Those of you who get up in the early hours and listen to radio four (to wake you up I presume!?) may be aware of the short programme ‘Tweet of the Day’ – narrated by various well-known people who have something to do with nature – which each day gives a brief description of a British bird whilst playing its song or call. It is a good series for anyone even vaguely interested in birds and due to its popularity a book has been produced written by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss. I was fortunate enough to be given this book for Christmas and have been perusing it for the last few days now; as it is a new release and full of nice illustrations I thought it would make a good contrasting review to my one on the decades-old ‘Book of British birds‘.
You may think that it would be some task to turn an audio series that plays bird song into a silent book – and I thought this too. But this lovely hard-back is not just the scripts from the show written down; it expands upon it and is more of a companion to the series for those who want to know more. If I were to judge this book by its cover then we would be off to a good start – it is a decent sized thick book with a lovely matt paper dust-cover embellished with a wonderful green and cream cut-out illustration of foliage and birds by the clearly talented artist Carry Akroyd. The first five chapters are a short few pages about the creation of the radio series, using the book, birdsong, a very short history of bird-watching and ‘getting started’.
The first chapter is actually quite interesting; detailing how the idea developed and how all the sound recordings were collated as well as the tricky task of summing up a bird in 90 seconds. The second chapter is essentially explaining to the reader why the book exists; i.e. why you should buy it when you can listen to the radio for free. The third chapter is more ambitious as it aims to cover the topic of birdsong – which would easily require a whole book on its own (indeed there are already such books), yet it manages to sum up fairly well the main points on why, which birds, when and what it means to us humans. The next chapter tells us all about the birth and development of bird-watching; this is only really in the book for all the non-birders who haven’t a clue as to what its all about. For the birders buying this book (surely the larger portion of the readership?) it is not necessary to read this bit as you would probably know it all already. Then comes a short chapter called ‘getting started’ which eloquently describes the beauty and wonder of birds using short anecdotes from both of the authors experiences – this is quite good reading.
After those chapters the book is divided up into the months of the year – starting with May (because it is the most bird-song filled part of the year) all the way back round to April. There are a few pages of text at the beginning of each month that basically sums up that particular month and its significance in the natural world. Within each month is a selection of birds that will have featured in the radio programme, for each species there are three or four short paragraphs describing it. Depending on the species the description can be anything from its cultural significance, its migratory habits, or its song, to its breeding habits or conservation status. You can easily read through a month in half an hour but that does not mean the content is lacking – indeed the text is well written and engaging with interesting natural history that is clearly aimed at all ages.
Carry Akroyd is a painter and printmaker who has a gorgeous style that makes use of various techniques including etchings, lino-cuts, serigraphs and lithographs. She has done work for other natural history books including the British Wildlife Collection – it is a shame that her numerous illustrations are not referenced more in the book. For all 240 bird species featured in the book, Carry has done a small black-and-white illustration that are simple but effective stylized shapes and lines. On top of that there are 36 full-page colour paintings (lino-cut style) that show one or several bird species in their natural habitat – it is almost unnecessary to say that these are beautiful to behold.
Many experienced birders may know a lot of what is in this book already and it could be all-too-easy to dismiss this book as armchair fodder or something to buy gran as you can’t think of anything else. This is not a field guide, or a hand guide, or a book of bird art or a carbon-copy of the radio show – it is a lovely and well-written ode to our avifauna that will make you want to get out there and hear all these birds for yourself.