This is the start of a new category of posts on my blog; I love books, I love wildlife and I love art – as I am sure many of you do too. So I have decided to combine them by taking a look at the many and varied books that have been written about wildlife, especially those that contain illustrations or paintings which I particularly like. I am quite a book collector so I own more than a few such books, so rest assured it is unlikely that I will run out of things to write about. I should inform you that I will not be writing reviews – nothing so critical – of these books, but rather an appreciative flick-through.
To start I have chosen one of the classics that some of you may be familiar with, printed in 1969 by Reader’s Digest in collaboration with the Automobile Association; the Book of British Birds (I don’t know why, but the AA has printed a lot of books on wildlife – I can see five others on my shelf). This is not a field guide, it is hardback and the size of a DVD player – printed with the aim that people would leaf through it at home, to study, to learn or identify birds from it (though it is not really suitable for this). The book is split into eight sections; the first covers a basic history of ornithology, the second deals with identifying birds – what to take notice of, behaviour to look out for – and is accompanied by several pages of bird illustrations by Herman Heinzel which are arranged in a colour key; clearly aimed at beginners as identifying a bird by general colour is the simplest way and is good for children.
The third section is by far the best as it is a collection of profiles on a good selection of British birds; all beautifully illustrated by Raymond Harris Ching. There are 217 birds in total, with a page dedicated to each, they are organised according to habitat (which in my opinion is not the best way of doing it as it makes them difficult to find), there is a really good amount of information on each species with a local and global distribution map, smaller illustrations of different plumage or behaviour, ID points, breeding information and a few paragraphs of description. The paintings by Raymond Ching are really excellent, showing each bird in a position or behaviour not normally illustrated in field guides, with great attention to detail and plumage colour – most importantly the birds look natural and alive rather than stuffed. Also included is a few pages dedicated to much rarer visitors to our shores, it is useful to have them in the book but a shame that the illustrations are dull and regimented (as well as small), done here by the aforementioned Herman Heinzel.
The next section covers the evolution of birds and their biology; including how they fly, this is no small topic yet an impressive amount of very interesting information is included. Almost all aspects of bird biology is covered, accompanied by many useful illustrations – even a few anatomical ones by Raymond Ching which are of stand-out quality. Section five continues the trend by covering bird behaviour and life strategies – including breeding and all that is associated with it. The information is extensive and interesting again with many illustrations; mostly diagrams rather than pieces of art – there is even a whole two pages of illustrations of different chicks – something I have not seen in any other book. There are also some good colour and black and white photographs by none other than Eric Hosking – the famous pioneer of wildlife photography in the 20th century.
Section six covers the relationship of man with birds; giving instruction on how to attract birds to your garden, how to bird-watch and how to photograph birds. There is a piece on domesticated birds and birds in folklore and religion as well as a bit on conservation – even a section on birds as sport. The next two sections are quite short, the first consists of pages and pages of maps covering every corner of Britain, highlighted or pinpointed on the maps are places important for birds or where many or good birds can be seen; it even covers the channel islands.The final section covers bird recording briefly and has a list of very rare vagrant birds seen in Britain as well as an overview of bird classification.
This book sports some of the finest bird paintings of any bird book; though not of great use as identification they set this book apart from the hordes. The amount of information on ornithology contained in this book is staggering and would be a great start for any beginner to the world of birds or even a seasoned birder such as myself. It is no longer in print but can be found almost anywhere online or in second-hand stores.