cover image Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation

Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation

Tim Birkhead. Princeton Univ, $35 (496p) ISBN 978-0-691-23992-7

Ornithologist Birkhead (Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird) delivers a master class in this fascinating look at humans’ evolving relationship with birds, tracking over the course of 12 millennia as birds went from being the objects of art and veneration to sources of food and sport, and the current subject of study and conservation. In ancient Egypt, for example, four million Sacred Ibises were mummified, then found in the early 1800s: “bird mummies served four different purposes: preserving the birds as food, as pets for deceased humans, as gods to be revered and as votive offerings.” Other sections delve into the medieval obsession with falconry, the study of birds’ biology during a natural history boom in the Victorian era, and contemporary bird-dependent societies on the Faroe Islands. Portraits of key players in ornithology enrich the narrative, among them Edmund Selous, who near the end of the 19th century led the shift from killing birds for study to bird-watching as a serious intellectual pursuit, an activity that garnered empathy for the creatures. Birkhead clearly knows his terrain, and his writing is vivid and occasionally funny: “There’s also the ammonia-rich aroma of sea-bird shit (which I love, by the way).” This is a must-read for nature lovers. (Aug.)