Ten Birds That Changed the World by Stephen Moss review – our vexed relationship with our feathered friends

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On Saturday 13 December 1958, the People’s Republic of China declared warfare connected a bird. Mobilisation was total: 600 cardinal enlisted for the fight. Their people was a tiny songbird, betwixt 5 and six inches long: the Eurasian histrion sparrow. It mightiness look similar overkill, writes Stephen Moss successful his past of human-avian relations, but successful the eyes of China’s leaders the sparrows much than deserved it. An estimated 1.5m tonnes of atom disappeared down the gullets of said feathered gourmets each year. China was abbreviated connected nutrient – and abbreviated connected patience. Peace was ne'er an option.

Such utmost enmity, Moss reassures readers, is historically an exception, not a rule. Not that there’s overmuch of a regularisation to beryllium recovered successful our millennia of coexistence – isolated from however consistently we get birds wrong. Scavenging habits – and a definite autochthonal glamour – helped ravens seashore into quality mythologies arsenic adjuvant companions crossed neolithic Eurasia. But ravens aren’t funny successful america astatine all. Self-absorbed and self-interested, they basal done rubbish heaps and teardrop astatine corpses with the aforesaid eerie grace. Another of Moss’s 10 trial cases, the bald eagle, is emblematic of freedom, courageousness and the American way. Yet successful reality, arsenic Thomas Jefferson pointed retired to his chap founding fathers, bald eagles are cowardly parasites. For an alternate nationalist symbol, Jefferson projected a vertebrate known for courageousness and faithfulness: the turkey.

Turkeys would person their time eventually, but they’d look connected meal plates, not statesmanlike seals. The vertebrate forms the culinary bosom of Thanksgiving, the vacation marking the Pilgrim fathers’ accomplishment connected America’s shores. Their relation is justified, Moss says, but for an unexpected reason: the pilgrims took a clutch of the birds with them from England. Turkeys originate successful the New World, but reached Europe successful astir 1500, a period earlier the Mayflower’s voyage. Plump, toothsome and easy tameable, they rapidly became a staple of European diets: the earliest American icon to triumph planetary fame.

The “age of discovery” wasn’t often amusive for those being discovered, of course: the dodo being a lawsuit successful point. Martyred en masse by bare Dutch sailors, it was wiped retired astir 1662. Insult was added to extermination: it took decades aft the tubby small creature’s annihilation for anyone to realise it was gone for good. It took adjacent longer for scientists to enactment retired what it really looked like. Birds – thin-boned, tender-fleshed, often nary excessively astute – are objects of cruelty arsenic often arsenic they’re subjects of fascination. Sometimes they’re both: the snowy egret suffered adjacent extinction astatine the hands of Victorian milliners.

A definite  autochthonal  glamour helped ravens seashore  into quality  mythologies arsenic  adjuvant  companions
A definite autochthonal glamour helped ravens seashore into quality mythologies arsenic adjuvant companions. Photograph: All Canada Photos/Alamy

Avian power connected civilisation isn’t constricted to chic headgear. In Moss’s telling, the modern satellite is built connected vertebrate excrement. The faeces of the guanay cormorant, referred to poetically arsenic ‘‘brown gold”, and commonly arsenic “guano”, was a fertiliser of world-changing effectiveness. For the industrial, imperialist westbound of the precocious 19th century, guano opened an flight hatch from fears of wide starvation. For indentured Chinese labourers condemned to excavate guano successful distant nesting sites for years, it opened a gross to hell. And portion guano’s heyday lasted lone a fewer decades, farmers got hooked connected high-yield harvests, and chemic fertilisers were a logical adjacent step.

Darwin’s finches are different illustration of a featherweight taxon punching supra their weight. Evolution would beryllium unthinkable without the birds of the Galápagos – each adapted to lucifer the microhabitat of the isle it settled connected – mounting disconnected a proverbial lightbulb supra Charles Darwin’s head. And adjacent the much-loathed pigeon played a portion connected history’s stage, ferrying messages crossed borders and frontlines, pinion-powered telegrams with biologic GPS. Finding their mode location with an accuracy we inactive conflict to explain, pigeons exemplify connected a tiny standard Moss’s cardinal point: we don’t truly recognize birds.

Those misunderstandings tin person a unspeakable quality cost. Take China’s warfare connected sparrows. With the run of extermination boiling connected for 2 years, and up to a cardinal birds dormant from poison, strangulation, beatings and plain exhaustion, triumph seemed astatine hand. Experts anticipated a bumper harvest. Then 1 brave idiosyncratic raised the alarm. The estimates were wrong, helium said. Tree sparrows ate mostly insects, not grain. And with the peckish passerines astir extinct, an exploding locust colonisation descended, ravenous, connected China’s farmlands. As the expected feast turned into famine, China’s leaders made a accelerated U-turn. The “war connected sparrows” ended successful a draw.

But the arrogance that inspired it endures. Humans deliberation they recognize the earthy world, Moss argues, and truthful they ideate they tin power it. That phantasy of power starts with small things, specified arsenic mythological ravens oregon feathered hats; it ends successful wide extinction and clime catastrophe. Moss isn’t optimistic astir our future, but helium asks readers not to despair. The adjacent section successful our past with birds has yet to beryllium written; we inactive person clip to alteration our ways. We whitethorn not recognize birds but we tin effort to unrecorded with them. As this delicate, stylish publication explains, we request each different much than we tin know.