A Sky Full of Birds by Matt Merritt – Review
By Matt Callard
Matt Merritt, editor of Bird Watching magazine, and author of this paean to the manifold delights of British birding is quick here to differentiate his kind of bird watching (cerebral, aesthetic, considerate) from that of ‘twitchers’ – those rucksacked rogues who are mostly concerned with box ticking, one-upmanship and scowling at my two-year-old son for being over-boisterous in the hide at the local nature reserve the other day.
Twitchers, you see, are the trainspotters of the bird watching world – trampling over anything and everything in order to get their shutters on the latest bird import, often to the detriment of their surroundings. He softens on them during the course of the book, but the separation is important, not least because it immediately defines Merritt as a sensitive nature lover, an aesthete and the ‘right’ kind of birdwatcher.
“Entwined with the land and our history”
In this frequently beautiful, occasionally transcendent journey through British birding’s ‘greatest hits’ he delivers a vivid portrait of one man’s compulsion to see and experience bird-life. We discover what compels him to rise pre-dawn, step into vile weather then hunker down in a freezing hide for a rare glimpse of a bird. We wonder what instincts persuade him to pull off the motorway and trample down a side-street after a soaring shadow catches his eye, when really he should be driving to a meeting.
Throughout we’re enthralled by his deep love for birds – especially British ones – as he puts together a defiant claim that these isles are nothing less than a vast and varied birding paradise, where even a thrush riffing from the top of a garden rowan should be seen as a grand gift.
For casual bird admirers like me, it’s fascinating how some passages redraw how you see birds – particularly the more mundane ones (or LBJs as he calls them – ‘little brown jobs’). Merritt’s lifetime obsession with corvids (crows) is apparent throughout, as he describes them not just as exemplary scavengers with a cock-headed intelligence, but as something deeper – something symbolic that’s entwined with the land and our history and the connection between people and nature.
It’s a connection expanded upon in a wonderful finale, as Merritt witnesses the UK’s greatest bird gathering, on the Norfolk coast at Snettisham. Whilst he’s caught up in the spectacle it occurs to him that it has gone on for centuries – millennia, even – through wars and industrialisation and invasion. That although man’s behaviour affects birds, they adapt as a biological imperative. He explains: “For them, the location is neither unspoiled nor man-made, just a huge, muddy fly-through takeaway”.
Elsewhere, his description of entering a wood to experience the dawn chorus is magical; Merritt casually picking out the ‘silvery thread’ of a robin’s song, then the ‘jazz musician’ thrush, until every bird of the wood from blackcap to blue tit is joining in. In a different passage, when he hears the nightingale singing at night, it’s all the author can do but reach for the poets – Chaucer, Shelley, Keats and the Bard.
There are some mundane passages. The profile of Rutland Water, while no doubt an important location for the writer, feels closer to a National Geographic editorial and the chapter on Birdfair, an important meeting event in the birding calendar, is hardly suited to purple prose.
Occasionally, too, you feel A Sky Full of Birds teeters towards being a birding memoir. There is a story arc of sorts throughout – Merritt’s childhood love of birds, his lapsed teenage years, his rediscovery of birding during one quiet afternoon at university. One wonders if his editor could have pushed him more obviously down this route – or perhaps that method is being saved for the sequel?
Whatever, this moving, thoughtful book, much like its joyful title, is truly full of life.
‘A Sky Full of Birds’ by Matt Merritt (Rider Books, £12.99)