Songs of Spring

April 21, 2010

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo by Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy’s book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo does with style and ease what is perhaps the hardest thing for a book about birds to accomplish: it is compelling and fascinating even to those who have no interest in birds.

Part of his success comes from the skill of his writing. McCarthy is quietly humorous, with a conversational yet intelligent tone.  His passion for his subject shines through in every description and anecdote; yet despite his expertise, he manages to make the world of migrant birds open and understandable even to someone (like myself) who might not be able to tell a sparrow from a cuckoo, let alone a garden warbler from a greenshank.

But more so, McCarthy’s book is accessible and enjoyable to everyone because, as he so eloquently shows, we do all care about birds. Even if we don’t know the details of species or flight patterns, birds are an essential part of our culture, our history, and our daily lives. The best way to appreciate this is to try, as McCarthy does, to imagine a world without them. But, as he tells us, the worst part is that we may not have to imagine much longer.

The final piece to the puzzle of what makes Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo such an exceptional book is that it goes beyond a mere ecological narrative. It is also a story of people: the people who watch these birds, the people who discovered them, and the people who are working to save them. Perhaps my favorite scene is McCarthy’s twilight search for the nightingale, with the help of his son, Sebastian. In this personal story we can see an instance of an experience that is important to us all, an experience that is under extreme threat. And if we don’t take action now, McCarthy warns, it is an experience we will be forced to forever live without.

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo is both a celebration and a warning. It shows us a beautiful world that many of us may not even be aware of, and then shows us how close we are to losing that world forever. This is more than just a book about birds, and there is no one to whom this story is not important.