The History of British Birds by Derek Yalden and Umberto Albarella | Softcover | 2009 | 263 Pages | £24.95 | ISBN 9780199581160 [Hardcover: ISBN 9780199217519]

The History of British Birds reviews our knowledge of avifaunal history over the last 15,000 years, setting it in its wider historical and European context. The authors, one an ornithologist the other an archaeologist, integrate a wealth of archaeological data to illuminate and enliven the story, indicating the extent to which climatic, agricultural, and social changes have affected the avifauna. They discuss its present balance, as well as predicting possible future changes.

It is a popular misconception that bird bones are rarely preserved (compared with mammals), and cannot be reliably identified when they are found. The book explores both these contentions, armed with a database of 9,000 records of birds that have been identified on archaeological sites. Most are in England, but sites elsewhere in Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles are included. Britain’s most numerous bird is also the most widespread in the archaeological record, but some of the more charismatic species also have a rich historical pedigree. For example, we can say quite a lot about the history of the Crane, Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle and Great Auk. The history of many introduced domestic species can also be illuminated. Even so, there remain uncertainties, posed by difficulties of dating or identification, the vagaries of the archaeological record or the ecological specialties of the birds themselves. These issues are highlighted, thus posing research questions for others to answer.

Those of you (us) hoping for the final resolution of whether certain species ‘belong’ in these islands will be disappointed but will find plenty of facts that can help make cases for some and will no doubt be used to undermine the case for others. The authors do not go into the more recent records but do point out that the lack of certainty of ID muddies the waters. Leaving aside the controversies, what is very clear indeed is that persecution is responsible for the virtual elimination of many species from vast tracts of the British Isles. Indeed, what I find most shocking is that my understanding of zoography has been turned on its head. The north-south and east-west distributions of many species is neither normal nor secondary to changing land use but merely a reflection of the most persistent or earliest persecution and prejudices. For example, Ravens and Common Buzzards, both of which are now slowly spreading back into the east and south, were deliberately targeted over several centuries to the extent that they were extirpated in county after county quite deliberately and methodically and that some birds that we regard as rare vagrants, such as Red-footed Falcons or Rough-legged Buzzards were common breeding species. This is a book I will re-visit for sure.


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