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‘Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names’ by Stephen Moss ****

Stephen Moss is fast becoming one of my absolute favourite nature writers.  When I spotted an online copy of Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names on my library app, therefore, I borrowed it immediately.  I had only read a couple of his titles before this one, but find his largely bird-focused books fascinating and beautifully written.

The naming of species has always interested me, and as far as I am aware, I have only read books in the past which touch upon the process.  In Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, Moss has been far more thorough.  His narrative is split into several separate sections, which range from ‘History and Science’ to ‘Tomorrow Never Knows: The Future of Bird Names’. 35997821._sx318_

Moss makes his standpoint clear from the outset.  He writes: ‘I believe that by giving linguistic labels to the multifarious wonders of life around us – by watching, seeing, focusing on and separating one organism from another, closely related species – we are then better able to understand and appreciate the natural world in all its glorious variety and confusion.’  He then sets out the parameters of the history which he will take us as readers through in the remainder of the book; we span the period from the Anglo Saxon invaders, who began to give names to birds, to a glimpse into the possible future of naming practices.

Moss goes on to write about the people who lived before the Anglo Saxons, who called some of the bird species by names which we still use today.  Moss speculates that goose is ‘possibly the oldest of all the names we still use today, and may go all the way back to the language spoken on the steppes of eastern Europe and western Asia more than five thousand years ago.’  From this point onward, Moss delves deeply into the evolution of language, and how bird names have changed slightly over the centuries.  He looks at the onomatopoeic origins of some bird names – jackdaw, for instance.

Many bird names do not, comments Moss, ‘make perfect sense’.  This is primarily because ‘… they were coined by a whole range of different people, over many thousands of years, from the prehistoric era to the present day.’  The process of naming birds is a collective effort, if you will.  Throughout Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, Moss discusses the origins of the English language, before moving into the specificity of bird naming.  He discusses advances within the binomial system introduced by Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and later DNA-based changes in the classifications of birds.

In the introduction to this volume, Moss writes that the origin of some bird names ‘can seem obvious, but may not be quite as straightforward as first appears’.  He goes on to say that ‘broadly speaking, it is reasonable to assume that most common and familiar birds were named a long time ago, by ordinary people – hence the term “folk” names – while scarce and unfamiliar birds were named much more recently, by professional ornithologists.’  These ‘professionals’ began to name birds during the seventeenth century; these were largely based on the locality of the birds, and their distinguishing features – the black-tailed godwit, and the pink-footed goose, for instance.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there emerged a new category of bird names – those named after people.  We thus have the likes of Montagu’s harrier and Leach’s storm petrel as well as, of course, Mrs Moreau’s warbler.

As in Moss’ specific bird species biographies, he quotes other authors and experts throughout.  Their observations blend seamlessly with his own.  He also weaves in his own experiences of birdwatching with the more factual details.  One cannot help but get the sense that Mrs Moreau’s Warbler has been meticulously researched by someone so passionate about his subjects; indeed, the extensive notes at the end of the volume alone are proof of this.

Moss’ books are wonderful, both for those just getting into nature writing, and others who are well versed in all it has to offer.  Mrs Moreau’s Warbler is comprehensive in what it covers, and Moss’ writing is a joy to read.  This book is a beautiful piece of escapism, and it immediately absorbs one in its patient, peaceful prose.

Unlike his bird biographies, there is far more scientific information included here, so a little more concentration is required at times; however, this is well worth it.  Mrs Moreau’s Warbler is thorough and highly instructive, whilst still being accessible to the general reader.  I shall end this review with one of the resounding beliefs of the author: ‘To me, the diversity of bird names is not an inconvenience but a wonder.’

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‘Wintering: A Season with Geese’ by Stephen Rutt

I adore books about the natural world, and find them both calming and peaceful to read – something which is very important, given the current state of the world. Stephen Rutt is a young naturalist who has published two non-fiction books; Wintering: A Season with Geese is his second.

Wintering was selected as one of the Times‘ Books of the Year 2019, and has been very highly praised. Jon Dunn in BBC Wildlife magazine writes: ‘Rutt’s dreamy prose is as cool and elegant as the season he charts’, and the Times calls it a ‘poignant testament to how we can find peace in the rhythms of the natural world.’ Waterstones calls it an ‘understated gem’.

In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’

In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.’

In Wintering, Rutt has created what the book’s blurb hails ‘a vivid tour of the landscapes they inhabit and a celebration of the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season.’ The author finds himself ‘celebrating the beauty of winter, when we share our home with these large, startling and garrulous birds.’

Wintering has been split into six different chapters, each of which corresponds to one of the most common species of geese in the United Kingdom. To be specific, these are the Pink-footed, Barnacle, Greylag, Brent, White-fronted, and Bean. In the book’s introduction, he notes that at the turn of winter: ‘Five wild species will head to Britain for the winter: a relative land of plenty, and gentler weather, respite from a north that is, still, ice-bloated and snowbound for the winter.’

Rutt had been a birder for a long time – ‘almost half my life,’ he says – but geese only became a fascination once he moved to Scotland: ‘Their habit of always just being there, their familiarity, bred apathy,’ he admits. His winter of geese begins on the 23rd of September, with a ‘simple arrow of birds as distant as the hills, heading south through the sunset.’ It is filled, then, with ‘wild half-count, half-estimates at the numbers passing overhead, between the fields north of the town and the Solway Firth to the south.’

Throughout Wintering, Rutt charts his journey into winter, and into his fascination with the geese: ‘I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis. Although I am told the winter won’t always be like this – they are wild geese after all, predictably unpredictable – the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me… In a new place they are making me feel, tentatively, at home.’

From its very first page, where Rutt writes: ‘Autumn begins as a season for movement, and ends with everything changed’, one cannot help but be charmed by his pitch-perfect prose. He has such an awareness of the seasons, and of the birds which populate them. Early on, he writes: ‘Birds penetrate my year: time passes constantly but birds are the grammar of its passing, they give a rough working order to the months. I have my totems: the first singing chiffchaff at the beginning of spring and the first screeching swift at its end. The silencing of song at the end of summer; the disappearance of the swifts and the arrival of autumn.’

Rutt’s descriptions provide scenes so vivid that they are almost tangible to the reader: ‘Suddenly – geese, pushed over by the weather, heading to the Solway. A chaos of pink-footed geese, stretching across the horizon. There are thousands, the skeins straggling, struggling without a set order, flying in all directions. Lead geese swapping with others. Individuals peeling off and joining other groups, geese like a kaleidoscope of panic. Their honking sounds urgent. Wings labouring, growing damp in the rain, energy sapped by the wind.’ Later is this: ‘A hare basks in the middle of a field, in front of a dense barnacle goose flock, their monochrome plumage burning bright in the sun. The silver flanks dazzle, the white and black bars on their backs are like sharp light and thick shadow.’

Throughout, Rutt has sprinkled some really interesting facts about geese alongside his own observations. He writes, for instance, that the Bean goose is now so rare in the county of Dumfries and Galloway that ‘if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.’ He also writes about the fluctuation of population sizes, which are largely due to indiscriminate hunting, and the subsequent banning of this practice.

Throughout Wintering, Rutt discusses many elements which surround geese and their place in the world – their history, different migratory patterns, the uses for their meat and feathers, the domestication of various species, and geese in art and literature. He also touches upon conservation in many of the chapters which make up the book.

It was a wonderful thing, to revisit Scotland alongside Rutt. Although he lives in and describes a part of Scotland which I have never been to, having lived in Glasgow for three years, I recognised the often stark beauty of the landscapes which he writes about: ‘It is a bleak, dreich day: October by calendar, deep into winter by spirit. I can only faintly see the first line of hills. The trees reduced to pale grey shadows, their shapes indistinct in the weather.’

Wintering is a real delight, particularly to snuggle down with on a cool autumn or winter evening. It is clear that Rutt has such an interest in his chosen subjects; indeed, he writes: ‘My love of geese might be recent, but it connects me with a human fascination extending back for millennia.’

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‘The Wren: A Biography’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adore nature writing, and was therefore keen to pick up something by prolific author Stephen Moss, who writes almost exclusively about birds.  The blurb of the beautifully produced The Wren: A Biography says that this is a ‘captivating biography of Britain’s most common bird which lives – often unseen – right on our doorstep.’

With at least eight million breeding pairs in Britain, it seems curious that the majority of people – myself included – believe they have never seen one.  In his introduction, Moss alludes to the reasoning behind this: ‘Perhaps that’s because wrens are so tiny, weighing less than half an ounce; or that they’re constantly on the move, behaving more like a mouse than a bird.’
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The Wren is a year-in-the-life biography.  Moss moves through each month, noting, as the book’s subtitle suggests, ‘The Secret Life of Britain’s Most Common Bird’.  It begins on a ‘bright, cold winter’s day’, when Moss leans out of his kitchen window ‘soon after sunrise’.  Here, he observes a wren, describing it thus: ‘… quiet and unassuming, lurking deep in the shadows beneath the shrubbery, like a shy actor waiting in the wings, while others take centre stage.’  He then goes on to comment that he has seen wrens all over the United Kingdom, ‘from the heart of London to the remotest offshore island.’

The book features gorgeous illustrations throughout, and contains such charming details of wrens in popular culture and literature, from William Shakespeare to William Blake.  Moss writes of the different names bestowed upon the birds throughout history, from the Jenny wren to the tomtit.  He also explores the ‘fascinating folklore surrounding this species.’

In each chapter, Moss references others who have written extensively about the wren.  Revered ornithologist Max Nicholson, for instance, described the wren as ‘a bird of crevices and crannies, of woodpiles and fallen trees, of hedge-bottoms and banks, walls and boulders…  Wrens therefore can cut across, or rather scramble under, the imaginary boundaries which we are accustomed to draw between different types of country.’

Throughout The Wren, Moss writes at length of many aspects of the existence of the wren.  He looks at the historical migration of the wren, which has meant that different variations of the bird can be found around the world.  He talks of their song, their mating rituals, the distribution of the birds, their preferred habitats, the effects of climate change upon them, the nest building process, and the fledging of the chicks, amongst other fascinating details.

The Wren is the most darling nature book, and one of the most engaging about a single species which I have read to date.  It is informative and immersive from its very beginning, and the structure, which follows a single calendar year, works wonderfully.  Moss’ prose is beautifully descriptive, and he speaks authoritatively throughout.

The Wren is sure to appeal to anyone interested in the natural world, and I thoroughly enjoyed Moss’ take on the tiny birds.  I am so excited to read more of his books, and feel that he could easily become one of my very favourite nature writers.