Rose-throated short-billed fanatics

A member of the tribe of birders explains his people's strange ways to the world

Not long ago, a book with a title like "Birders" would have been considered something of a specialty item, packed off to bird and nature stores (if such stores had existed). But in recent years, Sibleymania has swept the nation. The count of those who call themselves birdwatchers has risen to between 40 and 50 million Americans.

As if this were not a large enough audience, Mark Cocker's new book, while being very much an insider's account of the ingrown world of English bird fanatics, also shares something with the flock of recent books that take an intensely specific subject – salt, Scrabble, ostriches, cod – and weave a web of universal connections.

While Cocker doesn't claim that English birders have touched everything in the world, he does contend that they have touched almost every place, and also that these eccentric nomads make up a prototypical tribe, compete with oral tradition and stalking skills worthy of Yanomami hunters.

Cocker tells the story of his own and others' birding exploits in accessible, energetic prose, laced with humor and packed with engaging scenes. He guides us through the arcane birding world, explaining everything from ornithological terminology to how status is determined within the tribe. (You'd better be ready to talk about a bird's tertials and primaries, or don't bother bellying up to the bird bar.)

Cocker proves an engaging guide, only very occasionally intrusive when he barges in with second-person asides to the reader: "So come on ... let's go birding."

But this is a minor gripe. The writing is not only alive and funny, but also often beautiful, especially when Cocker describes his glimpses of rare birds. Here is satyr trapogan, a pheasant whose name roughly translates to "the horned god of the forest": "Imagine, perhaps, a bird the size of a really large cockerel with an electric blue face, erectile black feather horns that it can raise at will and a body plumage of the deepest blood red," whose song "was an unearthly, un-birdlike, drawn out, rising wail W-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a ... the sort of sound you would expect from a horned god of the forest."

The book's strategy is as strong as its sentences. Cocker uses his own experience as an enthusiastic young birder to gently draw us in. His obsession began when he was 8 years old and saw several pigeons burst up from the rubble in the storeroom-attic of his father's shop in Derbyshire: "Their departure left a swirl of dust in the shafts of cold light," he writes – and also left an indelible impression on a young boy's mind.

Soon after, when he discovered the birds' "pure white" eggs, they seemed to hold some "compulsive numinous power," and he was hooked: "That inward flood of light, that upward surge of wings, those extraordinary white eggs – they are the very earliest origins, the primeval beginnings, the Archaeopteryx in my personal story as a birder."

Like other young people who throw themselves into nontraditional pursuits, the author was slightly embarrassed by and ridiculed for his passion. But his persistence led to unexpected rewards: love of nature, travel, and both a sense of independence and a sense of inclusion once he sought out the like-minded.

Cocker artfully relates the stories of many of his fellow tribe members, stories filled with strange and sometimes tragic incidents as these fanatics pursue birds – particularly rare birds – to the ends of the earth.

While he admits that his status as a spotter of rare birds is relatively modest, he has served a highly commendable function within the greater tribe: drawing from the oral tradition and preserving the tribe's stories on the page.

• David Gessner is the author of 'Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder' (Algonquin Books).

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