Of birds and men
By John Yeld
Cape Town - Of all the myriad creatures that people interact with on this Blue Planet, birds are arguably the most important and almost certainly the most admired and envied.
The histories of humankind and birds have intertwined since the emergence of the early hominids, notably in a hunter-prey relationship for food. One bird species, the Red Junglefowl that has been domesticated globally as the common chicken, is now the biggest single source of protein for people, and global consumption of poultry is significantly larger than beef.
But it is birds’ mastery of the air and characteristics like unique vocalisation – the unfailing dawn chorus of birdsong that people wake to every day – their beautiful plumage, keen eyesight, amazing navigational and hunting abilities that captivate, entrance, mesmerise and inspire people everywhere.
Ages before the Greek myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus escaping from Crete on artificial wings, people longed to fly, and avian-themed images extend back thousands of years to cave paintings.
Little wonder, then, that birds have been worshipped in religion, take symbolic meaning in mythology and culture, are still used to adorn people and form powerful elements in music and art.
Tutankhamun’s mummified body was adorned with a gold and lapis lazuli breastplate containing an image of an open-winged Lappet-faced vulture; Roman emperor Caligula bathed in Flamingo blood.
For three years, Mozart had a Common Starling as a pet and held a funeral for it when it died, and it may have been the inspiration behind his atypical composition K522 – “A Musical Joke”.
Shakespeare’s many birds include the cock whose “trumpet to the morn” causes the sudden vanishing of the king’s ghost in Hamlet; King Goodwill Zwelithini wears Blue Crane feathers on his head during ceremonial occasions.
According to one of two creation myths of the Hopi native American people, their race was stuck deep underground and birds were sent ahead to find an exit “on to the sunlit, rain-showered Earth”.
These are the kinds of fascinating interactions through the vast sweep of history that author Mark Cocker and photographer David Tipling describe, explore and illustrate in their magnificent, just published magnum opus, Birds & People.
With some 10 500 bird species subdivided into just over 200 families, they have, of course, not managed to include all species. But they do look in detail at 144 of these families and at two extinct families – the elephant birds of Madagascar and the moas of New Zealand – because these still have powerful cultural associations.
And they’ve also included personal stories and anecdotes from 650 people in 81 countries.
“This is an unusual bird book, in that it is as much about human beings as it is about birds,” they say. “As the title suggests, it attempts to explore the common ground where these two very different organisms meet.” It was a huge labour of love that started in 2005, Cocker told Weekend Argus during his recent whirlwind publicity tour to South Africa. And in fact he’d collected the first personal stories as long ago as 1997.
The idea for the book had originated as “big sky” thinking when he’d been out walking with John Fanshawe, senior strategy adviser at BirdLife International, when they considered a global version of the British bird encyclopedia that explored the relationship between the British people and birds
“And we took it from there, bringing together this amazing collaboration of all these different parts, publishers, wildlife conservation organisations and different people.
“If the truth be told, I did the lion’s share of the work and it was the writing that took the most time, but the photographs are incredible. (Photographer) David (Tipling) really went the extra mile.”
Planning started in 2005 when Cocker, who lives in the village of Caston in Norfolk in England, drew up a synopsis. Contracts were signed and he started reading and research in 2007. “I did a lot of writing in 2008 and finished in 2012, so it was five years of continuous writing. But… it was really 15 years of thinking and of piecing together material without necessarily knowing how I was going to use it.
“This (drawing in the wide range of people from all over the world) was a really, really important part of the book. No one could talk to me, even momentarily, without being forced or coerced into collaborating, and I chased people relentlessly for their stories. I was a bit like the Terminator – they could never, ever get away,
“…there was fantastic generosity from all sorts of people, and the book is dedicated to them. So that’s an important part of it.”
Tipling visited 39 countries and all seven continents to get his images.
The authors realised that the scope of their project was so vast that they’d probably always be revising and adding to it, says Cocker. - Sunday Argus
l Birds & People is published by Random House Struik.