When There Were Birds


Just before dawn, 7th June 1917, huge underground mines were detonated beneath the German lines by the British army. It was the start of the Battle of Messines at the Ypres Salient: ‘Then came the greatest miracle of all, for with the rose flush in the sky the whole bird chorus of morning came to life. Never, surely, did birds sing so – blackbird and thrush, lark, and black-cap and willow warbler, their notes pealed up as if each bird were struck with frenzy and all together strove to shout down the guns. This book is not an environmental account of the great decline in bird numbers over recent decades. Instead, it is a social history charting the complex relationships between people and birds, against a background of evolving tastes, beliefs and behaviour, as well as changing landscapes and ideas.

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SKU: 9781408713570 Category:


‘A marvellously original slice of social history’ Daily Mail (Book of the Week)

The facts and folklore of birdlife , and man’s equivocal relationship with birds, are dissected in admirable detail in this handsome new book’ Sunday Times

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.

Additional information

Weight 0.8 kg
Dimensions 23.8 × 15.6 × 4.8 cm






488 , 16 unnumbered of plates




598 (edition:23)


General – Trade / Code: K