‘I can’t imagine devoting seventy years to the song of the dunnock. And perhaps there’s my problem. It’s why the Great Lego City never got past the planning stage.’
The world of modern birding is a strange one. At the core it’s full of love and fascination and connection with all that’s sweet in life. But on the Outer Rim, in the Tatooines and Dantooines of the birding Republic, it’s not always so simple. I’ve met well-meaning birders obsessed with rarities and nothing else; who silently judge as you stare dumbstruck at a chaotic swathe of waders to find one shitty Med gull; who can’t believe you can’t identify that bar-tailed godwit. But these are the exceptions. 99% of birders are warm and welcoming people, happy to share scopes and point out those harder-to-spot species. The problem is that the birding community can seem exclusive without meaning to, and for those wanting to develop their knowledge alone, birding books tend to be either A is for Avocet types aimed at beginners, or 600-page encyclopaedias on treecreeper toes. Many are also written by extremely skilled birders who assume the reader already possesses a certain level of birding knowledge.
Cue Lev Parikian. Orchestral maestro, father, husband, wordsmith – and the Everyman of birding. Lev’s new book Why do Birds Suddenly Disappear? is a journey into birding from the outside in, and one that the majority of us can happily relate to. How many people loved watching wildlife when they were small, only to get distracted by growing up and booze and jobs and offspring? Suddenly you realise you haven’t taken the time to connect properly with nature for over a decade. This is exactly how I fell back in love with birding – or ‘birdwatching’ as I foolishly thought it was still called when I was 21. I’ve still got my childhood birding notebooks at home (complete with the compulsory first entry of ‘woodpigeon’), but over my teenage years I became much more interested in boys and parties, and it wasn’t until I finished my undergraduate degree that I started noticing the natural world again.
A passionate birder as a boy, Lev also fell victim to the distractions of growing up, until one day he decided to try and see 200 birds in one year – and this book was born. It’s an honest and self-aware narrative, exposing the fallacies of obsessive behaviour while at the same time, illuminating the magic of nature and the joy of drawing on the energy of other living creatures. From merlins in Northumberland to dippers in Edinburgh, traipsing for miles to see the slightest suggestion of a bird, Lev captures both the sublime and infuriating sides of birding with the storyteller’s charm he is so clearly gifted with.
I love birders. Hardcore, standing-in-the-rain, plumage-analysing birders that think about feathers from dawn to dusk. They are passionate, fascinating, and a great community to get involved with if you’re also bird-mad. The problem is – I’m not. If I have to give myself a label, I’m a naturalist. I love being outdoors in the trees listening to a nuthatch drip-drip-droop above my head, but I’m not bothered about actually seeing the bloody thing. And while many people today are disconnected from nature, I can’t help feeling that if this connection were reforged, they too would simply enjoy being outdoors rather than focusing all their energy on wing bar patterns. Birding can be an intimidating hobby for newcomers, but it’s narratives like this that will reassure and welcome them into the fray.
The beauty of Lev’s book is to remind us just how easy it is to reconnect with nature. You don’t need tick lists or money or expert knowledge – just a little patience and the alacrity to let the world surprise you. He also reminds us that it’s fine to start again, to pick up the threads of a passion from the past and begin to weave them back into our lives without the guilt of thinking you abandoned them in the first place. This is a warm, joyful and hilarious book; an uplifting read for those who have ever suffered at the hands of modern life, or for those who simply love the velvet symphony of a blackbird at dusk.
Lev Parikian is a conductor, writer and hopeless birdwatcher. His first book, Waving, Not Drowning, was published in 2013. Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? is published by Unbound and is available to buy on Amazon, Hive and all good bookshops. You can also check out his next Unbound project here.