James Fleming

Talking about the birds and the bees

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Paul Carter

Reaktion Books Ltd, pp. 224, £


Claire Preston

Reaktion Books Ltd, pp. 224, £


Helen Macdonald

Reaktion Books Ltd, pp. 208, £


Jonathan Burt

Reaktion Books Ltd, pp. 189, £

Were I swimming for my life with these four books between my teeth and were I to be tried more sorely, the first to go would be Parrot. It has three gems: that Warren Hastings, who died (from starvation) in 1818, owned a parrot that was still alive in Swindon in the 1920s; that Charlotte, George V’s parrot, would perch on his shoulder and in a ‘strident, seafaring voice’ call out, ‘Well, what about it?’ as the monarch deliberated over state documents; and that in Australian slang tight male swimming briefs are known as ‘budgie smugglers’. But these are insufficient rewards for trawling through Paul Carter’s unfocused and matey prose. Too often his meaning eluded me. And his style verges on the cute. One picture caption reads, ‘A jolly Persian lass and her amusing Polly’.

Next would be Bee, despite that it’s easily the best of several recent bee books. Claire Preston is widely read and presents her information cogently and attractively. Especially fascinating is her chapter ‘Bee Movie’, which relates advances in microscopy and the spread in the 1950s of the so-called killer bee from Brazil to an entire genre of horror films in the US. The demonisation of the bee bears comparison to that of the louse in pre-first-world-war Germany (which was later to be directed explicitly against the Jews), and of the rat (see below). Bee is excellent. I enjoyed every page of it. But Falcon and Rat are more so, and two’s enough for a poor swimmer.

‘In 1998 Ken Franklin trained a young female peregrine falcon called Frightful to follow a free-falling, speed-suited skydiver out of an aircraft door at 16,000 feet.’ Thus starts Falcon. Opposite is a sensational photograph of Frightful in a vertical dive. Together they set the tone of this marvellous book, which comes as sheer joy after the crabbing and tendentious stuff the RSPB dishes out.

It is mainly concerned with the two groups of large falcons, the peregrine and the desert falcons. ‘What is it like to be a falcon?’ asks Helen Macdonald. The answer is, as different from us as we are from bats. Their world moves ten times faster than ours so that what we perceive as a whizzing blur is slow to them. We see 20 events per second, falcons see 80. Thus when at full speed, which may be 200 mph, they are able to reach out and casually grab dinner. They can resolve 2mm insects at 18 metres, see in four colours what we can see in only three, and do all sorts of aerobatics with their hollow-boned frames that rarely weigh more than a few ounces.

Lastly, Rat. The black, house, ship or Old English rat, rattus rattus: too small, too nice, and too averse to cold weather for a real future in this country. Mentioned by Zinsser but not by Jonathan Burt is that in 1727 (which by pure chance was also a mouse year), great masses of the brutish and much larger brown rat ‘swam across the Volga after an earthquake’ and invaded Europe. They were in Britain by the following year where they were promptly and wittily christened the Hanoverian rat.

This is the species that can exert a pressure of 7,000 lb per square inch with its jaws, that has a male of quick-fire virility and a female that’s ready to mate 18 hours after giving birth. These are the criminals that ate 200 of Audubon’s bird pictures and, in 1904, a six-week old child in Lewisham. It is reviled as a serial carrier of disease and for its sexual lawlessness, cannibalism and destructiveness. Thus it is also greatly feared by humans. Orwell wrote: ‘If there is one thing I hate more than any other, it is a rat running over me in the darkness.’ However, it has a skull like paper and can be killed with one good tap. Nor is it either fast or mazy over open terrain.

In this connection it is arresting to read Burt on the pathology of the Black Death. The disease spread at a rate of five miles a day. But rats (which alone carry the plague flea, xenopsylla cheops), are not wanderers: 250 metres and they’ve had enough. So was it an airborne infection? Was it in fact anthrax, which also produces buboes on its victims?

The chapter entitled ‘Hero of Science’ is completely fascinating and revolting: a page-turner. The final chapter deals with rats as pets. Modern varieties acceptable to the National Fancy Rat Society include Champagne, Russian Blue, Topaz and Lilac Agouti. There are Rat Olympics.

The illustration entitled ‘Vermine Fasciste’, which is dated 1968, surely has an anti-Semitic undertone, redolent of the louse posters in Germany. This might have merited a few pages, as would the Sherman-like rat migrations in Asia that take place in years of bamboo seed abundance.

The series (published by Reaktion, each title priced at £12.95) calls itself ‘a new kind of animal history’. It is, splendidly, even brilliantly, so. I have nothing but praise for it. Among the illustration sponsors are the British Academy and Jesus College, Cambridge. Let that also be recorded in these columns.

James Fleming’s latest novel, White Blood, reviewed here last week, is published by Cape, £12.99.