Our latest book, When There Were Birds: The Forgotten History of our Connections will be published on 11th November 2021, in hardback, by Little, Brown (ISBN 9781408713570), initially in Britain. It will also be available as an e-book. It is 488 pages long, with black-and-white plates, and a gorgeous jacket design that illustrates some of the topics in the book, from pen quills to cage-birds, hunting and shooting, cockfighting, weathercocks and feathers used in millinery.
Birds are a joy and solace in troubled times, as well as a reminder of past experiences and a symbol of hope for the future. For centuries, they were also seen as a source of food, feathers and even fuel, and being so numerous, many were persecuted as pests. When There Were Birds is a social history of Britain that charts the complex connections between people and birds, set against a background of changes in the landscape and evolving tastes, beliefs and behaviour. Birds were once key elements of the nation’s history, traditions and sports, and this gave rise to a rich legacy of literature, language and myths.
No other group of animals has had such a complex and lengthy relationship with humankind. Birds have been kept in cages as pets, taught to speak and displayed as trophies. More practically, they have been used to tell the time, predict the weather, foretell marriages, provide unlikely cures for ailments, convey messages and warn of poisonous gases.
Although very familiar, birds have often seemed strange, sinister and alarming. With their ability to fly, they bridged the gap between the earth and the heavens, and superstitions were rife because they were presumed to be linked to the supernatural. When There Were Birds draws together many disparate, forgotten strands to present a story that is an intriguing and unexpectedly significant part of our heritage.
The publication of our book falls in the week that the COP26 conference in Glasgow takes place, 31st October to 12th November 2021. This is very fitting, as we try to show how birds once fared in Britain and beyond, with huge numbers that are now inconceivable. It is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the sort of birds and the numbers of birds that it was once possible to experience on an everyday basis, without having to visit specialist nature reserves.
COP26 is the 26th gathering of the Conference of the Parties, the signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was a treaty agreed in 1994 and has 197 Parties (196 countries and the EU).
Most of us can barely imagine the sky being blackened with flocks of birds, or watching a mile or so of rooks heading home to roost, and yet most of us can remember our vehicle windscreens being splattered by insects on long journeys. The collapse in insect numbers is of course catastrophic for birds, so we are hoping that When There Were Birds will help draw attention to what has been lost and the fascinating forgotten history of how all kinds of birds once played a role in people’s lives.
Reviews, talks and other events
Our publicist in the UK is arranging reviews, features, talks and other events, which will be added to our website’s Events and Interview page. She can be contacted as follows: Hayley Camis, Senior Publicity Manager, Little, Brown Book Group, Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DZ. Tel. 020 3122 6082. Email: Hayley.Camis@littlebrown.co.uk. @hayleycamis.
Robins and their nest in a glazed jar, illustrated in 1923 by Roland Green, Fellow of the Zoological Society
A few details
A huge feather industry once existed, which may sound cruel, but for the most part was far more sustainable than many artificial materials used today. Alas, there were exceptions, such as the dreadful slaughter of birds for feathers used in ladies’ hats. Huge flocks of geese were kept for the crucial quill pen industry. Geese were also raised for eating, and after being killed, their down and feathers were plucked, which (being water fowl) were highly prized for all sorts of bedding, such as mattresses (‘feather beds’), pillows and quilts.
An advertisement for feather beds from The Graphic in October 1883, showing a matronly figure plucking a dead goose
Lucky or unlucky?
Peacock feathers are beautiful, and they were highly prized by some as ornaments, but other people refused to have them in the house and were even terrified of them, a belief that extended right across the country.