The curious, mysterious, remarkable world of birds

Who doesn’t want to know, for example, why birds flying in big flocks never collide? Or if geese mind being force-fed to make foie gras?

This is one time I’ve done well by judging a book by its title. When I got a note from a publisher concerning a book called, ‘Bald Coot, Screaming Loon,’ I knew something awesome was coming my way. It’s the newest book by British author Niall Edworthy, who seems to specialize in writing books of curious facts for curious people. The book hit its target audience: I am a curious person who is especially curious about birds. And really, who isn’t? Who doesn’t want to know, for example, why birds flying in big flocks never collide? Or if geese mind being force-fed to make foie gras?

Open up this book to any page and you’re inevitably greeted by a fascinating factoid about birds. You will want to read it aloud to others, as I did the moment I opened the package containing the book. I informed my coworker that swans have a 5% divorce rate. I tweeted: “Did you know? 7 states claim cardinals as their state bird.” I clued my friends into the reason why vultures urinate on themselves (it helps them both cool down and sterilize after eating dead animals). Soon, my conversations existed solely to convey quirky facts about birds. Some of the stories may sound silly, but within them are fascinating tales of science. Edworthy is sharing, in a humorous way, how scientists have learned why birds do the very interesting things that they do. And, some of the bizarre things that they do are still mysteries – like rub themselves with ants, or on rarer occasions, a burning cigarette butt.

Suffice to say, I was delighted by this book, and I will go so far as to say, I don’t think anyone could resist being delighted by this book. I was very glad to have the opportunity for some of my most burning questions about the book answered by Mr. Edworthy himself. As a bonus, he shares a recipe for Chinese-style crispy duck. Read on for the interview!

You’ve written a book of curious facts about birds. Do you consider yourself a birder, a bird expert, a bird fact-collector-and-author, none of the above, or all of the above? In other words, how would you characterize your interest and authority in birds?

Niall Edworthy: I am most certainly not a bird expert; more a recent convert and enthusiastic amateur. You need to spend a lifetime watching and studying to call yourself an expert. Nor do I ‘bird’ in the sense that I set out on specific trips to see birds. I live in the English countryside, close to the sea, to farmland, to woodland and towns, so I’m lucky not to have to travel too far to see a wide variety of birds. As a keen walker with a good pair of binoculars, I get to see a lot.

You write in the book that you didn’t notice a single bird for about 20 years, after an early and disappointing experience photographing birds. What makes birds so easy to ignore?

Most birds, by nature and definition, are flighty, jumpy creatures that flee at the approach of a big, galumphing human being. To me, they were just a blur of feathers and shadow through the sky or in the trees. As for their songs and calls, I had taken them for granted in much the same way as I took so much of the natural world for granted until I deliberately started paying it all more attention.

How did the birds manage to capture your interest again, and convince you to write a book about them?

When my family and I moved from the centre of London into the heart of the English countryside I began to take an interest in my new surroundings. To be honest, my curiosity was only truly fired once I had been commissioned by a publisher to write a book about them. They asked me, not because I was an expert, but because I knew precisely nothing about them. They felt my ‘fresh eyes’ on the subject would be an advantage. I wrote a similar book on gardening called The Curious Gardener’s Almanac which persuaded them I was the man for the job.

Despite their ubiquity, there’s a lot that scientists still don’t know about birds. What bird science mystery would you most like the answer to?

I find the mysteries and magic of migration fascinating. It’s remarkable that a tiny bird born in the northern hemisphere sets out at the end of the summer for Africa or South America, crossing oceans and deserts and mountain ranges, finds the right habitat to set up home, then flies back six or so months later to exactly the same spot it had left the previous year. In a way, I don’t really want to know how they do it! I’m happy just to be amazed by the fact of it.

Do you have a favorite bird fact or story from your book?

I couldn’t possibly point to a single amazing fact because there is so much about birds that is remarkable. The way they have adapted their bodies and lifestyle to so many different environments is quite extraordinary.

As for anecdotes and stories, I do like the one about Mozart buying a starling from a pet store after hearing it sing the last movement of his piano concerto No. 17 in G Minor. Starlings are excellent mimics. Today, you can hear them mimicking cellphone tones!

Could you share your single most memorable bird-related experience?

Seeing a Red Kite sitting on the fence at the end of my garden. I was able to walk up very close to it before it slowly flapped away. Red kites, like so many birds of prey, were pushed to the brink of extinction in Britain in the second half of the 20th century as a result of agriculture pesticides and unscrupulous gamekeepers, mistakenly believing they were vermin and a threat to pheasants being raised for shooting. Thanks to the conservation efforts of a dedicated few, the birds have been making a strong comeback in recent years. This encounter was the first time I had ever seen one.

Which extinct bird do you wish was still around? Or did they all deserve it?

The only British bird to have suffered the fate of global extinction is the Great Auk, aka the Penguin of the North. The tale of this big flightless seabird makes for sad reading as it was hounded and slaughtered by hunters for its fat (used for fishing bait) and its eggs and feathers (for people’s private collections). The last pair was killed in 1844, both strangled to death, while their egg was crushed underfoot. The Victorian author Charles Kingsley writes about the demise of this once ubiquitous bird in his classic The Water Babies.

In your opinion, what is the tastiest bird, and what is your favorite way to prepare it?

After years of eating only chicken, I have recently discovered the joys of duck. As they are wild, they are completely organic, unlike most chickens which have been injected and fed with heaven knows what in their generally short, miserable lives in the battery farm. You can make Chinese-style crispy dusk simply by placing the bird on a rack over a tin to catch the fat and cooking it over a low heat for 3-4 hours. All you need to do then is to shred it with a fork and roll up the meat in little pancakes with some plum sauce, long-sliced spring onion and cucumber.

Lindsay Patterson