Esther Woolfson’s top 10 birds in fact and fiction

The prize-winning nature writer lists her favourite instances of birds in literature across the ages

A blackbird

The early bird catches the book worm.

The books I most enjoy that feature birds aren’t necessarily the ones in which birds are at the forefront. In the factual ones they are. But in fiction I like a hint of birds: a bird as subsidiary character, as metaphor or symbol. I also like nature writing that places itself in historical context, and touches on the parallel lives of birds, and creatures, and man.

1. Spring in Washington by Louis J Halle

Halle was an extraordinary man, a naturalist and a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department. His books on birds are profound and informative. Spring in Washington, written about the spring of 1945, is an appreciation of the minutiae of life after the end of war, what Halle describes as “snatching the passing moment and examining it for signs of eternity”. Delightfully written, observant and wise, Halle places birds, his main preoccupation, magnificently in their settings.

“This again is fresh earth and fresh sky. Look up when you reach Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and, like as not, you will see one or several American eagles soaring against the blue. They do duty for bronze eagles over Washington’s tomb.”

“Off East Potomac Park, two Bonaparte’s gulls were flying away from me, flicking low over the water, showing the white flashes in their wings.”

Reading this book makes me wonder what has changed in the natural landscape of Washington, what has been lost over the 60 odd years, what has diminished.

2. Jazz by Toni Morrison

Jazz, a novel by the Nobel prize-winning Morrison, is set in Harlem in the 1920s. It is a story of benighted love, “one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy”. It begins with Violet, whose husband has just shot the girl he loves, returning through the snow from her funeral where she has tried to mutilate the dead girl’s face. She opens her pet birds’ cages to let them out, in an image of sorrow and despair which I can never quite get out of my mind.

“… and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you’.”

3. Natural History by Pliny

I love Pliny’s observations, particularly of birds. There are his accounts of the Roman knight Lucius Axius selling pigeons for 400 denarii a pair, Agrippina’s talking thrush, and the grand funeral given to a much loved raven who used to greet the citizens of Rome but was killed by a shopkeeper whose shoes the bird might have soiled. It’s fascinating, gossipy, observant and often very funny.

4. Magpie Magic by April Wilson

A delightful book designed to introduce children to colours. Without words, April Wilson portrays a marvellously observed magpie springing to full and mischievous life from the artist’s pencil. Its behaviour will seem astonishingly familiar to anyone who has had close contact with these brilliantly clever birds.

5. Feeding Caged Birds by Kenton C Lint and Alice Marie Lint

This sounds as if it might be a small manual of instructions for feeding domestic birds but is in fact much more, having been written by the Curator Emeritus of San Diego Zoo and his wife. It’s both practical and endlessly fascinating and answers questions, which perhaps without it I’d never have asked, such as, what do hummingbirds, toucans or Secretary birds eat?

6. A Venetian Bestiary by Jan Morris

A small and lovely book, combining Morris’s love and knowledge of all things Venetian with observations of the birds and other creatures, at large and in art. It’s perfect for admirers of Morris’s writing, Venice and birds. (Of cats, monsters and sea-creatures too.) Morris writes of those Venetian perennials “The pigeon is, if not actually sacred, at least highly respected in Venice. You will never be offered him roasted in a Venetian restaurant.”

7. The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

A small, Scottish classic based on the author’s own impoverished childhood in the north-east town of Elgin in the 1920s. The white bird of the title a metaphoric bird, the bird of time and hope and possibly, lost dreams.

8. Ravensong – A Natural and Fabulous History of Ravens and Crows by Catherine Feher Elston

A fascinating book, an examination of corvids in the landscapes and cultures of the Pacific Northwest of America, an account of creation myths and beliefs, and an exploration of the honour and respect with which corvids are regarded.

9. O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

A mad, funny, delightful, Scottish Gothic novel, featuring a jackdaw, companion to the protagonist, Janet, who, after her death, searches for her in vain. It is a description as lovely and as desolate as I can think of in any work of literature.

10. In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M Marzluff and Tony Angel

This is the best, most fascinating, most comprehensive book on every aspect of corvid life, society and behaviour yet written, scholarly and humorous, and beautifully illustrated, all lit by a rare and joyous enthusiasm.


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