Birds don’t care about us, or the things we’ve made, or the way we feel about the things we’ve made. They’ll respond, of course. Birds have followed human progress for millennia, adapting to our changing ways, feeding upon our waste, making homes in our dwellings. But they are – as the core message and title of Smyth’s book argues – completely indifferent to us. They will work with whatever we give them, no fuss. Some species will even abandon the natural world to become urban fowl, such as the humble pigeon (or ‘wild rock dove’ as Smyth prefers to think of them).
In a highly anthropocentric world, it’s nice to consider this ubiquitous branch on the tree of life that simply doesn’t care about us, that treats human activity no differently from the weather or any other changes in their environment they have no control over. Birds see the world pragmatically, not as we built it to be – through the human-focused filter that imposes rules on a place or object – but simply for what it is, and whether or not it is, for example, an appropriate habitat to nest. A skyscraper is not significantly different from a cliff face, in this context. Construction sites and abandoned buildings are just as appealing – perhaps even more so. ‘The human concept “finished” doesn’t mean anything to birds,’ observes Smyth. ‘Nor does the concept of “derelict”.’
What feels fresh about a book seemingly about birds – that must compete with a veritable flock of rival books about birds – is that it’s actually a book about humans. It’s merely told from the birds’ perspective. Birds have changed in tandem with us. By analysing their adaptive techniques, we gain valuable insights into the evolution of our own societies, both ancient and modern. ‘This book is about humanity, about us...,’ writes Smyth, ‘it’s the story of human history, from a bird’s eye view’.