Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Book of the Month*: Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed by Simon Barnes

One of my birding goals for this year is to learn better identification of birds by their vocalizations.  With this in mind, the first birding book I picked to read this year was this little paean to the joys of birding by ear.  The author, Simon Barnes, is the head sports writer for the Times newspaper in England, so one would expect this book to be well written.  He is also an enthusiastic and knowledgeable birder, so one would equally expect it to be comprehensive and accurate.  I can vouch that it is both of these and the real question that you should therefore ask is “why should a North American birder read a book about identifying British birds?”

The reason is simple –  Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed is not primarily an identification guide to birdsong but rather (and I cannot put this more succinctly than the dust jacket does) “a way of hearing”.  The book is organized around notions of "time and place" and:

In order to recognize and begin to understand birds, you need to recognize and understand the times and the places.  And that works the other way round as well, creating a rather pleasingly virtuous circle, in which each visit to a place adds to your understanding of its bird, and each acknowledgement of a bird adds to your understanding of its place.

So birding is all about context, and birdsong provides us with clues about species, their behaviour and habitats.  It makes sense then, that the book is structured around 5 seasons of birding.  “First Spring” moves on to summer, fall, then winter, and ends with “Second Spring”, by which time Barnes is confident that you will, by immersing yourself in birds, become fluent in the language of the common species around you.  The free podcast that accompanies the book provides the soundtrack to these seasons, although I confess to not listening to it entirely – my head is struggling with Alberta species without 40 or so of Britain’s birds competing for space.

Putting aside the specifics of the songs themselves then, the North American birder will enjoy this book for three reasons.  Firstly, it reinforces the importance of birdsong and behaviour in identification.  While we will not be presented with the dilemma of willow warbler vs. chiffchaff in Calgary, the principles of using song for identification work equally well for distinguishing, say, willow and alder flycatchers.
The Chiffchaff
The Willow Warbler - good luck with that! (photos from Google Images -
Secondly, the book is peppered with fascinating little tidbits of birding trivia.  Did you know that the British wren’s song (our Winter Wren) contains 103 notes in an 8 second song?  Or that Mozart had a pet starling that whistled his piano concertos and for whom he held a funeral when it died?  Or that birds may pick up and share song snippets from tropical species during migration?  The many connections Barnes makes to science, history, art and music make bird song more relevant for the reader.

And the final reason to bother with this geographically displaced book is that it is infused with the joy of being out among birds, and who doesn’t need a little more of that in their lives.  I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in birdsong, the birds of Britain, or who is looking for a short simple read to fill a cold winter’s evening.

“Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed” by Simon Barnes was published by ShortBooks in November 2011 as a 288 page hardcover.  It is available from Amazon for $21 and will be released in paperback in Canada in May.

*For anyone who is (inconceivably?) keeping track, this is the book of the month for January - it's been a busy few weeks!


  1. Thanks, David, this is definitely one I'll pick up. Learning to listen is one of the most important ways a birder can improve.
    (I'm keeping track, and looking forward to February's review!)

    1. Thanks again for the feedback Bob! I'm feeling slightly more organized now and will be doing some scheduled posting in the future to make things a little more consistent.