Published by Harper & Row, copyright 1986, 236 pages. Cover art by Pam Stephens.
During a recent bird outing in rural England a Dunnock was pointed out to me. It was warily perched on the far side of a shrub, as if purposely defeating my efforts to get a good shot. This was a life bird for me so I inched closer, but it flew, leaving me only some unpublishable blurs. This common, drab, brown songbird is not a great discovery for an English birder, but reminded me of Nigel Hinton’s wonderful story of a year in the life of a Dunnock. I read this tale years ago, read it again after this sighting, and have loaned my copy to multiple birders. It’s received their universal acclaim.
Hinton chose to write about a common, non-flashy bird, living in common, rural Kent County, in a common valley, near a common Brook Cottage and Forge Farm, inhabited by common folks living typical common lives. Although common, the trials and tribulations of these lives, both the birds’ and humans’, are gripping and existential.
The main character is the female Dunnock, barely surviving the cold blasts of the particularly hard winter, her first. The optimistic stirrings of early spring lead to a timid introduction to her first mate, nest-building, and egg-laying. I know, it all sounds so corny, but the author avoids the pitfalls of some anthropomorphic literature. These are not talking birds and this is not “Watership Down” or “Bambi”, but rather a compelling and detailed account of life, perseverance, and also of death.
It’s not all happy. The initial nest and eggs are destroyed and her mate is run over by a car. The humans of the cottage and farm are also dealing with aging, stroke, and loss. In the most compelling part of the novel the harrowing and fantastic migration of a female Cuckoo from Sub-Sahara Africa to the English valley is described. Just as the reader is celebrating this successful migration, you watch in horror as the Cuckoo sneaks her egg into the unsuspecting Dunnock’s nest. The egg hatches and this monstrous, ugly, parasitic chick wages its genetically programmed war against its smaller nest mates, duping the unsuspecting foster mother and hogging most of the food. Even before its eyes are fully opened the Cuckoo tirelessly works to expel its rivals from the nest. It is evil personified, or maybe “birdified”.
I didn’t realize that the anthropomorphic nature literature was so controversial and hotly debated near the beginning of the 20th century. The famous and “pure” naturalist, John Burroughs, felt that authors did a terrible disservice by their non-scientific attribution of human emotions and qualities to wildlife. Among others he singled out the writings of Jack London, William Long, and Ernest Seton, who had just published a book entitled “Wild Animals I Have Known”. In retaliation James Montague wrote this poem entitled “Proof”:
John Burroughs, who’s a shark on birds
(He classifies ’em by a feather),
Avers that they’re devoid of words
And simply cannot talk together.
He gives the nature-fakers fits
Who picture birds in conversation,
And tears their story books to bits
In scientific indignation.
But there’s a wren outside my door
That talks whenever I go near him,
And talks so glibly, furthermore,
That I just wish that John could hear him.
Of mornings, when I stroll about,
The while he hymns his glad thanksgiving,
He interrupts himself to shout.
“Hey! Ain’t it glorious to be living?”
Believe it or not, even the President of the United States weighed in upon this vital debate. Theodore Roosevelt publicly took the side of John Burroughs and against the “Nature Fakers”, adding more fuel to the raging fire. And as we all know and agree, if the president says it, it must be true. Cooler heads finally prevailed and the controversy returned to a simmer. As for me, I can’t see what harm is done by imagining what a creature may feel or think, fully knowing that it may have little or no capacity for either.
The female Dunnock did survive, at least for one season, as did the Cuckoo chick and one of the Dunnock chicks. But survival for them hung by a thread and was temporary, as it is for us all. This book has given me a new insight regarding the lives of these birds. I’ve been keeping the feeders a little fuller and their baths a little cleaner, and maybe they’ll notice and like me a little more–who knows.