Thursday, February 4, 2016


For Christmas I received some interesting books related to birds.  One of my favorites is BIRDS IN A CAGE by Derek Niemann. Birding in the 1940s was not the popular passion it is today and field guides were not that common or were poorly done.

"In the summer of 1940, lying in the sun, I saw a family of redstarts, unconcerned in the affairs of our skeletal multitude, going about their ways in cherry and chestnut trees." Soon after his arrival at Warburg POW camp, British army officer John Buxton found an unexpected means of escape from the horrors of internment. Passing his days covertly watching birds, he was unaware that he, too, was being watched. Peter Conder, also a passionate ornithologist, noticed Buxton gazing skywards. He approached him and, with two other prisoners, they founded a secret birdwatching society.
Peter Conder

This is the amazing and inspiring story of an obsessive quest behind barbed wire. Through their shared love of birds, the four POWs overcame hunger, hardship, fear and boredom. Their quest would draw in not only their fellow prisoners, but also some of the German guards, at great risk to them all. Derek Niemann draws on original diaries, letters and drawings, to tell of how four men were bonded by their wartime experience which propelled them into the giants of postwar wildlife conservation.

There were relatively few things that inmates could do, but each of them had noticed birds around the camp, and - despite the absence of binoculars - they had started to record what they saw. In particular they noticed the spring migration of 1942 with a daily log being kept of every bird seen over a period of almost two months. In addition Buxton focused his attention on the Common Redstart.

George Waterston

Their interest in birds attracted the attention of security guards who suspected them of plotting an escape plan.  Some of the inmates thought that they were an odd group. All but Barrett were later moved south to another camp in a wooded valley at Eichstätt where Conder studied the Goldfinch and Waterson focused on the Wryneck  (a type of woodpecker); the latter study totaling an astonishing 1200 hours of observation for him and his "assistants".

 Eventually the men were split up before the War ended in 1945 but all returned home safely.

All wrote papers for British Birds at various times and each made his mark on bird study in a different way. By chance they each joined a different regiment in the Second World War, and by tragic coincidence, all found themselves imprisoned at different places during that war, having been captured in Germany, Norway, France, and Greece respectively.
John Barrett

In their own ways each of the four men went on to make their own impressions on the world of ornithology and bird conservation. John Buxton became a teacher and academic and wrote up his studies of the Common Redstart. John Barrett became the warden of Dale Fort Field Centre in Pembrokeshire (Wales) and wrote highly-popular guides to seashore wildlife. Peter Conder became the warden at nearby Skokholm, eventually joining the RSPB staff in 1954 and becoming its Director General. George Waterston also ended up on the RSPB staff and is widely accepted as the man who made sure that the Osprey was successfully reintroduced to Scotland in the 1950s.

Peter Conder

Peter Conder
The great value of this book is that it brings together the story of what these men experienced. These are stories that have rarely been told, as each of them remained relatively tight-lipped about their experiences - even to close family.

All four died a long time before Derek Niemann had the idea for this book, but despite having never met any of them he has brought to life their different attitudes and experiences with great ease.
Their legacy lives on.  A good read- even for the non-birders!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mother Hildegard, I started reading Birds in a Cage this morning and was curious about the men in the book. I googled them and your wonderful blog came up. I have been watching Osprey cams this year and adore these magnificent creatures. Are there ospreys on Shaw Island?