The Birds They Sang: Birds and People in Life and Art by Stanisław Łubieński

Translated from Polish by Bill Johnston

Review by Peter Reason

Stanisław Łubieński first began observing birds in childhood through Soviet binoculars. Later, he took his hobby to a more serious level with trips to Hungary, Scandinavia and the Danube Delta. He is a serious birdwatcher, and his writing has been acclaimed in his native Poland. The Birds They Sang won the Nike award’s readers’ vote, Poland’s most prestigious literary prize.

This book of essays circles around themes of humans and nature. There is plenty here about the birds themselves; and yet the essence of the book is the interactions between humans and the birds that live around them. Elegantly written (and translated), Łubieński has a discursive style that moves loosely between related themes in each chapter.

The book starts with a biographical account of the author’s relationship with birds and birding. Shortly after, the reader is drawn into stories of netting and ringing migrants. Beautifully detailed accounts of what it is like to free birds from the net and hold them in the hand are interspersed with accounts of bird migration and the history of ringing.  The next chapter reflects on BCD, Birding Compulsive Disorder, which draws those suffering to divert their attention from whatever task is at hand as soon as a particular bird is seen or heard. And we learn that James Bond the spy was named after James Bond the ornithologist who wrote Birds of the West Indies: Ian Fleming was an avid birdwatcher.

We read accounts of birdwatching in a Polish countryside and in the streets and parks of Warsaw. Stories of seeking the great Ural owl on the snowy border with Ukraine are interspersed with wry reflections the human need to make images: the challenges of photographing birds are set alongside prehistoric cave paintings of owls. In later chapters, Łubieński researches the strange story of an East Prussian ornithologist who blithely continued his research throughout the Second World War until at the last moment taking poison as the Russian army approaches his village. Following this is an account of British prisoners of war continuing their ornithological work despite their confinement. And the final chapter confronts us with the human destruction of birdlife—the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the dodo—as well as the contemporary slaughter of birds as they cross the Mediterranean Sea, and through the march of human ‘progress’.

The publisher’s press release includes praise mainly from well-known writers about birds and birding, including Stephen Moss, Tim Dee, Helen Macdonald. And indeed, this book will appeal primarily to the same audience as read their books. However, the parallel reflections on the interaction between birds and the human world make the book attractive to a wider audience. I find myself agreeing with Tim Dee:  the book is both ‘modest and passionate, funny and quizzical, and always brilliant on his birds.’ Certainly, an entertaining read, and a good choice of birthday gift for your birder uncle.

Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. His book In Search of Grace was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.

Stanisław Łubieński, The Birds They Sang: Birds and People in Life and Art transl. Bill Johnson (Westbourne Press, 2020) ISBN 9781908906366, paperback original, 224 pages.

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