I think it remarkable that birds and birding feature so infrequently in fiction. Many less popular subjects and minority pursuits have had more impact on the imagination more often and more dramatically, whether it be “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “Trainspotting.”
Granted that, even today, the majority of the human population doesn’t know a cardinal from a crow, the finer points of diopter adjustment or a supercilium from a supernova, but most of us don’t know many equestrian psychologists or shark hunters, either, and that doesn’t stop us from flocking to see “The Horse Whisperer” or “Jaws.”
Birding is one of those pastimes more derided than acclaimed despite the fact that many millions of people love birds, hang out peanuts and even pay veterinary bills to try and save a robin mauled by the neighbour’s cat.
Our perceptions have very little to do with reality. They are more likely to have been derived from minor comic characters in long forgotten TV shows or the comics we pored over in our childhood. Hands up: Who doesn’t remember Jane Hathaway from “The Beverly Hillbillies” and her birdwatcher leader Professor Biddle, despite it having been first aired in 1966! In our mind’s eye all birdwatchers are swots who wear overlong baggy shorts, Boy Scout shirts, and knee-length socks as they creep around the neighbourhood in a rather suspect manner.
Birds fair no better than birders. Hitchcock saw to that in 1963 when Tippi Hedren ran a gauntlet of crazed crows and ghastly gulls. Edgar Allen Poe had not helped back in 1845 when he shared with us that a grim and ancient raven had come rapping, tapping at his door. It was probably too late by then anyway as myth and mystery surrounded birds before humans had learned to write and often embodied good and evil after we invented literature. From biblical doves of peace to the arrow-wielding sparrow in our nursery rhymes, birds have had a low but constant profile—yet we birders barely break the surface tension on the dark pool of the imagination.
However, things have definitely been changing. There were small beginnings when the diaries of an erstwhile birder became T.H White’s novel, “The Goshawk,” in 1951, and British film goers were introduced to the intrigue of finding a rare bird in “Tawny Pipit,” made in 1944, despite there being a war on! A couple of decades later they were more intrigued by the acclaimed movie ‘Kes’ (1969), which, perhaps for the first time, showed the positive effect of our love of birds when a wayward boy was redeemed through his relationship with a falcon.
I think that birders as central characters only started coming into their own with the new genre of “birder murder” novels that has been so well represented now by the likes of Lydia Adamson, Karen Dudley, and Jan Dunlap in the U.S., and Ann Cleves in the U.K.
TV has hardly been touched by our “sport.” In the U.K. a couple of decades ago, the comedy series “Watching” was well-watched and well-loved, but it is only recently that another such character has turned up on prime time. Ann Cleeves’ success as an author has been extended by her originating a very popular crime drama, “Vera,” is available on the Internet for U.S. viewers, with Brenda Blethyn as the shabby and unconventional detective whose dad was a dyed-in-the-wool birder.
The other day I watched the charming coming of age movie “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” in which nerdy birders outwit some twitchers, but very nearly come to grief from a duck-hunter. If only TV could grasp the nettle as firmly birders might actually be considered normal one day!
For anyone interested a list of TV shows, books, and films appears below. I’d love to hear from you if you can extend that list. Please comment on this post or email me!
- “Tawny Pipit” (1944)
- “The Birds” (1963)
- “Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher” (1968)
- “Kes” (1969)
- “A Breed Apart” (1984)
- “Killing Birds” (1987)
- “Rare Birds” (2001)
- “Birdwatchers” (2008)
- “The Big Year” (2011)
- “Pelican Blood” (2010)
- “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” (2014)
- The Case of the Hook-billed Kites, by J.S. Borthwick, Penguin Crime, 1982 ISBN 014006785X
- A Siege of Bitterns, a Birder Murder Mystery, by Steve Burrows, Dundern Press, 2014. ISBN 1459708431
- A Bird in the Hand: A George Palmer-Jones Detective Story, by Ann Cleeves, 1986. ISBN 0712694765
- Murder in Paradise: A George Palmer-Jones Detective Story, by Ann Cleeves, Mass Market Paperback, 1988. ISBN 9781447252955
- A Prey to Murder: A George Palmer-Jones Detective Story, by Ann Cleeves, Mass Market Paperback, 1989. ISBN 0449145751
- Another Man’s Poison: A George Palmer-Jones Detective Story, by Ann Cleeves, Allison & Busby, 1992. ISBN 0749004363
- Sea Fever: A George Palmer-Jones Detective Story, by Ann Cleeves, Allison & Busby, 1993. ISBN 9781447250197
- Mill on the Shore: A George Palmer-Jones Detective Story, by Ann Cleeves, Allison & Busby, 1994. ISBN 0449149188
- High Island Blues: A George Palmer-Jones Detective Story, by Ann Cleeves, Allison & Busby, 1996. ISBN 0708937888
- Beware the Tufted Duck: A Lucy Wayles Mystery, by Lydia Adamson, Signet, 1996. ISBN 0451190246
- Beware the Butcherbird: A Lucy Wayles Mystery, by Lydia Adamson, Signet, 1997. ISBN 0451191218
- Beware The Laughing Gull: A Lucy Wayles Mystery, by Lydia Adamson, Signet, 1998, ISBN 0451195981
- The Red Heron: A Robyn Devara Mystery, by Karen Dudley, Ravenstone, 1999. ISBN 0888012403
- Macaws of Death: A Robyn Devara Mystery, by Karen Dudley, Ravenstone, 2002. ISBN: 0888012748
- Hoot to Kill: A Robyn Devara Mystery, by Karen Dudley, Ravenstone, 2003. ISBN 0888012918
- The Boreal Owl Murder: A Bob White Birder Murder Mystery, by Jan Dunlap, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2008. ISBN 9780878392773
- Murder on Warbler Weekend: A Bob White Birder Murder Mystery, by Jan Dunlap, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2009. ISBN 0878393218
- A Bobwhite Killing: A Bob White Birder Murder Mystery, by Jan Dunlap, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2010. ISBN 0878393757
- Falcon Finale: A Bob White Birder Murder Mystery, by Jan Dunlap, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2011. ISBN 0878394486
- A Murder of Crows: A Bob White Birder Murder Mystery, by Jan Dunlap, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2012.ISBN: 9780878398768
- Swift Justice: A Bob White Birder Murder Mystery, by Jan Dunlap, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2014. ISBN: 9780312641504
- A Rant of Ravens, by Christine Goff, Berkeley Prime Crime, 2000. ISBN 0425173607
- The Stonor Eagles, by William Horwood, Arrow Paperback, 1991. ISBN 0099455404
- Birds in a Cage, by Derek Niemann, Short Books Ltd., 2012. ISBN 9781780720937
- The Goshawk, by T.H. White, 1951.ISBN 0140019316
Thanks to a commenter for these titles:
- A Bird to Die For, by Digby Maclaughlin, Bantry Books, 2010. ISBN 9780955755347
- Waiting for Godwits, by Digby Maclaughlin, Bantry Books, 2019. ISBN 0955755301
- A Bird of a Different Colour, by Digby Maclaughlin, Bantry Books, 2010. ISBN 9780955755316
About the Author
Bo Beolens is best known in birding circles for his extensive web presence: Fat Birder - one of the world’s biggest and most-used on-line resources for birders and Birding Top 1000 lists the top birding websites by their popularity. He also has a monthly column in a UK birding magazine as The Grumpy Old Birder and has written articles in BWD and other magazines. He has had seven books published and more are in final edit… ‘The Eponym Dictionary of Birds’ came out in time for the British Bird Fair in August 2014. He also champions birders with mobility problems setting up a charity in 2001 Birding For All Having birded on six continents he also organises trips for others via his Anytime Tours website. If he ever gets time he goes birding! His wife Maggie and son Ash are keen birders but the rest of their children and some of their five grandchildren (21, 14, 12, 10, 5) have yet to be convinced... although two are now showing a healthy interest! Having reached the magical age of 65 Bo has recently launched a new BLOG: Angry Old Bloke