When the publishers approached me two years ago and suggested I write a book about birds, I told them there was more chance of Hell freezing over. I put down the phone and walked away chuckling and shaking my head. You could hear the steam rising as the ice caps reached the outer circle of the infernal underworld. Birds? You've got be joking! I don't know the first thing about them!
So what can I say now? Sitting next to my keyboard as I write this, is a chubby little book called Bald Coot and Screaming Loon—and I'm very proud of it, if still a little surprised that it has my name on the cover. As a ghostwriter and author, I have written 22 books on a wide variety of subjects from military history and celebrity memoirs to gardening and humour, but none has given me quite so much pleasure as Bald Coot. I have been trying to work out why that is the case. It's partly because I like gaining knowledge—and, boy, have I gained some knowledge. How could I not when all I had previously known about birds was that they had feathers and they could fly? The whole purpose of the book has been to take everything significant we know about birds and present it in a light, accessible fashion that educates the curious non-expert in the street and, I hope, entertains the more knowledgeable (i.e. members of the National Audubon Society!).
But writing this book has done far more for me than fill my head with remarkable information. It's no exaggeration to say that it has completely changed the way I look at the world. I won't claim that it will do the same for you because I'm probably preaching to the converted, but I'm certainly a different man to the one who shuffled away from the phone laughing at the madness of my publishers. It wasn't long ago that I used to scoff at green campaigners as well-meaning, one-issue fanatics. Today, I would happily join them on a march to save an area of wildlife habitat or protect an endangered species. I feel almost militant about the conservation of our natural world.
The last paragraph of the introduction to the book describes the route that has led me to this position:
'If you take an interest in birds, then you must take an interest in their habitat—the world in which they live—and if you do that then you have assumed a curiosity and concern about the wider environment. To be interested in the environment is to be interested in our own habitat, and once that holds your attention, you have become interested in the future. You have become interested in life itself. Birds, for me, have confirmed that ours is a life worth living.'
Right now, billions of birds are gearing up for the epic journey north. Next week, I'll discuss the magic of migration.