How birds became the literary muse of 2021

This year, a flock of books are ushering birdsong out of the realm of hobby and into the mainstream. Alice Vincent speaks to the authors making it happen.

There’s something aflutter in publishing. A year after the world locked down and people began to hear birdsong more loudly and clearly than ever before, a small flock of books about our winged friends are about to take flight.

Covering the cultural history of certain species; the story of what happened to nature in the pandemic year and the impact of birdsong on mental health; these titles reflect a growing interest in ornithology among people who might not traditionally consider themselves “twitchers”. But what does this new interest in birds say about society’s mounting concern with the environment, and nature writing more broadly?

For Steven Lovatt, lockdown wasn’t just a time of listening to birdsong, but writing about it. Fascinated by birdsong as a child, it took lockdown for his interest to re-awaken. His book, Birdsong in a Time of Silence, is particularly interested with how, in a time when technology is increasingly silent and slick, existing invisibly in space, we make sense of birdsong.

To read it is to be reminded of the sheer oddity of a time that was barely a year ago, and yet feels somehow abstract. “The pandemic had struck the northern hemisphere at just that moment in the natural calendar when birdsong resumes in full force after the quiet and solitary winter months,” he writes. “Millions of people were not just hearing but actively listening, perhaps for the first time, to the songs of birds – ancient songs, perhaps unchanged from the stone age.”

But, like all good writing about nature, Lovatt’s book also reflects the unique smallness of being in just one place for such a stretch of time. He wrote Birdsong in just 13 weeks between May and July, after the author spent much of spring taking government-mandated exercise in his hometown of Swansea. “I walked around and watched a lot, waited for words to come that matched the world,” he tells me over the phone. “It helps to be stuck, it helps to not be able to travel. Instead, I was forced to reflect on things I could see from my window and witness within a two-mile radius of my house. There was a particular beech tree I got to know intimately.”

With the world on the cusp of adjusting to a new normality – the roadmap has been blueprinted, vaccination programmes are underway and the skies are increasingly punctuated by air traffic – books that celebrate the small and the beautiful can return us to a quieter time. For folk musician and author Sam Lee, that’s something that far precedes the pandemic. His book The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, focuses on just the one species of bird and how it has inspired myth, legend, poetry, music and politics over the centuries.

'There's a necessity to pay attention to birds now, because we don't know how long we're going to have species like the nightingale for'

Lee’s book is the product of something of an obsession. In the mid-2000s he was taken to hear the nightingale by some friends. “There I was introduced to this extraordinary singer who I knew, then and there, I was going to get to know and spend lots of time with,” he says. “As nature connection experiences go, it just ticks all the boxes. It's so utterly enchanting and wonderful.”

While Lee grew up comfortable with nature, he came to learn about the nightingale through folklore and music before he heard one for himself. He maintains that in Britain at least, we’ve long loved birds, but nevertheless believes “there’s been a strong and renewed sense of awareness. With environmental catastrophe, with ecological collapse, with a massive rate in decline of birds,” he says, “but there's also a sense of necessity to pay attention and to be really marking out a love and adoration of birds now, because we don't know how long we're going to have species like the nightingale for."

Stephen Moss is a naturalist and writer who has written nearly 30 bird books since the early Nineties, including his forthcoming Skylarks with Rosie, about his observations during lockdown. Like Lee, he tells me that while there has always been a healthy appetite for birdwatching, the demographic of those doing it and writing about it is changing. “What’s great is that there is a new generation of very young writers, such as Dara McAnulty and Mya-Rose Craig, as well as women writers,” he says.

It’s true that birds haven’t been strangers from our shelves in recent years. There was, of course, the unlikely triumph of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk in 2013; Max Porter’s 2015 novel, Grief Is A Thing With Feathers, challenged the traditional shape of the genre while in 2016 ornithologist J Drew Lanham broadened a conversation dominated by white writers with On The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Joe Harkness struggled to find a traditional publisher for his 2019 memoir Bird Therapy, but nevertheless found an audience for his mental health memoir, which was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize. Last year, 17-year-old Bangladeshi-British birder Craig made headlines with a landmark deal for her forthcoming memoir, Birdgirl.

What’s new, says Moss, is that male writers are writing more emotionally honest books about birds where the genre used to be limited to field guides. Charlie Corbett is a prime example: 12 Birds to Save Your Life, which will be released in June, tells the story of how Corbett healed from grieving for his late mother through the small wonder of birdsong.

“I’d lived in cities all over the world for many years, and I had left my roots behind,” Corbett tells me from Wiltshire. “I remember coming back to the farm where I grew up and just wandering around and thinking I barely knew the difference in a sparrow and a starling. And I wanted to put that right.” While trying to recapture the knowledge he took for granted in his youth, Corbett’s mother fell ill and died. “I found how powerful nature could be in terms of putting my life and my problems into perspective,” he says. “I remember walking in the rain, and hearing some skylarks, and realising that you don't actually have to go out and look for nature. That nature will find you if you just let it.”

Nevertheless, all rookie naturalists need a guide, and Corbett says that in 12 Birds to Save Your Life he has created a handbook that answers “all the kind of questions [he] was too embarrassed to ask. I wanted to explain everything, very simply, and in context, and then add my own story and show how these birds relate to real life.”

Corbett agrees that lockdown helped books like his take flight – he’s conscious that his book is one of many bird-based publications out this year. And he couldn’t be more thrilled about it. “The way I see it, I've been shouting into the darkness for a while without a response, and now everyone’s interested,” he says. Finally, people are listening in to birdsong.

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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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