Or­nithol­ogy

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As King­fish­ers Catch Fire

Alex Pre­ston and Neil Gower (Cor­sair, £25)

A Sweet, Wild Note

Richard Smyth (El­liott & Thompson, £14.99)

The fewer birds, the more we trea­sure them, hence the con­tin­u­ing gush of avian books, many of them, such as these lat­est of­fer­ings, the per­sonal tes­ti­monies of ‘bird lovers’ for fel­low en­thu­si­asts. The father of the genre is J. A. baker, au­thor of The Pere­grine, who is duly ac­knowl­edged. Also recog­nised by both au­thors is Grey of fal­lodon’s older clas­sic The Charm of Birds. Lord Grey was the great-un­cle of one of Alex Pre­ston’s grand­moth­ers. As this sug­gests, Mr Pre­ston (b.1979) is young enough to have been born into a world of de­clin­ing bird—es­pe­cially song­bird—num­bers. richard smyth, of sim­i­lar age, ad­mits he had never heard a cuckoo un­til 2016.

both au­thors ex­hibit a self-ref­er­en­tial style. ‘i’ve ended up writ­ing some­thing that tells more truths about me than per­haps i wanted it to,’ writes Mr Pre­ston, his book ‘tri­an­gu­lat­ing be­tween the bird, the world and lit­er­a­ture’. As he’s a jour­nal­ist, prize-win­ning nov­el­ist and se­nior Lec­turer in Creative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Kent, ‘lit­er­a­ture’ means abun­dant quo­ta­tion in prose and poetry from other au­thors old and new.

he has chap­ters on 21 birds, from pere­grine to nightin­gale, which he hears where he lives in Kent. Neil Gower pro­vides dra­matic full-page colour il­lus­tra­tions (above, grey heron) and black-and-white tail­pieces of each bird. his co-au­thor­ship em­pha­sises that As King­fish­ers Catch Fire is also to be en­joyed as a pic­ture book.

in boy­hood, Mr smyth could iden­tify many birds by sight, but few from their songs and cries. A Sweet Wild Note makes amends. it ex­plains what he’d ‘been miss­ing’ and what other peo­ple, past and present, ‘have been hear­ing’. it’s also ‘about the places where bird­song and hu­man cul­ture over­lap and in­ter­act. it’s easy to for­get that sci­ence is a cul­ture, too’. he writes jour­nal­ism, his­tory and fic­tion and has been a fi­nal­ist on Master­mind (spe­cial­ist sub­ject: birds). There is more sci­en­tific de­tail in his book and, as with Mr Pre­ston, plenty of quotable facts and quo­ta­tions. Lu­cretius thought birds taught us mu­sic.

Mr smyth’s favourite song­ster is the black­cap, hence his ti­tle, Gil­bert white’s de­scrip­tion of its song. his med­i­ta­tion con­cludes ‘there’s more bab­ble than beauty in bird­song’, but it’s still ‘won­der­ful’. Tim Oak­en­full pro­vides del­i­cately smudged but pho­to­graph­i­cally ac­cu­rate blackand-white il­lus­tra­tions to in­tro­duce the six chap­ters. John Mcewen

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