I just finished the most unusual and delightful book I’ve read so far this year! Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer is a novel based on the life and research of Len Howard. Len was born Gwendolen Howard in 1895 in Wallington, UK. She grew up in a bird-loving, artistic family–her father was a poet and dramatist–and became a violist with an orchestra in London.
After years of a successful musical career, she decided, at age 40, that she’d had enough of city life and that what she really wanted was to live quietly in the country observing and interacting with birds.
She moved to Ditchling in East Sussex, had a small home constructed, which she aptly named Bird Cottage, and lived the rest of her life with birds. The birds learned to trust her, would fly in and out of her house and even roost in her house in nesting boxes. They became familiar enough with her that they would land on her head, shoulders, hands, and feet. A few of them even came to her when she called. Len began to distinguish different calls and songs, and to understand the birds’ behavior through close, careful, continual observation.
Over the years, Len wrote for various nature magazines and wrote two books: Birds As Individuals and Living With Birds. She became more reclusive as she got older because she was so focused on not changing things in the birds’ environment. When guests would visit, for example, the birds were unfamiliar with these newcomers’ gestures and voices and would stay away. This would set back her research for several days.
Sadly, because she was not a trained scientist and she focused on bird behavior and relationships rather than measurable, quantitative observations, none of the scientific journals would take her seriously and publish her research. However, her writings did raise the general public’s awareness to the importance of birds and the habitats they needed to thrive.
What was wonderful about this book was the way the author interspersed chapters about Len’s life, from age ten and onward, with chapters containing fascinating stories about particular bird friends at Bird Cottage. Even though it was fictionalized, it felt as if I was reading a biography.
Whether you enjoy books about birds, nature writing, or people who follow their own path in life, you will absolutely love this book. I highly recommend it!