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Nature Birdwatching Guides

The Bedside Book of Birds

An Avian Miscellany

by (author) Graeme Gibson

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2005
Birdwatching Guides
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2005
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2006
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2021
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In this stunning assemblage of words and images, novelist and avid birdwatcher Graeme Gibson has crafted an extraordinary tribute to the venerable relationship between humanity and birds.

Birds have ever been the symbols of humanity’s highest aspirations. As divine messengers, symbols of our yearning for the heavens, or avatars of glorious song and colour, birds have stirred our imaginations from the moment we first looked up into the sky.

Whether as the Christian dove, or the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, or in Plato’s representation of the human soul growing wings and feathers, religion and philosophy have looked to birds as representatives of our best selves — that part of us not bound to the earth.

With the devotion of a birder and hoarder of words, Gibson has spent twenty years collecting the literary and artistic forms our affinity for birds has taken over the centuries. Birds appear again and again in mythology and folk tales and in literature by writers as diverse as Aesop, Shakespeare, Poe, Coleridge, Borges, and Eliot. They’ve been omens, allegories, disguises and guides; they’ve been worshipped, eaten, feared, and loved. Nor does Gibson forget the fascination birds hold for science, as the Galapagos finches did for Darwin. Birds appear charmingly and tellingly in the work of such naturalists as W.H. Hudson, Peter Matthiessen, Farley Mowat, and Barry Lopez.

So intensely and universally are we drawn to birds, it’s small wonder that birdwatching is one of the most popular activities in the English-speaking world.

Gorgeously illustrated and woven from centuries of human response to the delights of the feathered tribes, The Bedside Book of Birds is for everyone who is passionate about birds and all they mean to humanity.

“With the zeal of a convert and the instigated imagination of an ex-novelist, I started taking note of, then collecting, and finally obsessively searching out texts that illustrated something — almost anything — about our human response to birds. This book is the result. It isn’t so much about birds themselves as it is about the richly varied relationships we have established with them during the hundreds of thousands of years that we and they have shared life on earth.”
—Graeme Gibson

About the author

Graeme Gibson is the acclaimed author of Five Legs, Communion, Perpetual Motion, and Gentleman Death. He is a long-time cultural activist, and co-founder of the Writer's Union of Canada and the Writers' Trust. He is a past president of PEN Canada and the recipient of both the Harbourfront Festival Prize and the Toronto Arts Award, and is a Member of the Order of Canada. He lives in Toronto.

Graeme Gibson's profile page

Excerpt: The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany (by (author) Graeme Gibson)


I came to the birds relatively late in life. For almost thirty-seven years I didn’t understand birdwatching. I remember how eccentric, how curious – even mysterious – I found the activity. Who were these tens of thousands of people with sensible shoes, a predilection for paramilitary raingear, and an almost risible devotion to birds?

Some collect species for their “life list” (that compilation of all the birds one has seen in a lifetime); they are chasers, for whom birding is a competitive sport. Some are scientists, and others work on nesting maps, migration monitoring or bird banding. For the majority of enthusiasts, however, birdwatching simply provides a personal and very special entrée into the natural world.

Years ago I found myself sheltering by the wheelhouse on the Cachalote, a 52-foot motorsailer cruising in the Galapagos. A metallic sea was rising beneath sullen clouds that shredded themselves against the hills of Isabella Island. Everything was grey and black, and the ship was pitching uncomfortably.

I hadn’t been expecting to see my first albatross until later, on Hood Island, where they nest. But in an abrupt clearing of the mist and driving rain, there it was, drifting low over the ragged sea. Enormous and powerful, effortless as sleep, it crossed our wake and then was gone in another squall. While some would say this sighting was merely luck, others might call it grace.

Suddenly any memory of whatever I might have learned about the albatross seemed irrelevant. It was enough to have seen it at that moment, and I was left with an enchanted sense that I had received a gift.
At its heightened moments, birdwatching can encourage a state of being close to rapture. It is an ecstasy that is said to accompany the writing of poetry; sometimes it comes when we’re listening to music.

I suspect that, if I am fortunate enough to await death naturally, dreaming in a chair by some open window, the image of that Waved Albatross, with its great pale head and eight-foot wingspan, will still be a source of gratitude and wonder to me.

When I first wrote about the Waved Albatross, the idea of compiling a selection of writing that explored the ways in which humans have engaged themselves with birds began to grow in my mind. With the zeal of a convert, I started taking note of, then collecting, and finally obsessively searching out texts that illustrated something – almost anything – about our shared response to birds.

This book is the result. It isn’t so much about birds themselves as it is about the richly varied and sometimes very intimate relationships that we have established with them during the hundreds of thousands of years that we and they have shared life on earth. It is also about the often grimmer ways in which birds have been forced to relate to us.

Humans developed as a species in a world full of birds. Despite seeing images of the great flocks of waders and marsh birds in African wetlands, or the millions of nesting Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Common Murres, Puffins, and various species of Gulls on northern sea-cliffs, it remains hard for us to conceive just how omnipresent birds must have been in the lives of our forebears.

Somewhere along the way we identified ourselves with them, and came to associate birds with the realm of spirits, as opposed to that of bodies and their carnal appetites.

Perhaps for this reason there’s an abundance of intriguing material about birds, from all times and all cultures. Not only do they feature in creation myths, in sagas and parables, in liturgies and in fairy tales, but poets, writers, story-tellers and artists in all ages have found them a fertile source of imagery and symbol.

In the end I decided to divide the book into nine sections – nine different habitats, if you like, where certain species are naturally gathered together.

Material within the sections is more instinctively arranged. I’d like the reader, in exploring my “habitats,” to encounter the unexpected, just as one might when exploring a richly varied but unfamiliar woodland: because the trail is unpredictable and you can’t see beyond the surrounding foliage, you never know quite what to expect.

You might even discover some unanticipated aspect of self; for birds, in dream theory, are symbols for the personality of the dreamer.

Graeme Gibson

1: "Oh, the Birds..."
Birds Observed and Recorded

Swallows certainly sleep all winter. A number of them
conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap
throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.
—Samuel Johnson

I was coming to the end of a week scouting for a series of birding trips in Cuba’s Zapata swamp, the vast area of marshland, reed-beds and low mixed forest that surrounds the Bay of Pigs. My companions were Orlando Garrido, Cuba’s senior ornithologist, and Rogelio, an excellent forest warden and a wonderful man. At our last breakfast, with the Bay a limpid turquoise beyond a crescent beach and the air resounding with the gargling of Cuban crows, Garrido told me that Rogelio had a special surprise for us. They both grinned knowingly but neither would elaborate.

Later that morning, just off an old logging road, Garrido pointed to a tangle of sticks about twelve metres up in a nondescript tree. It was the nest of a Gundlach’s Hawk, with the white and woolly shape of a nestling on its edge. Discovered just two days earlier, it was only the fourth official nesting site found in the twentieth century.

As we circled to the other side we saw the adult’s rounded tail, then the whole bird. Watching us out of a cautious red eye, she’d frozen completely. Although her throat trembled, she didn’t even blink.
The Gundlach’s is a fine, strong bird, very much like our Cooper’s Hawk. It is an endangered species endemic to Cuba, and only a handful of other people had ever seen one on the nest. All of us, I think, were sobered; certainly we were quiet.

On the way back it occurred to me that there were undoubtedly more skins of Gundlach’s Hawk in museums around the world than there were live birds in the whole of Cuba. In the nineteenth century, most people treated birds as if they were stamps waiting to be included in a prize collection. As a result, countless thousands of birds and their eggs were collected. Considered a ­necessary part of scientific behaviour, this kind of killing was done by men as important as Audubon, who once wrote that he felt incomplete if he didn’t kill a hundred birds a day.

As one of the first bird artists to use fresh models – which he meticulously posed after threading thin wires into their bodies – Audubon would sometimes kill a dozen individuals before finding the one he wanted. Most of us are defined by the age we live in – Audubon included – and in the nineteenth century birds were routinely slaughtered in astonishing numbers. Audubon reports that in a single day forty-eight thousand Golden Plovers were gunned down near New Orleans.

On May 28, 1854, William David Thoreau, who earned some of his keep by collecting specimens for science, wrote in his diary: “The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.”
But now, in the twenty-first century, I suspect that most birdwatchers would find it harder to identify a dead bird in the hand than a living one in flight.

When I think of the Gundlach’s Hawk, it’s the red eye I remember best, and that fluffy ball of a nestling. Despite being delighted and moved, I couldn’t help feeling we shouldn’t be there. We meant trouble for the mother and her young, and that brilliant red eye seemed to acknowledge it. We weren’t the first to alarm her, and I feared we wouldn’t be the last.

Sadly I was right: the following year I learned that her nestling had been captured, and after appropriate training in the disciplines of falconry, was being used to scare other birds away from the runways of Havana’s international airport. I felt somehow culpable, and I still do when I remember.

One of the rewards of birdwatching is the brief escape it affords from our ancient and compelling need to make Nature useful. There may even be something of Thoreau’s “true knowledge” in that evanescent taste of freedom.

Editorial Reviews

A Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year
"The most compulsively readable of a clutch of bird-themed books out this autumn. Taking in everything from classic nature-writing to poetry via folklore and Mayan creation myths, The Bedside Book Of Birds is by no means for 'twitchers' only."
Daily Mail (London)

"The perfect book for armchair ornithologists with an eye for words as well as feathers."
The Daily Telegraph (London)

"A wonderful collection of poetry and prose, folk tales and myths, which pay tribute to our feathered friend. . . . A perfect Christmas present, even for non-anoraks."
Mail on Sunday (UK)

"Anyone who has watched birds, studied them, given them the least attention,will find this a treat. It is a compilation of writings that celebrate themany ways people have engaged with birds - made companions of them,mythologised them, hunted and eaten them. There's an account of a mocking thrush drinking from Charles Darwin's hand on the voyage of the Beagle, and of a woman in Ohio who incubated 50 hens' eggs by laying them alongside the body of her dying, fevered husband. This book is well worth buying for the illustrations alone."
New Scientist
"The diversity of the book's offerings is testament to Gibson's superb researching skills, and the final product reflects well upon his aesthetic sense, resulting in a wonderful marriage of word and image. The breadth and depth of the offerings are impressive, and each visit between the covers will leave you inspired and a little wiser. I cannot think to ask more of a book. It will entertain and enlighten birder and non-birder alike, and it will occupy a prominent position on the bookshelf, close to hand."
Nova Scotia Birds
"The beauty of the writing and the illustrations contained in The Bedside Book of Birds is matched by the beauty of the physical book itself. Great pains have been taken by the author and the publisher to make this book a work of art, and they have succeeded marvellously."
The Globe and Mail
"The most spectacular bird book of the year."
The Globe and Mail
"An astoundingly beautiful book . . . featur[ing] some of the most sublime writings to be found on the subject."
The Globe and Mail

The Bedside Book of Birds is a superb gift, a compulsive must-have, for the bird-lover, the storyteller, and the anthropologist in the family. As a collection it is exemplary of how fascination can re-order the world. Readers will be thinking feathered thoughts for days and they will be happier.”
The Calgary Herald
“This book in the hand is worth two on the shelf.”
The Calgary Herald
“A beautiful volume, sumptiously illustrated.”
The Vancouver Sun

“[Gibson]’s book is a stunner. The wealth of imagery and the range of intelligence are grand, the kinds of relationships with birds he sets out nearly bewildering…. Gorgeous…. It’s what I’ll take to bed tonight to incite my dreams.”
—Barry Lopez

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