In Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation (Princeton Univ., Aug.), ornithologist Birkhead traces the history of humans’ relationships with avian creatures.
How did you discover the Neolithic cave paintings of birds you discuss at the beginning of the book?
This was one of the most remarkable moments in my entire career. When I started doing some of the research for this book, to my amazement, I discovered that there was a cave, just an hour’s drive from the same village my wife and I had been visiting in Spain for the last 30 years, with some bird paintings. It’s on private land, and I had to get permission to visit it.
Can you describe what you saw?
It was absolutely extraordinary. The walls are covered with a fresco of fantastic bird images. The birds are so carefully depicted that you can tell the species. The people that created these images really had an idea of those species deep in their heads to be able to produce these simplistic but incredibly effective images. My own hypothesis is that this was a kind of tutorial. You took young people up into this cave, you showed them the images, then turned around and looked out upon the huge wetland where these birds were going to come in the spring and just said, “You have to recognize these birds. This is how you’re going to know them, and their habits and behavior, because this is going to make you more effective as a hunter.” And so this is an indication of a deep knowledge of bird identification and bird behavior. For me, this could mark the beginning of the study of birds.
How have people’s relationships with birds differed from their relationships with mammals?
Because most mammals are nocturnal and most birds are diurnal, birds were much more visible. And so people’s relationship with birds was much more at the forefront of human consciousness. Birds have not only a kind of visual effect on people but an auditory effect, as well. We’ve been enchanted by birdsong almost since the beginning of time, and people have caught birds and kept them in captivity in order to capture that song and to have that song almost at their fingertips.
How is climate change impacting the relationship between humans and birds?
Animals and plants heighten our awareness of the natural world and the value that the natural world has for us. Just hearing birdsong makes people feel better. Most bird populations are in steep decline—the entire quality of life for us is going to be diminished if we don’t help to preserve our birds and protect them from climate change.