Mrs Moreau’s Warbler


| (How Birds Got Their Names) | By Stephen Moss | Faber & Faber | 2019 | Paperback | 357 pages, b/w illustrations | ISBN: 9781783350919

The Publisher’s View: We use names so often, and with such little thought, that we often forget to pause and wonder about their origins. What do they mean? Where did they come from? And who originally created them?

Since the dawn of mankind we have been driven by a primordial urge to name the birds and beasts of the earth and skies. It is through names that we make sense of the world around us, and through understanding these names, we can arrive at a greater awareness of our world.Many of our most familiar birds are named after people or places, sometimes after their sound or appearance, or perhaps after their quirky little habits. But sometimes a little more detective work is required to find the deeper meanings and stories behind the names. And a familiar face such as the blackbird, may not turn out to be named after its colour after all.Through unexpected encounters with the bird kingdom, from the familiar sparrow to the many-coloured rush-tyrant of Patagonia, Stephen Moss shows us that something as small as a name can carry a whole story – an arctic expedition, a pitched battle between rival ornithologists or the discovery of a new system of genetic hybridisation. Mrs Moreau’s Warbler is a journey through time, from when humans and birds first shared the world, up to the present day, as we find ourselves struggling to coexist sustainably with our feathered friends.

The Author: Stephen Moss is a naturalist, broadcaster, television producer and author. In a distinguished career at the BBC Natural History Unit his credits included SpringwatchBirds Britannia and The Nature of Britain. His books include The RobinA Bird in the BushA Sky Full of StarlingsThe Bumper Book of Nature and Wild Hares and Hummingbirds. Originally from London, he now lives with his wife and children on the Somerset Levels.

Others Views: “In Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, a trip through 1,000 years of bird etymology, Stephen Moss unlocks a trove of folk history. This is a history of dedicated ornithological pioneers, of invasions and cultural shifts, of heroic Arctic explorers. And not a page goes by without at least one diverting fact.”
– James Jackson, The Times“I have read a few bird names explained books and, whilst I have enjoyed them, they are books that I would normally dip in and out of when I had the urge to discover who Cetti was and how the warbler got to be named after him, and I thought that Mrs Moreau’s Warbler was going to be another of these books. How wrong I was. […] This is not a book to dip into, this is a book to read from cover to cover, and thoroughly enjoy.”

– Paul Stancliffe, BTO book reviews

Fatbirder View: Regular Fatbirder readers will know I have a deep and abiding fascination with the people behind the names of animals. How could I not want to read this book?

However, there is not a lot I can add to the quoted reviews above. I too expected it to be a ‘dip into’ book covering a great number of individual bird names but instead found myself unable to get away with just a wet toe…  I found myself quickly up to my oxters in its engulfing sea of readable prose, collected facts and strong narrative. This book is about the origins of names in breadth as well as individual dept. It’s as much about changing social mores, the evolution of language and onomatopes as it is about the individual eponyms.

Moreover, hardly a page is turned without another fascinating fact joining its fellows. Read this book and you will learn more history and science, philology and philosophy than you bargained for, but always without realising you are learning so engaging is the style.

You try to paddle its shallows only to find yourself unable to resist wading deeper and deeper into its therapeutic waters like the day-tripper to Margate coming to buy a ‘kiss-me-quick’ hat and staying on to ‘take the cure’ in the Victorian Sea Bathing Hospital.

I thoroughly recommend taking the plunge yourself!

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