Birds in a Cage


This is the story of an obsessive quest behind barbed wire. Through their shared love of birds, a group of British POWs overcome hunger, hardship, fear and stultifying boredom. Their experiences leave them scarred, but set them on a path to becoming greats of the conservation movement.

A raft of favourable reviews buoyed Birds in a Cage so much that the hardback edition all but sold out within six months of publication. The paperback came out in 2013 and has now been reprinted several times. I’m gratified by the universally positive letters, e-mails and phone calls from so many people. Perhaps the best of all came from (the now late) conservation giant Norman Moore, an ex-POW himself, who told me “you’ve captured it just as it was.”

I’ve lost count of the number of talks I’ve given about this book, but have lost no enthusiasm for giving them. It’s marvellous to find so many inspired by this story and wonderful that more people want to hear about it.

A number of people have contacted me with more information after having read Birds in a Cage, which is fantastic. If one of your relations was a POW and a naturalist, I would love to hear from you. You can email me your stories from our contact page.

Some special thanks from Derek:

Artwork of goldfinches, by Rob Hume, from Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann
Birds in a Cage uses original illustrations as well as a number specially commissioned from Rob Hume.

My grateful thanks to all the families and friends of the POWs, who gave so generously of their time and their memories. This book would have been so much less without them.

Special thanks to Sarah Rhodes (daughter of Peter Conder), who first had the idea for the book, and who did so much to help me with my research. Sarah knows many of the POW family members, and she unlocked many doors for me. Without her help and support I could not have written the book that I did.

Thanks also to  Jan Pickup (daughter of Barney Thompson) and her husband Tony for invaluable support at various book events.

Nature writer Mark Cocker provided both title and topic for my first (non-fiction) book.  Because he already had another major project ongoing, he declined the offer to take the letters, diaries and reports of the ornithologist prisoners of war and shape them into Birds in a Cage. His generosity gave me the chance instead.

Mark is a fine writer – enjoy his Guardian Country Diary pieces here.


6 Replies to “Birds in a Cage”

  1. Dear Derek,
    I just finished this great book. I am from Germany and don’t just know some of the places in Germany but also Pembrokeshire and the Island Skomer and Skokholm.
    I enjoyed reading “Birds in a Cage” very much. When will it be translated and published in German, so that I can give it to all my friends and family.
    Kind regards Britta

    1. I’m so pleased you liked Birds in a Cage, Britta. I wish I could say that it will be published in German, but I am afraid there hasn’t been any interest from German publishers. Maybe it will happen one day and you will be able to give it as a gift. Let us hope so.
      Best wishes

  2. Found you both so thought it would be good to keep in touch. Hoping to buy the book Birds in a Cage via iBook on iPad.

    1. Hi Boo! and welcome to our website. If you read Birds in a Cage, do let us know what you think. Perhaps you knew some of the people mentioned?

      All the best

      Sarah and Derek

  3. Hi Cathy
    A summary? Good point. We shall revise this page to say that this is the story of four young men who were taken prisoner early in WW2 and overcame the hardships, fear and boredom of captivity by watching birds. Their experiences shaped their future lives as giants of post-war conservation.
    I’m guessing your mother was a winner of the RSPB’s Bird and Tree competition? I shall drop you an e-mail because this is very interesting.
    Thank you for getting in touch.

  4. Dear Derek

    It is not clear what this book is actually about! A summary would be good.

    More broadly, my mother was not a POW but she was an excellent naturalist and won a national RSPB prize as a teenager for her observations of sandmartins. She experienced the occupation of Jersey as a child, and I have a short essay she wrote about this (beautifully written) which may interest you. It is more about collecting and eating products from the cliffs and sea than actually watching wild things, but this was a consequence of necessity of course.

    Best regards


    Thanks Cathy

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