I came to the birds relatively late in life. For almost thirty-seven years I didn’t understand birdwatching. I remember how eccentric, how curious—even mysterious—I found the activity. Who were these tens of thousands of people with sensible shoes, a predilection for paramilitary raingear, and an almost risible devotion to birds?
Some collect species for their “life list” (that compilation of all the birds one has seen in a lifetime); they are chasers, for whom birding is a competitive sport. Some are scientists, and others work on nesting maps, migration monitoring or bird banding. For the majority of enthusiasts, however, birdwatching simply provides a personal and very special entrée into the natural world.
Years ago I found myself sheltering by the wheelhouse on the Cachalote, a 52-foot motorsailer cruising in the Galapagos. A metal- lic sea was rising beneath sullen clouds that shredded themselves against the hills of Isabella Island. Everything was grey and black, and the ship was pitching uncomfortably.
I hadn’t been expecting to see my first albatross until later, on Hood Island, where they nest. But in an abrupt clearing of the mist and driving rain, there it was, drifting low over the ragged sea. Enormous and powerful, effortless as sleep, it crossed our wake and then was gone in another squall. While some would say this sighting was merely luck, others might call it grace.
Suddenly any memory of whatever I might have learned about the albatross seemed irrelevant. It was enough to have seen it at that moment, and I was left with an enchanted sense that I had received a gift.
At its heightened moments, birdwatching can encourage a state of being close to rapture. It is an ecstasy that is said to accompany the writing of poetry; sometimes it comes when we’re listening to music. I suspect that, if I am fortunate enough to await death naturally, dreaming in a chair by some open window, the image of that Waved Albatross, with its great pale head and eight-foot wingspan, will still be a source of gratitude and wonder to me.
When I first wrote about the Waved Albatross, the idea of compiling a selection of writing that explored the ways in which humans have engaged themselves with birds began to grow in my mind. With the zeal of a convert, I started taking note of, then collecting, and finally obsessively searching out texts that illustrated something—almost anything—about our shared response to birds.
This book is the result. It isn’t so much about birds themselves as it is about the richly varied and sometimes very intimate rela- tionships that we have established with them during the hundreds of thousands of years that we and they have shared life on earth. It is also about the often grimmer ways in which birds have been forced to relate to us.
Humans developed as a species in a world full of birds. Despite seeing images of the great flocks of waders and marsh birds in African wetlands, or the millions of nesting Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Common Murres, Puffins, and various species of Gulls on northern sea-cliffs, it remains hard for us to conceive just how omnipresent birds must have been in the lives of our forebears.
Somewhere along the way we identified ourselves with them, and came to associate birds with the realm of spirits, as opposed to that of bodies and their carnal appetite.
Perhaps for this reason there’s an abundance of intriguing material about birds, from all times and all cultures. Not only do they feature in creation myths, in sagas and parables, in liturgies and in fairy tales, but poets, writers, story-tellers and artists in all ages have found them a fertile source of imagery and symbol.
In the end I decided to divide the book into nine sections — nine different habitats, if you like, where certain species are naturally gathered together.
Material within the sections is more instinctively arranged. I’d like the reader, in exploring my “habitats,” to encounter the unexpected, just as one might when exploring a richly varied but unfamiliar woodland: because the trail is unpredictable and you can’t see beyond the surrounding foliage, you never know quite what to expect.
You might even discover some unanticipated aspect of self; for birds, in dream theory, are symbols for the personality of the dreamer.