A Celebration of
Birds in Human History

Peter Watkins &
Jonathan Stockland

There is the Stubble goose, the Lag goose, the Bean goose, the Corn goose and the goose that is "pinching playfully on the behind." The Snow goose migrates 3,000 miles through the Canadian Arctic on its way to its breeding ground north of Baffin Island.

Mother Goose can be traced "back to an eighth-century noblewoman, Bertrade of Laon" of France. She was known as Berte aux grand pieds, "Bigfoot" or "Goosefoot." Konrad Lorenz "observed how easily a goose becomes attached to a human," but obviously he didn't go to that farm in North Carolina near where we grew up where the gander would chase us around the barn, trying to goose us. And not playfully, either.

Then there is the dove, a familiar of peace campaigns. "Dove" is another word for pigeon. Chaucer didn't like them whatever the name. "Pigeons and priests make foul houses," he wrote in the Canterbury Tales.

    Priests, he warned, invited into a household to educate the children, seduce and debauch the maids.

But The Song of Solomon poetically declares:

    How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful!
    Your eyes are doves behind your veil.

The last courier pigeon service was to be found in Orissa State, India, but was disbanded in favor of the mobile phone in 2002, and 1,400 pigeons (or doves) were given permanent retirement benefits, being grilled over an open fire and spiced with coriander and clove before being consumed.

The "unique feature" of the pelican is "its huge throat pouch, a membranous distensible bag suspended from the lower mandible of its very large bill." No matter how nice pelicans look floating in formation there above the waves, they are pretty disgusting birds, at least in the child-rearing department, feeding the sprats on throw-up: "It regurgitates great quantities of fish to its young from its throat pouch."

Dixon Lanier Merritt wrote in 1910,

    A wonderful bird is the pelican,
    His bill will hold more than his belican.
    He can take in his beak
    Food enough for a week,
    But I'm damned if I see how the helican.

§     §     §

Winged Wonders features sixteen birds, including the swan, the wren, the robin, the eagle and the owl. The book smells heavily of Google, however, a fact-filled something the authors cooked up on a cold winter's evening there in Leeds, just in time for Christmas, in order to attract the birdbrains (like me) in the crowd. It could have used a few more pretty pictures, and often the prose turns clotted, as in

    All domestic geese are descended from the European Greylag (Anser anser), except for the Chinese Goose which has evolved from the Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides.) (The "Sea Goose," the Merganser, although containing the word "anser" in its name, is a saw-toothed bird half-duck and half-diver, but no goose.)
We can forgive the authors their foibles because even though they forgot to include Merritt's poem [see above], they did include one of our favorites, Tennyson's fragment,

    He clasps the crag with crooked hands,
    Close to the sun in lonely lands,
    Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

    The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,
    He watches from the mountain walls,
    And like a thunderbolt he falls.

--- Lolita Lark
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