Dot Schwarz tells us what you can learn about Parrots by reading Parrot books.
Birds are the most studied group of animals in the world, and consequently, books about them are numerous. Bird books were initially focused on identifying birds. Even into the 20th century ‘bird spotting’ was a common phrase among country boys.
Thomas Bewick published the first identification guide to British birds in two parts in 1797 and 1804. Previously there’d been large volumes on British birds, but Bewick’s books (illustrated with his woodcuts) provided the first pocket guide.
Eventually, pocket bird identification guides were published for birds of every country in the world. Bird watching became an international hobby. The armed forces each had their own bird watching organisations, which thrived even in wartime.
Bird behaviour inevitably came under the spotlight. The more that was discovered about the mystery of migration, the skills involved in nest building and bird song, the more devotees were attracted.
That birds’ brains are designed differently to mammals and that instinct is not entirely responsible for their abilities, (some bird species even being equal to primates in mental ability) led in this century to a serious reassessment of bird behaviour.
Recent bird books reflect this change. Books such as Bird Brain (An exploration of Avian Intelligence) by Dr Nathan Emery. Jennifer Ackerman in The Genius of Birds and The Bird Way also explored avian intelligence in a large variety of species.
Aviculturists have also had to reassess the welfare of birds in captivity. Environmental enrichment now forms a major part of animal welfare in zoos.
Parrots, one of the most intelligent group of birds, were once routinely kept in solitary, imprisoned in round, small cages where they couldn’t even stretch their wings.
Now, increasingly, many Parrot keepers are enriching their bird’s captive environment by introducing themselves and their birds to free flying.
Three books I want to highlight are Colin Tudge’s Consider the Birds, Wenfei Tong’s book brought out last year How to read a Bird. And “Parrots of the Wild: A Natural History of the World’s Most Captivating Birds by Catherine Toft and Timothy Wright.
Any book you read about birds will almost inevitably include information about conservation and to what extent it should be pursued as a worthwhile goal. As scientific knowledge of the complexity and variation in bird behaviour increases, so does the plight of many species. Some are endangered, a few even close to extinction. Some are already extinct.
Habitats are being degraded by human activity. Many birds are still-hunted, others illegally trapped for the bird trade. Factor into this the havoc caused by climate change and realise there is a major crisis affecting birds.
Let’s look at Colin Tudge’s book – packed with information yet written in an accessible style for non-academic readers. How birds actually evolved into birds was almost fully explained when this book was written 14 years ago. That they were descended from dinosaurs 140 million years ago seemed likely.
Recent discoveries from China have confirmed that is the most credible theory of the transition from dinosaurs to birds. Scientific circles now accept the idea.
Tudge explains many features of dinosaurs are present in modified form in modern birds. It’s as if dinosaurs are not extinct, they’re all around us. How many species of birds are there? A question that cannot be accurately answered. It depends how you classify. Tudge reckons 10,500 might be a reasonable figure.
Tudge classifies these species – a fascinating read and explains (with a passion for detail) how birds live their lives. Persevere with what he tells you, and you’ll emerge from each section, adding so much more to whatever you already knew or guessed.
Like many environmental writers over the last sixty years since Rachel Carson first warned us of the silent spring that could be just around the corner, Colin Tudge wants us to consider birds not just in their beauty and interest but also in their fragility.
A migrating bird can cover thousands of kilometres. No one is yet certain of the exact details of how the journeys are accomplished but we know that when their feeding habitats are destroyed on their route, when light at night (light pollution) confuses them, their destruction is our fault.
Tudge writes: ‘In short, birds are wonderful to behold. They can create pleasure wherever they are. But also, the more we look at them, the more they tell us about ourselves and the way the world really is. St. Matthew’s advice is well taken: ‘consider the birds.’
An American ornithologist and conservationist, Wenfei Tong covers similar ground but in a far shorter book.
How to read a Bird – A Smart Guide to What Birds Do and Why – published over a decade later than Tudge, Tong has had access to the latest research. Another advantage is purely visual. How to read a Bird has superbly illustrative colour photographs, (many are of rarely seen birds). These photographs are a bonus in addition to a clear, incisive text.
Six sections deal with avian species globally, Finding food, 2. Social life, 3. Courtship, 4 Family life. Two final sections include information on just how much danger birds are in from human activity. And sadly, comparing the messages from Tudge and then Tong writing more than a decade apart, the messages make sombre, distressing reading.
Our climate change is even affecting migration A study in 2002 suggests ‘that a large component of the pied flycatcher’s annual clock in under genetic control but can evolve rapidly under strong selection from a warming climate’
Wenfei Tong ends her entertaining summary with the plea that we bird lovers and birders continue to make our essential contribution to the conservation effort. All reported data helps keep tabs on where the migrating birds are, etc.
Researchers need all the help they can get if we are to preserve our environments and conserve species. Why should we care so much about birds? To bird lovers it hardly needs restating.
Parrots in the Wild
Another book on the same wavelength of the former two is Parrots of the Wild. Among the multitude of books on Parrots the most widely kept birds, it was only in 2015 that a book like this, concentrating on how Parrots behave in the wild has appeared.
The diets of Parrots in the wild – let alone their social behaviour is hardly known. One of the authors, the late (Professor) Catherine Toft in compiling the book describes and analyses over four thousand research papers on Parrots in the wild, using her experience in the field and in teaching for over 40 years.
Seeing the similarities and astonishing variations between the species is appealing as well as enhancing the knowledge that we Parrot people secretly cherish in knowing how very intelligent and unique they are.
Here is a list of some of my favourite books. Are some of them yours too?
Bird Brain – Dr Nathan Emery. Ivy Press 2016
The Genius of Birds -Jennifer Ackerman (Corsair 2016)
The Bird Way – Jennifer Ackerman (Corsair 2016)
Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff & Tony Angell. (Atria 2001)
Consider the Birds: who they are and what they do – Colin Tudge (Allen Lane 2008)
How to Read a Bird – A Smart Guide to What Birds Do and Why – Wenfei Tong -(The History Press 2020)
Parrots of the Wild A Natural History of the World’s Most Captivating Birds – Toft and Wright – (University of California 2015)
King Solomons Ring: new light on animal ways – Konrad Lorenze (Crowell 1952)
The Parrot Who Owns me – Joanna Burger. Sidgewick &Jackson 2001. The narrative by a professional ornithologist and professor of her relationship with Tiko a Red-lored Amazon.
A Century of Parrots – Rosemary Low. Insignis publications 2006
Now a book you will only find in second-hand sites. Its original price was £2.95
Dear Parrot Pertaining to the care, nurture and befriending of man’s oldest pet – John Phillips – J. M. Dent 1979 This little book made me fall about laughing. If you manage to find a copy, I promise that you will, too.
And lastly an American bestseller:
A Short Philosophy of Birds – Philippe J. Dubois and Élise Rousseau
Wisdom (insight into how to conduct our lives) may come from many other species. We can learn so much from birds. This enchanting short book written by a philosopher and an ornithologist with decades of involvement in avian affairs is illustrated with Joanna Lisowiec’s exquisite wood cuts. The volume is pocket sized, perfect reading and re reading.