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Birds in a Cage: Warburg, Germany, 1941. Four P.O.W. birdwatchers. The unlikely beginnings of British wildlife conservation. [Hardcover]

Derek Niemann
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
Price: 14.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

1 Nov 2012
In the summer of 1940, lying in the sun, I saw a family of redstarts, unconcerned in the affairs of our skeletal multitude, going about their ways in cherry and chestnut trees. Soon after his arrival at Warburg PoW camp, British army officer John Buxton found an unexpected means of escape from the horrors of internment. Passing his days covertly watching birds, he was unaware that he, too, was being watched. Peter Conder, also a passionate ornithologist, hat noticed Buxton gazing skywards. He approached him and, with two other prisoners, they founded a secret birdwatching society.

This is the untold story of an obsessive quest behind barbed wire. Through their shared love of birds, the four PoWs overcame hunger, hardship, fear and stultifying boredom. Their quest would draw in not only their fellow prisoners, but also some of the German guards, at great risk to them all.

Derek Niemann draws on original diaries, letters and drawings, to tell of how Conder, Barrett, Waterston and Buxton were forged by their wartime experience into the giants of postwar wildlife conservation. Their legacy lives on.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Short Books Ltd (1 Nov 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1780720939
  • ISBN-13: 978-1780720937
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.6 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 206,471 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


A wonderfully crafted hymn to the life-giving qualities of birds --Simon Barnes

Immensely moving... a beautiful and gripping story --Tim Dee, BBC Wildlife Magazine --Tim Dee, BBC Wildlife Magazine

Immensely moving... a beautiful and gripping story --Tim Dee, BBC Wildlife Magazine

About the Author

Derek Niemann is the editor of the RSPB's children's magazine and has written several books on nature and conservation for young readers. He lives in Bedfordshire with his family.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A story that had to be told 21 Nov 2012
Most people who know a little about the history of nature conservation will have heard of the fiersome ladies who started the RSPB in 1889 to protest about the plumage trade. But despite some of the protagonists of the present book still being in living memory and their impact on birds conservation being just as important, it hasn't really come to light before now.

This book brilliantly tells how four diverse young men found lifelong friendship through their common interest in birds in the most horrific of circumstances, and how the ripples from that friendship still affect our understanding of birds today. John Buxton's definitive study on The Redstart arose from his observations during the war, and there have been few finer monographs. And Peter Condor's contribution to the development of Europe's largest nature conservation charity lives on.

This isn't an easy tale to read because it's so well written. Some of the details of daily life in the camps is harrowing, but it is ultimately uplifting. The war scarred all four men in the book, but the redeeming power of a common interest in birds shines through.

If you are interested in history, in birds, in people's struggle against adversity, or just in a great read, I would strongly recommend this book.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful book 21 Nov 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This isn't just a book for birdwatchers, or those interested in military history. Anyone who is interested in the power of the human spirit will enjoy the story of the four men who set up a secret birdwatching club whilst prisoners of war. At times harrowing, at times disturbing, sometimes hilariously funny and often deeply sad, Derek Niemann skilfully weaves a journey with these four characters and explains how, ultimately, it was wildlife that kept them alive.

I read this book in two days. The characters will grip you right until the end.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birds in a cage 17 Dec 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I especially enjoyed this account as I knew some of the people after the war. John Barrett lived in our village and Peter was also involved in the local field study centre. I thought it had been sensitively edited and bought home the fact that being a POW was not a cushy billet and I would reccommend it to anyone interested in how men coped with imprisonment tat had no known term,their interest in ornithology kept them sane and led into a very worthwhile peacetime life.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birdwatchers 24 Dec 2012
By isobel,
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating and beautifully written account of the experiences of four men taken as prisoners of war at the beginning of WW2. The book works on many levels for me - it is a great story about the lives of many people during the war and interwoven with this there is a fascinating account of the natural history of Europe and Britain at that period. Beautiful illustrations. I would recommend this to anyone interested in birdwatching and the history of the conservation movement, anyone with an interest in a good romantic story and for anyone with an interest in world war 2 history.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow PoW! 21 Dec 2012
By mia
This is the story of four British prisoners of war, Second Lieutenant Peter Conder, Second Lieutenant John Buxton, Second Lieutenant George Waterston and Squadron Leader John Barrett, who, after WWII, went on to influence nature conservation practice and policy.

It's a remarkable tale which is beautifully told. On the face of it, it might not sound like the most interesting of subjects, but it really is fascinating.

Reading this book made me think of how easy birders have it these days with great optics. and field guides, and recordings of songs, and distribution atlases etc. And it made me think about how important nature was to these men and how their love of nature helped them endure hardships that were extreme. Walking, exhausted, through a frozen landscape these were the type of folk to keep a bird list as they travelled.

And I wonder how the birds have changed in numbers in the last 70 years. Are the skylark flocks flying still over Warburg (North Rhine-Westphalia) in mid-March in numbers of up to 15,000 a day? I wonder.

I wonder too whether any similar records were kept by German or Italian PoWs in the UK? Prompted by reading this book I discover that there was a PoW camp just up the hill from my local birding patch - I wonder whether there were any captive ornithologists there.

The story is interesting and the writing is excellent. For example, the opening sentence to the second chapter is surprisingly funny.

The strong message from this book is that the existence of nature was incredibly important to these men - as was studying the natural world around them.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unexciting story of POW birders. 17 Sep 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Difficult to make it exciting I know, but got a little repetitive with lists of birds seen at prison camp so I found it a little dull.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy this book . 27 Dec 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Really enjoyed this , a different slant on POW's in WW2 . A must for any birders out there .
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birding within the Nazi POW Camp 21 Jan 2013
You don't expect birdwatching and Nazi prison camps to go together. Oh, sure, there's that scene in _The Great Escape_ where Donald Pleasence is explaining how to identify a shrike, but that's just cover for his real lecture on forged papers. Some prisoners in real life, however, were confirmed birdwatchers and did not let a few Nazis and some strands of barbed wire stop them. That's the surprising and inspiring story within _Birds in a Cage_ (Short Books) by Derek Niemann. Niemann is an editor at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in association with which this book is published, and which was to benefit from the prison camp birdwatchers. Not only did the four British birders here take their watching seriously, once the war was over, they were all influential in the birdwatching movement and helped in the beginnings of the wildlife preservation effort.

The four men were captured early in the war, and three remained in custody until 1945. They met in Warburg, a giant POW camp for Allied officers, and although they did not spend all their years in custody there, it was the site of their most intense ornithological work. And work it was. These men were busy; they lacked binoculars, but they scrounged paper and made detailed notes that were ready to be published eventually in ornithological journals. They cadged scrap wood to make nestboxes installed on the ends of their huts, and then kept a log of every bird's coming and going. The men made their own bird rings, and banded swallow chicks in a nest; the birds migrated to Africa and seven of them returned the next year.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Birdwatching takes on a new meaning
Nice easy to read book that is a treat to read . I kept putting it down and just thinking we never had a book that looked at skill knowledge , the way these men spent there time... Read more
Published 5 months ago by M. J. Hayden
5.0 out of 5 stars victory of the human spirit
Captivating if at times confusing in the detail matched to changing locations and stories of each of the characters in their various locations. Read more
Published 6 months ago by 1945 man
4.0 out of 5 stars Both historical and ornithological... An interesting mix
I enjoying reading real life stories about WWII and am quite interested in birds and wildlife, so I thought this would be a good book for me, and it was. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Cjustesen
5.0 out of 5 stars The cameraderie of birders
Quite an extraordinary read. Imagine the tedium of confinement over long periods of time that these guys had to deal with. This is captured very well in the book. Read more
Published 9 months ago by scotlandinaweek
4.0 out of 5 stars Brave Men
An informative and fascinating book about four founding members of conservation and their struggles as PoW's during WWII. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Boro006
5.0 out of 5 stars Free as a bird
Biography is often about looking back over a life to see how the trials and tribulations of life have shaped and influenced a life well lived. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Tweedledum
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring
I love this book - sensitive, inspiring and written in such a way as to give the feeling you were being told a story by someone who genuinely cares. Read more
Published 12 months ago by K. Goddard
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyed it - but dragged in places
i would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in birdwatching but it did drag a little at times - but to be fair if you a describing several years' incarceration in a POW... Read more
Published 13 months ago by S. C. Griffiths
3.0 out of 5 stars Great idea, let down by the delivery
This is a tale which needed telling but I don't think it was particularly well told. For once, I think the film would be better than the book - is there a film deal?
Published 14 months ago by Peter Gordon
5.0 out of 5 stars Birds in a cage
This brilliant books puts modern birders to shame, the equipment we have now, give us no excuse not to put effort into our birding
Published 14 months ago by Paul Heaton
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