October 2007

Melissa A. Barton


Winged Wonders: A Celebration of Birds in Human History by Peter Watkins and Jonathan Stockland

Birds, as at home in the skies as in the world we inhabit, have been a part of human history for as long as history has existed. Some have become icons: the medieval pelican in piety, representing self-sacrifice; Athena’s owl, representing wisdom; the clever Crow or Raven of folklore; the hawks and doves of war and peace. Birds exert a strong pull on human imagination and feature in countless stories, legends, allegories, and memoirs. They also exhibit intriguing and varied behaviors and quirks of biology.

Winged Wonders: A Celebration of Birds in Human History by Peter Watkins and Jonathan Stockland is a birdwatcher’s treasure trove of trivia, religious stories, history, and poetry about some of the birds closest to humans, with a touch of science thrown in for good measure. All this can be overwhelming.

Watkins and Stockland discuss domestic birds, such as chickens and geese; birds of prey; exotic and symbolic birds like peacocks, ostriches, and pelicans; and songbirds like wrens, as well as some history of bird illustration, U.S. state birds, and classical composers inspired by birdsong. A typical chapter includes information about a bird or group of birds and human history, religious symbolism, appearances in folklore, snippets of poetry, and a natural history fact or two. If this sounds like a lot for one short chapter of a short book, it is.

The authors, both amateur birdwatchers, are clearly passionate about birds, and spent several years researching the book. But this enthusiasm perhaps led them to cram too much information into a slim volume. What should be light reading -- and the authors’ style is friendly and approachable -- becomes a sometimes-dense book. At the same time, many more recent examples of birds in popular culture are left out. A more leisurely pace, longer page count, and less disjointed structure might have suited the topic better.

Winged Wonders is an almanac of tidbits, not a collection of stories, and the accuracy of some of the tidbits is questionable (in some versions of legend, Athena took Pallas as an epithet in memory of an accidentally-slain relative or friend rather than an opponent), making it somewhat difficult to rely upon. Winged Wonders is an entertaining source of information to bring up at a party or a birdwatching outing, but for someone deeply interested in the history or biology of birds, there are more in-depth books. Some may also find 224 pages of facts packed together to be overwhelming and lacking sufficient story to draw them together.

Overall, I found Winged Wonders to be a good idea executed too haphazardly for my tastes. Although I learned a few interesting bits of trivia, I felt too much like I was reading encyclopedia entries rather than a collection of stories.

Winged Wonders: A Celebration of Birds in Human History by Peter Watkins and Jonathan Stockland
ISBN: 1933346078
224 Pages