Aside from being both an excellent past-time, and both a cornerstone of as well as the gateway to the science of ornithology, bird watching has also been credited with possessing substantial therapeutic qualities. Many, perhaps most notably the late Phoebe Snetsinger, have credited it with helping to see them through the challenges – both physical as well as emotional – brought about by such life-changing medical conditions as cancer and other potentially mortal diseases. Now, in Derek Niemann’s recently published Birds in a Cage, the practice of bird watching is shown to have been a crucial element for three British soldiers and a British airman – namely Edward Buxton, Peter Conder, John Barrett, and George Waterston – in their survival during years of captivity in German prison camps during the Second World War.

As is now known – and indeed, even presently taught in special courses designed to aide military personnel in the event of their being captured, one of the greatest dangers to the psychological health, and thus the physical endurance and well-being, of a person held in captivity is that of boredom. Indeed, it is the lack of intellectual stimulation that is what makes such cruel forms of imprisonment as long-term isolation cells so destructive to the human psyche. Fortunately for the four men whose lives in confinement Mr. Niemann chronicles in Birds in a Cage, despite not having any such captivity-resisting training as that just mentioned, they had something upon which they could focus their attention, something that would help them to differentiate one day from the next – even after years of hostile incarceration: the birds to be observed near, over, and even inside the various POW camps in which they were held.

Lacking any binoculars or field guides, all four men were nevertheless able not only to make as detailed observations as they could (so detailed in fact that the records kept by many present-day and fully equipped bird watchers would pale in comparison) but to involve a number of their comrades in captivity in the activity as well and in the process helping them to also withstand the potentially devastating psychological effects of captivity – to say nothing of also taking their minds somewhat off the physical hardships such as hunger, disease, and parasites common to such confinement that afflicted them all.

Unflinchingly real, narratively compelling, and at times even a bit comical, Birds in a Cage is a splendid book that despite all four of its subjects going on to become notable – each in their own way – in various areas of British wildlife conservation might otherwise never have been written had not Mr. Niemann discovered it, made the effort to research its subjects’ individual as well as collective experiences, and commit them all to print. It is a work that for the historical importance of it alone makes him deserving of praise. That he has done so in such a way that makes it a “thumping good read” of a book as well is all the more reason that it should be sought out and read by bird watchers and history buffs alike.

Title: Birds in a Cage
Author: Derek Niemann
Publisher: Short Books
Format: Cloth
ISBN: 9781780720937
Published: 10 November 2012

This review was originally published in the July / August 2013 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.