on 21 November 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.
on 21 November 2012
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.
on 21 December 2012
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. A little thing like captivity during a World War wasn't going to deflect them from their passion - indeed, in some ways it gave them the time and opportunity, and by chance the companions, to study more, learn more and think more. If you feel imprisoned in any way by your life then there may be a lesson for you in this book. There certainly is a message of hope and human endurance written through this excellent book.
on 21 January 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. Their fellow prisoners were often bemused; one wrote that "practically the whole camp" would come and look at what he was doing while he was observing a nest, "and not only that but will keep on asking me questions when I am trying to look at the bird, or write down what I have seen." Some of the men, however, became interested in watching and helping. Keeping such records brought order, structure, and a sense of control to the lives of men who had little control in their fates. It wasn't all birding behind barbed wire. Niemann does not neglect to remind readers about how cold, lice, starvation, and illness took their toll on the men during all those years. However, since Niemann quotes extensively from their letters home, letters which the men knew had to pass by the censors, there is much good humor and understatement in their descriptions of their own lives. At the end of his confinement, when the Germans were giving up, one wrote joyously on 25 April 1945 about the excitement in the camp, and ended with, "The Commandant had not yet had confirmation, but to all intents and purposes the camp is now under Allied command. First swift of the year this pm." Niemann also ties in the men's activities to the timetable of the larger war, putting the birding efforts in the context of bigger events, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and more.
Once they were liberated and back home, they were not the men they were; it is sad to read how medical problems had taken a permanent toll. There were mental scars as well, some more serious than one's being unable to write if anyone was behind him or anothers's inability to pass food to anyone else at table without taking his share. Reunions with family members were not the stuff of fairy tales. However, the four went on to train naturalists, found observatories, and write up their wartime findings. One birdwatcher mailed to himself at war's end a huge body of raw data that he never saw again, but another's wartime notes went into his volume on the redstart. Yet another ran the RSPB from 1963 to 1975, making it a professional body and growing its membership by ten. The birds had, in a real sense, saved these POWs, and it is inspiring to read how the former prisoners returned the favor.
on 5 February 2014
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 behind fences . It's true we may be captured by walls or rooms yet out brain is the doorway to escape . . Learning collecting nature the changing seasons of natural world is free yet it also gives you hope simple pleasures like the finding a nest , recording , bird song , are ways to escape the reality that can suffocate us if only people would enjoy the beauty of the birds flora fauna around us . It would make such a difference to our lives