English author Cocker (Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold, 2000, etc.) offers a combined celebration of and apologia for the national passion for birding, which in Britain provides both the thrill of high competition and the bonding of a cult.
After 30 years of dealing with his own obsession for bird-watching (as it is somewhat more commonly known on this Atlantic shore), the author brings both experience and perspective to bear on the subject. However, novice birders should not expect a systematic treatise on advancing their craft. Cocker is much more interested in why than how, and he often lets his preoccupation with good form emerge in negative examples. Those who cannot deal properly with a bird’s external anatomy, such as distinguishing between primary, secondary, and tertiary wing feathers, he asserts, may or may not be “bird lovers,” but they’re not birders. Expounding on perhaps the major difference between the way Brits and Americans typically pursue this fast-growing activity, he spends an entire chapter on the virtues of taking notebooks into the field and filling them up as fast and furiously as possible with sketches as well as text. The author is simultaneously at his best and most ambivalent in parables of fellow “twitchers,” the (mostly) young bloods who have often dropped everything, including careers and spouses, to dash off somewhere far away for a glimpse of a rumored rarity. One friend and his wife, for example, cut short a US vacation and scramble back to England at word that a single Common Nighthawk has been spotted there (a rare occurrence) just a day after seeing nearly 50 of the same birds pass directly overhead in Cape May, New Jersey. Quirky and impulsive often beyond belief, some twitchers have been ultimately driven, the author effectively argues, to become among the finest interpreters on Earth of what nature can mean to human beings.
Persuasive, idiosyncratic, and often quite amusing.