Book review: 12 Birds To Save Your Life by Charlie Corbett

A beach without an oystercatcher is like a sky without the stars.

So writes Wiltshire-based journalist and language expert Charlie Corbett in his fascinating book, 12 Birds To Save Your Life - Nature's Lessons in Happiness (Penguin, £9.99)

From start to finish, it is an absorbing book peppered with arresting images that might make you look at birds in different ways.

For instance, who would have compared the body of a curlew with a "small rugby ball"? Or likened magpies strutting on a lawn to "fascists at a rally"?

Or seen a kingfisher in flight as "a low-flying spitfire"? Or looked on murmurations of starlings as "great shoals of fish floating in the air"?

The 12 birds in question are magpie, skylark, kingfisher, curlew, bullfinch, house sparrow, house martin, robin, wren, song thrush, chiffchaff and barn owl - all of which, in some way or another, have significance in his recent life, part of which, sadly, has been marred by the loss of his mother, panic attacks and depression sometimes so accute that he felt his brain was leaking out of his nostrils.

Happily, Corbett seems to have put the worst behind him, partly with insights from an £80-an-hour London-based American psychotherapist but probably more a result of his increasing awareness of the value of nature and birds, especially those magnificent 12 aforementioned.

Striking a philosophical note, he laments that humankind has "ignored the everyday, unglamorous nature outside our doors for so long now that it’s become like just so much old peeling wallpaper".

He continues: "We humans and the wildlife that surrounds us have become strangers in the great cocktail party of Life on Earth.

"It is much easier and more enticing to watch David Attenborough explore the jungles of Madagascar on the BBC on a comfy sofa than to go outside and form an attachment to the local squadron of plain brown and white sparrows chittering away on the road."

Corbett is particularly magnanimous about the house sparrow, possibly the least exotic species imaginable, one which inspires none of the awe of, say, an osprey or a golden eagle.

He writes: "Not that long ago, this most impudent, nay saucy, of characters provided the background music to the life of town and country dweller alike; the cheerful chirupping never ceased. But no more. They have vanished from many of our streets, and the silence is deafening."

This is a sad-happy book. It contains much anguish and emotional pain, but, by the end, hope, humour and joy prevail.

"Via Nature I found a way through my grief,"concludes Corbett. "It was the birds and the landscapes they inhabit that showed me."

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