One of the more unusual companies in the British register has done what it set out to do. ‘Buntings and New World warblers’, the ninth and last and, at fewer than five hundred pages, much the shortest of its volumes of Birds of the Western Palaearctic, is out.* Some wonder whether Western Palaearctic Birds Ltd might not have overdone it. Birding World, the magazine for the seriously obsessed, had already asked in 1992, when Volume VI was published, what anyone could do with the information that the Marsh Warbler–admittedly difficult to distinguish by sight alone–has been heard to go tchre(k), tek, tic, tchick, thec, tchuk and tuk, chrah, chah, chaar, tschaah, kärr-kärr and schräää schräää, tic-trrrr, tic-tirric, tec-krrret, trt schräit and tschätsch-tschätsch, tut t-t-t-trrrrr and tut-ut tut t-t-t-rrr. (And that’s not counting those in the separate section on ‘other calls’.) Who might want to know such things, and why?

This is a moderately deep question, and the answers to it have changed. Voice has not always been the first interest. In The Practical Handbook of British Birds, which the ornithologist and publisher H. F. Witherby conceived just before the First World War, brought out in the Twenties, and replaced in the Thirties with a five-volume Handbook, the emphasis was on Plumages, Bare Parts, Moults, Measurements, Weights, Structure and Geographical Variation. Witherby’s stylish volumes marked the transition from shooters and stuffers to those who preferred to watch and write about birds and to do the kind of natural history that is now dignified as science. Witherby himself, the patrician Max Nicholson recalls in his Introduction to this final volume of the BWP, had a ‘track record of serious ornithological exploration’. Stanley Cramp, by contrast, who retired early from Customs and Excise in the Sixties and an active life in the London Natural History Society to edit the BWP, was to Nicholson and the other members of the birding establishment of the time ‘a dark horse, little known before his forties beyond narrow circles of local and urban ornithology’. Men of the middling middle class were starting to make their mark. So, too, were boys from the grammar schools. Confined at home, disinclined to sport, keen on facts, and in our pubic confusions finding an erotic charge in nature and the chase – the girls were keener on plants – we were the first stirrings, I now see, of what’s since become a large force of twitchers and a more professional sort of scientist. The older expertise in Plumages, Bare Parts, Moults, Measurements, Weights, Structure, and Geographical Variation went into decline. For the BWP, Cramp had to make a virtue of necessity and pass responsibility for such subjects to the Dutch. What we were becoming good at was Habitat, Field Characters, Voice, and Social Pattern and Behaviour: the living bird.

Why birds? In part because to the amateur, the other contents of nature in the Western Palaearetic, a zoological region that stretches from Spitzbergen to Libya, from the Azores to the Caspian Sea, are less rewarding. The mammals are too few and mostly nocturnal. The plants, as plants tend to be, are too varied and, to most men at least, have insufficient motion. The fish are awkward to watch. The insects, if we except the butterflies and moths, are unexotic, and are, after all, insects. The birds, by contrast, are very satisfactory. The BWP takes in nearly eight hundred species, including two hundred or so that have from time to timewandered in from America or eastern Asia. This is a small enough number to get to know yet more than enough to promise a surprise. (To give a sense of the scale, Venezuela has 1296 species, the whole of South America 2950, which is about a third of all those there are.) Like birds elsewhere, those in the Western Palaearctic are good to look at, not too small, are constantly on the move, often do more than merely chirp, and in the northern winters neither hibernate nor go to seed. They’re as interesting in Walthamstow as they are in the Western Isles or Transylvania. To see a bird well – to match what one sees with texts and the drawings, to tick it off the list and perhaps make an idle note – has all the mindless satisfaction of hunting, without death.

For several thousand years, and with reason, we were frightened by nature. The object was to beat it and, where one could, eat it. In the poorer parts of many poor countries, and in a few prosperous pockets elsewhere, like Southwestern France, it still is. Even in England in the Twenties, the journal British Birds was lamenting the fact that the departure of gamekeepers to the First World War had led to an increase in the number of Surrey’s hawks. By the late Forties, however, the tables were starting to turn. People began to be frightened of the powers they’d acquired over the natural world and started to re-create it. In a paradox of modernity as obvious in its consequences as it is mysterious in its cause, we came to need nature ‘to bound our activities’, as Bernard Williams argues in a recent essay. We came to need to define a sphere where we could sustain the illusion that there is still something that we don’t define. The ‘we’ who feel these needs, however, are various.

The twitchers, for instance, are mostly men. Prompted by constantly updated telephone ‘bird-lines’, electronic pagers, and their own informal telegraph, they move at speed from rarity to rarity, occasionally even chartering a plane to do so. Waiting around when they arrive, tripods up, they talk of the shared pleasures and privations of the great twitches of the past, of how they got to this one and where they’re going next, of whether what they’ve driven through the night to see will be a ‘lifer’, a new bird for their lifetime list, and whether at the moment it’s Ron or Lee, men of awesome reputation in the land, who presently has the best list. It didn’t matter to the three thousand or so who crowded into a Tesco’s car park in suburban Kent to see the Western Palaearctic’s first Golden-Winged Warbler that that was where ‘nature’ was: to the twitchers, nature is an abstract space in which to extend a motorised sociability that, for others, ‘nature’ exists to deny.

But the natural is no less social for many of those for whom, to be nature, it has to be a separated space. Today such natures are most elaborately constructed by the Nature Conservancy Council, the Wildfowl Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other such bodies. These are often very well financed – the RSPB’s paying members outnumber those of any political party – and have been able to create a large number of gardened parks of wildness. They have marked paths, notices of what to look for where, and, at the more popular ones, shops in which to buy a birdy tea-cloth and somewhere to have a carefully-labelled country tea. (At the Wildfowl Trust’s reserve on the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire, there’s even a centrally-heated hide, with posted feeding-times for the wild swans outside.) If there’s a rare bird to see, the twitchers will drop by. But it’s families and the retired who are on the reserves in numbers, following the signs and contentedly comparing what they see, when they can determine what it is, with the pictures in their bird books or what they remember being enthused about on television. (At the Dinas Reserve in Dyfed, the RSPB has returned the compliment by installing a camera with which visitors can make their own home videos.)

Birding, al least in Britain, is now a mass pursuit. One could, it’s true, argue that there’s less change than meets the eye. In the twitchers’ constant race from place to place, the photographs that many of them take for the record, the lists they assiduously keep, and the essays in their magazines on the fine detail of beaks and breast markings and length of feathers on the wing, it’s not difficult to detect a new expression of the old passions of the hunt and of taxidermy. In the tamer crowds that amble through the reserves, it’s easy to see a cosy extension of the consolation that the first Romantics claimed to find in the wild. And there are many of us, latterday hunters, Romantics, and mixtures of the two, who prefer to take our pleasures in a more solitary way. But I doubt that any of our predecessors was as determinedly indifferent as Britain’s birders are now to what their companions do when they’re not birding. There are distinct Social Patterns and Behaviour in the activity itself, and they reflect where it is that people come from to it. To speak of this, however, is to violate the conspiracy of escape. Work and money are never mentioned, expensive forms of dress are shunned, and new equipment is deliberately ‘distressed’.

One thing that is unarguably new is the profit that can be extracted from the habit. In the relevant season, which somewhere in the world it always is, enterprising operators will take enthusiasts to virtually any of ‘the last great wildernesses’. Those for whom variety is all can now go to see the São Tomé Oriole, the São Tomé Paradise Flycatcher, the São Tomé Prinia, the São Tomé Seedeater, the São Tomé Spierops, the São Tomé Thrush, the São Tomé White-Eye, the São Tomé Scops Owl, on the eponymous small island in the Gulf of Guinea. In eastern Peru, ‘one of the wildest and remotest places on earth’, the brochure says, which ‘still holds Indian tribes that have never been contacted by outsiders and a multitude of rainforest creatures ... the secrets of which man is only just staring to reveal’, the forest lodges are booked for months ahead. Agents rent the underpaid crews of Russian survey ships or army helicopters for those who want to see the multitudes of Auklets – Crested, Whiskered and Parakeet – on the cliffs of Komandorskiye in the Bering Sea. At the more accessible destinations, in the Kenyan rift valley, for instance, on Happy Island off the coast of northern China, in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, or on the scrubby surrounds of Eilat on Israel’s Red Sea, one is as likely now to find oneself peering into the eyes of another birder as at the Blue-Capped Cordon-Bleu, Pale-Legged Leaf Warbler, Resplendent Quetzal or Bimaculated Short-Toed Lark that one has come to see. Publishers fall over themselves to produce field-guides and picture books. Software designers encourage the more orderly to divide, combine and re-divide their lists. Action videos proliferate. The manufacturers of optics – one more product in which Britain used to have a lead – are pleased to feed the craze. And the passion to conserve has created abundant funds for ornithological science.

This science has accordingly expanded. I even tried my hand at it myself. An experiment on the roof of the zoology department at Oxford – in which the experimenter, hatching young Blackbirds to investigate their first relations with their parents, discovered that he’d collected a clutch of Song Thrush eggs by mistake – had encouraged me in the belief that amateurs could play a part. I accordingly agreed to go off to the edge of Brittany one spring to sit and see whether migrating birds came in over the Bay of Biscay. Steady rain, however, a sodden tent, and the arrival over two weeks of just one Meadow Pipit (which may well have been hopping along the coast), convinced me that Popper was absolutely right about the importance of falsification and that I myself wanted to have nothing more to do with it. I tried verification also, taking my turn in another tent on a marsh in northern Norway to sec whether the Red-throated Pipits that were nesting there were more active in the bright white light of day than the dull white light of night. We were the third expedition in as many years to ask the question, and came up with the same answer (and no doubt the same uncountable number of mosquito bites) as the previous two. Verification, it was clear, would try my patience just as hard. (And I have ever since had a deep aversion to Pipits.) Others, however, in Britain and elsewhere – not least in the former Soviet Union, where there seems to have been a pervasive and understandable desire to escape to the woods and absorb oneself in natural facts – have been made of stronger stuff. In the course of preparing the BWP, there has been an exponential growth of information on every conceivable aspect of those things – Habitat, Field Characters, Voice, and Social Pattern and Behaviour – that can be observed and recorded in the field.

The intention of Western Palaearctic Birds Ltd was always to include all the known facts in their Handbook, and important non-facts as well. For species which are widespread in the west of the region, the entries in the more recent volumes can run to nearly thirty closely-printed double-column pages, and also authoritatively declare on the significant absences. (From the Reed Bunting, it is useful to know, there is ‘absolutely no record of a short ticking call’.) For species which are common only to the east, the entries are shorter and the contributors are obliged to concede that ‘from observer error or genuine diversity’, confusions remain about ‘postures and displays in antagonistic and heterosexual contexts’. (It’s nonetheless reassuring to know that the subject of this particular lament, the Black-Headed Bunting, the females and young of which are visually undistinguished, does give a short tick.) But this promiscuous and, on the part of the long-suffering publisher, impressively generous empiricism, together with that of the BWP’s imitators – new series of handbooks to the birds of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica, of Africa, of all of Latin America and, most ambitiously, on all the birds of the world – exactly meet the needs of those who take their pleasure in drifting through what, for all but the most dedicated escapee, has to remain a largely imagined nature. The edge of serious ornithological science, the biochemistry and genetics of the higher systematics, is for specialists alone. The BWP does not touch it.

For those of us who are merely casual amateurs, it’s enough to browse across the surface of things, and like all obsessives, intoxicate ourselves in the detail. To hear that the mysterious small dark petrels that have been turning up off the Wirral and Tyne and Wear have been identified at last. To read that the Invisible Rail, suitably unseen by any ornithologist for forty years on its native island in Indonesia, has been spotted again. To be reassured that the last wild Spix’s Macaw, a male which for the past five years has been the object of much international concern in a stand of trees in north-eastern Brazil, has at last, and with success – the two are said to be inseparable – been introduced to a previously captive female. To be told by Birding World that what in Volume VI of the BWP is confidently classed as the Type II song of the Olivaceous Warbler is in fact a mis-identified burst from the mimicking Marsh. To those of us who cherish the illusion of the elusiveness of our much-described wild, it matters that the birds of the Western Palaearctic, not knowing themselves as such, should have a last schräää schräää.

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