Book Review: The Meaning of Birds by Simon Barnes

In The Meaning of Birds, Simon Barnes traces the history of birds—as well as humans’ relationships and interactions with them—over several millennia and across multiple continents. Barnes is a UK-based nature writer, so North American readers will enjoy an opportunity to become more familiar with Britain’s backyard birds, such as the wood pigeon, the Scottish crossbill, and the capercaillie.  But we also read about birds from around the world, including the Emerald Bird of Paradise, the Red-billed Curassow of the Mata Atlântica, the Paradise Whydah of Zambia, and the Mauritius Kestrel. We learn about the astonishing abilities of hummingbirds (“they can fly backwards at up to 15 mph” and “beat their wings 1,000 times a second”); about why starlings form murmurations; and about how gannets hunt for fish by plunging head-first into the water from heights of 100 feet.

Paradise Whydah of Zambia

Across fifteen short chapters interspersed with beautiful illustrations, Barnes offers readers a deeper understanding of a variety of bird species—how they fly, what they can see, why they sing, and where they live—while also exploring what birds have to teach us about our relationship with non-human animals and the natural world. We learn, for example, about how birds signal the arrival of different seasons: “if you can tune in to the birds,” writes Barnes, “you soon understand that the passing of the seasons is a more rapid thing than we fear… in the blackness of the late [winter] afternoon.”

Barnes also emphasizes the ways birds can connect humans more intimately to the natural world we all share.  As Barnes writes, “a bird is the place it lives in.  It eats the place.  It makes the sound of the place.  The sighting of a bird gives you, the watching human, an understanding of the place you find yourself in. Birds… define the place they live in for the human observer.”  By taking the time to observe birds, we develop a greater understanding and appreciation for birds, as well as the places in which we cohabitate with them. Barnes puts it simply enough: “if you want to look after birds, you have to look after places.”

Yet, The Meaning of Birds is also a tragic history of how human consumption, environmental degradation, and refusal to respect animal life and the natural world have resulted in the short- or long-term decline (and, in some cases, extinction) of a number of species, including starlings, turtle doves, dodos, cuckoos, hen harriers, birds of paradise, snowy egrets, and bald eagles.  In discussions of human practices ranging from the ancient “sport” of falconry; to Victorian-era gamekeeping and the plume trade of the early 20th century; to modern-day grouse hunting and the rise of the factory-farmed chicken, Barnes illustrates the cultural, sociopolitical, legal, and economic factors which have enabled humans to construct and maintain a damaging hierarchy over other animals.  

Egret feathers were in particularly high demand at the height of the plume trade

Barnes infuses a call to action throughout his book, one that contains messages of both hope and urgency.  While he warns of the continued decline of bird species and populations if humans do not make changes, he also insists that “lazy cynicism need not be the default position.”  Noting examples of birds that were once in decline but are now increasing in population size and breeding pairs—including avocets, marsh harriers, ospreys, red kites, and white-tailed eagles—Barnes argues that humans may still be able to “revers[e] the tides of destruction and wor[k] with the wild world to our mutual benefit.” 

In keeping with this idea, Barnes points throughout his book to the important work that individuals and organizations have done throughout history, and continue to do today, to help reverse the decline of birds and preserve natural habitats. These include the Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu in Brazil, the England Stone Curlew Recovery Project, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the World Land Trust.

In his concluding chapter, entitled “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” Barnes offers readers both a warning and a word of encouragement: “it comes down to what kind of person you are. I could fill this final chapter with a thousand horror stories of indigence, casual slaughter, purposes mistook, criminal carelessness, deliberate destruction and devastation.  But I could just as easily fill it with a thousand more stories about great people doing great things in great places: fostering wild populations, restoring lost habitats, filling the air with birds.” The Meaning of Birds concludes, then, with one final question: which kind of person are you?

Melissa Dennihy
Melissa Dennihy, Ph.D., is an English professor at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York, where her work focuses in part on ecofiction and environmental humanities. You can find her on Twitter, where she's often tweeting about books: @MelissaDennihy.