Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: Beauty of Birds

Princeton University Press has embarked on an interesting project called Princeton Shorts. These eBooks are selections from larger publications. Recently they digitally published chapter 5, The Beauty of Birds, from Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experienceby Jeremy Mynott. The eBook is only 40 pages long (not counting notes and citations and costs $2.99 (vs. about $20 for the whole, 392-page book). The Beauty of Birds is available through a wide variety of eBook programs, including Kindle and Nook.

Mynott, former CEO of Cambridge University Press and a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, ponders what makes birds beautiful. Examples of these inquiries include the following questions. Are rare birds inherently more beautiful than common ones? Is the Red-winged Blackbird less beautiful for an American birder than for someone seeing it for the first time? Are swans and cranes inherently more beautiful than sparrows? To what degree is bird behavior intrinsic to their beauty? Despite conventional wisdom, is a bird in the bush worth more than one in the hand? Is a dead Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager as beautiful as a living one?



Are species celebrated in poetry, art and music more beautiful than others? How does an interest in birds connect with other parts of our lives? To what degree is our appreciation of birds spiritual? How do birds affect our powers of imagination and association? How has our appreciation of bird changed through history?

Do improvements in bird art affect our appreciation of birds? Are birds appreciated more because of artists’ ability to capture essences of bird behavior? Are bright birds more beautiful than subtle ones? (Interesting questions, considering The Beauty of Birds is illustrated only with black-and-white plates! The photos in this review are mine--the blackbird from Minneapolis and the mountain-tanager from Peru.) Mynott includes a plate of naked women in his discussion of beauty, photos that seem incongruous in an essay on avian aesthetics.

Mynott concludes that “Birds are beautiful…a fact of life, a fact about some of our lives.” Perhaps birds are appreciated to different degrees by different people. Not mentioned in this essay is the role of flight in our appreciation of birds. Welty, writing from a less politically correct time, attributed flight for our love of birds “When the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker recently surveyed native school children of Northern Rhodesia and asked them, given a free choice, what they most wanted to be, nearly half the boys wanted to be birds. Almost half the girls wanted to be boys but about one quarter of the girls wished that they, too, might become birds….”


Here is a link to this eBook:
The Beauty of Birds: From "Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience" (Princeton Shorts)

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