Tales of Adventure and Avian Intrigue from a British Soldier
February 2, 2023
A review by Frank Izaguirre
More Birds Than Bullets: My Life with Birds, by Geoffrey McMullen
Pathfinder UK, 2020
207 pages, paperback
Birders love learning about the life histories of birds: fascinating migration routes, unique ecological adaptations, bizarre exceptions to standard bird biology—we can never get enough. In a similar way, ABA Area birders enjoy learning about the life histories of birders from outside the ABA Area, how the ways other birders experience birds and birding can be so similar or surprisingly different than our own. Geoffrey McMullan’s More Birds Than Bullets: My Life with Birds, the memoir of a soldier-birder in the British Army who was stationed around the world, presents such an opportunity.
McMullan served in the Royal Regiment of Artillery for 22 years, and, over the course of that military service, spent time in the Falklands, Germany, and Canada, among other places. Like many birding memoirs or travelogues that cover huge distances and timespans, the author focuses on a few compelling experiences about interesting birds, rather than trying to chronicle the entirety of the long list of birds he encountered on his journeys.
After a foreword by celebrated bird writer Mark Cocker, the book opens with a list of travel tips, some of which are rather unique. Readers also learn right away that McMullan’s experience of the world is shaped by the fact that he is 6’4 and clearly a formidable person, a birder willing—and because of his career, occasionally required—to put himself into physically demanding or dangerous situations, which, as birders know, sometimes does help yield the bird. Over the course of the book, the reader becomes keenly aware that McMullan is not only tough as nails, but is also an accomplished backwoodsman and survivalist, making great effort to learn about tracking, survival techniques, and similar skills from the people he encounters on his journeys. He often describes his awareness of animals, including humans, moving through the forest using the concept of “concentric rings,” which are the signs and disturbances one can detect from other beings when they are in motion.
A major emphasis of the book, most of all in the first chapter, is McMullan’s lifelong fascination with woodpeckers. The way he structures his international birding typically involves seeking out rare woodpeckers that would be lifers, followed by other more common woodpeckers that would be lifers, followed by anything else that would be a lifer. His second favorite group of birds are owls, which he similarly prioritizes, and, as one might guess, his pursuit of both woodpeckers and owls around the world yields some incredible stories.
In one instance, during his time in Germany, his knowledge of the location of Tengmalm’s Boreal Owl leads to his promotion to corporal. In another, while in the Canadian prairies performing artillery practice duty, he discovers the presence of protected Burrowing Owls in the fields that the army is bombarding, and much to the annoyance of other members of his unit, reports their existence, requiring the entire unit to displace and reposition for their firing exercises. A similar thing occurs when he discovers a nest of Black Woodpeckers in Germany. There is even an instance when he writes a brief first-person narrative from the perspective of a Tawny Owl.
Although McMullan is gritty and tough, perhaps even intimidating, readers are exposed to his sensitive and protective side as well, sometimes in the same instance. While in Canada, he ends a section reflecting on several soldiers who were setting ants on fire with lighter fuel, propelling McMullan into action: “That was until I asked if I could have a go at it. Having handed me the fuel I sprayed one of them with the fuel and set him alight. They thought I was crazy, not as crazy as I thought they were.”
His time stationed in the Falklands is especially interesting, partially because it plays such an important part in his life and career: At the beginning of his deployment to the remote islands, he was assigned the acting rank of staff sergeant although he was still a sergeant, meaning that he is paid at the higher level of staff sergeant. Then he learns that if he continues at the level of acting staff sergeant for a period of two years, he would be entitled to the pension of a staff sergeant. He continues to renew his time in the Falklands for this reason, as well as because the birding and wildlife of the Falklands are so fascinating to him. The big birding goal in the Falklands, readers learn, is to find mainland strays from South America, of which he encounters no less than five, some self-found.
An occasional distraction, the punctuation in the book is unusual, although American readers are reminded that Brits are much more comfortable using comma splices. A somewhat disorienting aspect of the book is that because it does not proceed in chronological order—rather the author’s stories are typically clumped together by subject-matter, and occasionally the author seems to jump back in time to tell another story about a place mentioned earlier in the book—it can be a little challenging for readers to understand at what point of his career McMullan’s stories are taking place. In that way, the book has an almost stream-of-consciousness aspect to it.
However, this storytelling style isn’t without its charm. Reading More Birds Than Bullets is in many ways like making a new birder friend on the trail, prompting the sharing of a long list of incredible tales. While the chronology can be confusing, the good parts are always there: thrills, tensions, unexpected mishaps, hilarious punchlines, painful misses, and phenomenal birds. The book is sincere in its storytelling, occasionally even veering on vulgar, but always engaging and entertaining.
And then, of course, there are just the fascinating bits of perspective readers get to enjoy as they learn about birding culture through the eyes and experiences of a British soldier. For example, McMullan claims, as a sidenote, that Americans call European Starlings “Euro Stars,” although, as an American, this reviewer has never heard someone do that! Whether this is a false impression U.K. birders have of Americans or a habit that has fallen by the wayside, it’s just fun to learn about these different aspects of birding cultures from around the world.
Somewhat surprisingly, the book ends with sobering introspection, as McMullan describes his own inner turmoil after he retires from the army and returns to civilian life. The section is moving, and one is even left wondering how much his other stories from throughout his life could have benefited from such reflection. Since retiring from the British armed forces, McMullan has become a nature awareness educator, and has written a book entitled Discover Nature Awareness: Exploring Bird Language, which is a series of nature-based games and activities that help readers become familiar with their environment.
More Birds Than Bullets is a great opportunity for ABA Area birders to learn about the fascinating experiences of a birder with quite a different life than most of us. Any ABA Area birder with an interest in global birding, adventure, military life, and the perspective of British birders will enjoy More Birds Than Bullets.
Frank Izaguirre edits Birding magazine and is a PhD candidate in English at West Virginia University, where he is finishing his dissertation on the influence of field guides on environmental thinking. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Adrienne, and their daughter, Maya.
Thanks for this review. I am a full-blooded American. While in Italy last fall, I somehow got started thinking of European Starlings as “Eurostars”. So here is at least on American who has used that term, although I’m sure McMullan would not know that.
Thanks for your comment, it is good to hear that the term EuroStar is being used by you. Awesome…
I read More Birds Than Bullets a while ago and I’m so pleased to see that it has received a well-deserved positive review! I found this book to be a very enjoyable read, certainly unique, and packed full of fun stories and facts about both birds/military life, and travel. Makes me want to
jump on a plane and start some exploring of my own!