Book Review: Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, by Stephen Moss

British naturalist, author and award-winning television presenter, Stephen Moss, goes on a fascinating journey through the many influences on the English language as he examines the origins of bird names.


Stephen Moss is a British naturalist, author and award-winning television presenter having worked for the BBC Natural History Unit. He has been interested in birds all his life and, as a ten year old, first encountered the name of the bird in the book’s title and wanted to know the story behind the name. We are treated to stories and explanations of how birds were named which touch on ego, jealousy, love, adventure, science and more.

Readers are treated to a fascinating journey through the many influences on the English language from the Romans, and the Viking tongues of the Danes, Angles and Jutes, through to the vast changes following the invasion of the Normans in 1066. Moss makes the point that English has more words ‘borrowed’ from other languages than any other, and that it has always changed over time and continues to do so. Yet at the same time, some bird names have proved remarkably resistant to change. The author suggests the name ‘goose’ is the oldest bird name still used in English, as it possibly goes back to languages used on the vast steppes of Asia more than 5000 years ago.

The bird of the title is one of very few named for women. It was named for his wife by Reginald Moreau, an English civil servant working in Africa. The couple spent thirty years studying the migration of birds but sadly he died two years before the work was published. Although Winifred Moreau was an equal partner in their work, it is only recently that her has contribution has been recognised beyond the name of Scepomycter winifredae. For the author, having been fascinated by the name as a child, it was nearly fifty years before he actually saw the bird in its forest habitat in Tanzania.

In Mrs Moreau’s Warbler we are treated to discoveries from a whole series of topics as Moss shows us far more than the origins of bird names. Beginning with a philosophical discussion on why we feel the need to name and classify everything, the author moves on to discuss the development of English, through to the origin of many birds’ names, the science of taxonomy and what the future holds – both in terms of names and classification.

Be assured, the delightful writing style will draw you in to want to know more, just like a good detective story. I highly recommend the book.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10: 8

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: May 2018
RRP: $32.99

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