to the introduction of conservation legislation into the UK.

He travelled widely and had an enormous wealth of knowledge of birds. His observations of the natural patterns of behaviour of many species are accuarate and insightful, and although almost a hundred years old, this book continues to be of inestimable value to any admirer or student of birds, people's attitudes to birds or of a way of life which, in Britain, is long since gone.
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