Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann

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Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Jones
Reviewed by Louise Jones
Summary: Four men incarcerated in a POW camp find emotional escape through a shared love of birds.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 312 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Short books
ISBN: 978-1780720937

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Sing on, sing on beyond the walls
That I within may know
Spring is in the woods again
Where you may go

Sing on, sing on; then in my cage
I shall delight to hear
That you are so glad and free out there
So near, so near!

This poignant verse, entitled The Prisoner to the Singing Bird was penned by Second Lieutenant John Buxton, shortly after he was taken prisoner in World War II. The words aptly express the sadness and frustration felt by those incarcerated whilst the natural world carried on, seemingly unperturbed by the horrific events that were shaking humanity.

Birds in a Cage introduces the reader to John and his fellow officers: Peter Conder, George Waterston and John Henry Barrett and shows how their shared love of birds enabled them to create an emotional escape from the gruelling conditions that surrounded them in the prisoner of war camp at Warburg. The men banded together to form a birdwatching society within the camp, making meticulous observations of the lives of the birds nesting in and around the area. These detailed records went on to become valuable scientific documents, as they recorded the lives and habits of birds in painstaking detail, revealing previously unknown facts about species such as the redstart and goldfinch.

Derek Niemann paints a bleak picture of life in the POW camp, but manages to give a positive, upbeat slant on events which are a remarkable testimony to the strength of the human spirit. The book takes the reader on an emotional journey, which is sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous and always thoroughly engaging. I found the details of the various escape attempts particularly interesting and marvelled at the ingenuity of the prisoners in their attempts to be free.

A love of birds also seemed to be a great leveller, which was able to cross the boundaries created by war. A few of the camp guards took an interest in the work being done by John and his friends and even went as far as smuggling bird books to them. The correspondence between Waterston and an ornithologist in Berlin, Dr Erwin Stresemann, was deemed particularly risky and was finally stopped by the German authorities.

The world of ornithology, as we know it, was still in its infancy. The RSPB was a relatively small group and birdwatchers had very few of the resources that are available today. Birdwatching equipment was cumbersome and field guides woefully inaccurate, as they were based on artist’s renderings of stuffed birds. A conservationist was just as likely to carry a gun as a pair of binoculars, as shooting birds and stuffing them was considered the best way of recording and studying them. Some of the techniques pioneered by the prisoners in the camp, such as ringing birds and taking detailed observations, have become standard practice in modern conservation.

The book goes on to describe how the men struggled to adapt to their freedom after five years in the camps. Again, they turned to nature as a coping mechanism and threw themselves into their conservation work, creating a legacy that still benefits birdwatchers today.

Birds in a Cage is a positive, uplifting story about coping under extreme adversity. The book contains rare photographs, drawings and copies of documents that further serve to enhance the narrative and bring the characters to life. Niemann’s thorough research into his subject has enabled him to create a richly detailed account which transports the reader to the world beyond the wire.

If you'd like to read more about birdwatching we can recommend How to be a BAD Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes. For more inspiring writing about escaping from the Nazis you might enjoy Escape from the Nazis: The Incredible and Inspiring Saga of Two Young Jews on the Run in World War II Poland by Benjamin Mandelkern.

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