Chris Watson

bird photography

Review: Understanding Bird Behaviour by Stephen Moss

ReviewChris Watson

“The Golden Eagle, which has universally been considered as a bird of most extraordinary powers of flight, is in my estimation little more than a sluggard, though its wings are long and ample.”

John James Audubon

The only times I've seen a Golden Eagle I've always gawped at its mastery of aviation. Clearly Audubon thought otherwise. But everybody looks for different things in the pursuit of birds. This is why there are so many different names for it: birding, twitching, ornithology, bird-watching. They are all subtly different, but there is a lot of overlap and most of us are practitioners of all of these at different times. This is why only a true birdo understands that you can be out for a day of birding and stop for a while to do some bird-watching; a statement that seems the height of nonsense to a muggle.

If birding can be loosely defined as noting all of the birds in a general area for the purpose of listing or census, bird-watching is a more immersive activity. Monitoring a sheltered pool of water and observing the birds interacting while bathing and drinking might be bird-watching. So might setting up in a patch of scrub to observe the behaviour of a mixed flock feeding in a bloodwood in heavy blossom. Bird-watching is what elevates a Willie Wagtail from merely another common bird on your day list, to a larger-than-life character, full of personality, staunch in defence of resources or territory, endlessly adaptive and innovative in its choice of nesting locations, tireless in its hawking of insects from its perch on a fence post and hilarious in its interrogation of its reflection in a car mirror.

Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys, a true bird-watcher's bird.

When everything on your patch has been ticked and listed, surely understanding what birds are doing when you’re watching them is the name of the game. More than this, interpreting the behaviour of the birds we seek also helps us find the birds more easily and ultimately become better birders overall.

With the acquisitive activity of bird photography gaining ground on the more inquisitive pursuit of bird watching, it’s crucial that people seeking wildlife, for any purpose, recognise the difference between restful, natural bird behaviour and a bird that is agitated, threatened or stressed by the observer’s encroachment. 

We've all seen a bit too much of this I think. Surely the point of having a long lens is that you don't have to stalk so close to birds in such an exposed situation? When the tired little birds that have just flown halfway around the world are looking up from their frenetic (and critically urgent) feeding and fluttering nervously just 10 metres from the glass on your 500mm lens, it's probably time to stop looking at the birds and have a good hard look at yourself. 

If birding is primarily about allocating a bird its correct identity, bird-watching is about observing and understanding birds’ behaviour.

Understanding Bird Behaviour then, is very much a book for the bird watcher in all of us. Well-known British naturalist and author, Stephen Moss, has produced a valuable, timely and exciting book here. For anyone interested in taking their birding beyond mere identification and listing, this book will provide the perfect jumping off point.

It is laid out superbly with god-tier photographs throughout. The main body of text is split into two parts, with part one taking the reader through the basic range of bird behaviours broken into six chapters: movement, feeding, breeding, migration & navigation, distribution & range and life & death. Part two addresses the birds by family and sets out the behaviours they share and those that make some species stand out from their close relations.

It’s an educative read, but it is not quite the comprehensive treatment of the behaviour of all groups of birds that you might surmise from the title; a better one might have been Understanding British Bird Behaviour. The book limits its treatment, for the most part, to species occurring in the British Isles. Despite this, the text provides ample coverage of all the more common examples of bird behaviour that most of us can expect to come across.

Understanding Bird Behaviour makes no claims of being an exhaustive reference but as an introductory text on the subject it covers a lot of ground. The information is clearly presented and perfectly accessible for beginners while still holding plenty to recommend it to experienced birders as well. The limited geographic treatment results in missing many fascinating examples of bird behaviour (nothing on flightless birds, nectarivores, bowerbirds, megapodes, hornbills, birds-of-paradise) but the interested reader will track down full accounts of these groups in other books easily enough.

Moss points out a recent decline in the activity of twitching (ticking rarities) and raises the possibility of an imminent “renaissance” in bird-watching. I’m sure many of us would welcome such a movement but I’m not sure I’d noticed the decline in ‘twitchiness’ – certainly not from this antipodean viewpoint.

But regardless of where you reside on the twitching spectrum we can surely all agree with Moss that, whether you’re in Galway or The Galapagos, alongside the Thames or on the shores of the Yarra, it is the behaviour of birds that encapsulates their fascination for all of us. To that end, this book should become a foundation text for all new birders and will be a welcome refresher for those of us who need to slow down and take more notice.



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