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Published: October 11th 2021
'The Observer's Book of Birds
' was my first bird book. I still have it – minus the dust-jacket but carefully wrapped in brown paper. It has been with me since May 1964. I know this because I wrote dates in the index, next to the birds’ names, and the earliest dates are from May 1964 - for example: “Nuthatch 20/5/64
I used to pore over the pictures in this little book and dream of seeing one of the rarities described: a Hoopoe or a Waxwing or a Golden Oriole.
‘The Observer’s Book of Birds
’ is one of the very few books I did not dispose of when I sold my house in Reading in 2017. It is a precious relic of my youth, when the summit of happiness was watching bullfinches on a crisp December morning in Whiteknights Park.
I have just researched the book on the internet. It was first published by Frederick Warne in 1937, the very first book in the Observer’s series. My edition is dated 1962. The eight-page Preface is written by S. Vere Benson, Honourable Secretary of the Bird-Lovers’ League. For some reason she has concealed her sex; however, we know she is
female because the Foreword refers to “the Misses Benson
My internet search yielded little about Miss Benson. There are no photographs of her. The best I could find was here: https://backwatersman.wordpress.com/tag/s-vere-benson
. The anonymous author of this page states that “her name seems to have been Stephana, though she never permitted this degree of familiarity on her title-pages ... She seems, at some point, to have become Mrs. H.T. Hillier, but – apart from regular revisions of the Observer’s Book – to have stayed bibliographically silent until 1970, when she unexpectedly re-emerged with ‘Birds of Lebanon and the Jordan Area’
. Perhaps she had been swept away by some Sheikh of Araby.”
The book’s two-page Foreword is written by the Rt. Hon. Frances Countess of Warwick, about whom my internet search yielded spectacular results. There is a long entry for her on Wikipedia which does not mention her Foreword but states that “she kept a menagerie of birds
”. Her full name is Frances Evelyn 'Daisy' Greville, Countess of Warwick, and she led an eventful and scandalous life. As well as being a campaigning socialist who established colleges for the education of women in agriculture and market gardening, she
was the long-time mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward V11. She gave birth to five children, four of them out of wedlock, fathered by three different men. She narrowly escaped a prison sentence for the enormous debts her extravagant lifestyle incurred. She wrote her Foreword to ‘The Observer’s Book of Birds
’ the year before she died. How many readers of this wholesome, often twee, little volume know that the Foreword was written by a serial adulteress and royal concubine?
Now let us return to the author of the book, Miss S. Vere Benson. She is sentimental about birds and often describes them in human terms. On Page 7 she writes: “The bird is the most warm-blooded and vitally and joyously alive of all the creatures, and most species are capable of very wonderful parental affection and self-sacrifice. Courage, regardless of danger and even death, is the rule, not the exception, with the mother and often with the father bird.
” She writes at length about “some very interesting and lovable bird personalities
”, including a Great Northern Diver, a Shag, a Razorbill and a Guillemot. She refers to each of these birds as “he
Her great affection for
birds does not stop her from castigating a bird for letting the side down. The Cuckoo “is not admirable, being polyandrous and a parasite, without care for its young
.” And writing about the Chough, she says: “Unlike the rest of its family, its character is as white as its plumage is black.”
Her real talent, though, lies in her ability to vividly describe the calls or “notes
” (as she puts it) of birds. Here is a selection:
“A purring sound like a sewing-machine working
” (Nightjar or Goatsucker)
“A high squeak, like a wheelbarrow with a rusty wheel
” (Spotted Flycatcher”
“A low ‘zup’ continuously repeated
” (Long-tailed Tit)
“A very tiny, high-trilling song like the tinkling of a fairy bell
“A rather quiet ‘chick’. The song is too well known to need much description. It sometimes resembles ‘Did he do it, did he do it, Judy did’ and ‘Come out, come out’
“An occasional double pipe; but it is not a talkative bird
"Begins with a few preliminary clucks before it breaks into a high tinkle like the shattering of glass or the jingling of a bunch of keys
"A high tinkling twitter, reminiscent of Japanese wind-bells
"A guttural pig-like grunt, 'pruk', or a deep croak
"Clear, fluty, challenging 'Who are you-oo?
' " (Golden Oriole)
"An exuberant medley of chatters, twitters and clicks, with occasional high, long-drawn whistles
Rereading the book today, I was struck by how uncommon certain British birds have become. In 1962, Cirl Buntings were to be found in “open or wooded country, and hedge-rows, in south Britain.
” Now they are rare and only found in south Devon. In 1962, the Turtle Dove was “a summer visitor most common in England
” but today is the fastest declining species in the UK. The Corncrake in 1962 was “often heard
” and found in “long grass and fields grown for hay
”, but today its population has declined catastrophically due to the mechanization of mowing.
Conversely, the Collared Dove which, in 1962, had “recently spread from the Continent
” is now very well-established.
I was struck by three bird names. The book describes the Yellow Bunting, which nowadays is always called the Yellowhammer. The Hedge-Sparrow is “also called Dunnock
” but today is commonly known as the Dunnock. And what in 1962 was a 'Sheld-Duck' is now a Shelduck. I could not find the old spelling anywhere on the internet.
It has been most interesting rereading the concise, and sometimes slightly amusing, one-page entries for 243 of the most common British birds. The 200 illustrations, 100 of them in colour, by Archibald Thorburn are charming. I think it is a lovely book for someone just getting started on ornithology. It is one of my most cherished possessions because it reminds me of my youth in Reading and the excitement I used to feel whenever I saw an unusual bird or notched up a new species. It was also fascinating to find out about the Rt. Hon. Frances Countess of Warwick, who wrote the Foreword. She sounds so respectable, but Wikipedia gives the lie to that!
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