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’.
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.’