The birds are the keepers of our secrets
So wrote Guy Garvey in ‘Birds’ on the last Elbow album. Garvey (himself a keen birdwatcher) was onto something: birds are everywhere and if you are outdoors there’s at least one observing your every move. This is the same thought with which Simon Barnes begins his book How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher, that I read recently.
Although Barnes’ blokeish style took some getting used to at first, I soon began to sense where Barnes was coming from. The book’s subtitle is ‘To the greater glory of life’, a phrase which indicates that this is less of a ‘how to’ handbook but is, rather, quite philosophical – almost zen – with its overarching argument that watching birds can lead to a deeper understanding of our place on the planet. As Barnes puts it, ‘looking at birds is a key: it opens doors, and if you choose to go through them you find you enjoy life more and understand life better’.
Barnes begins by asserting that we are all ‘bad’ birdwatchers – in the sense that it’s quite impossible to know nothing at all about birds. ‘Trust me’, he says, ‘you can identify at least a dozen kinds of birds’, and goes on to list the sort of birds pretty much anyone can see and recognise looking out of their window or walking down the street.
There is, Barnes argues, an awful lot of latent knowledge about birds that most people in Britain possess. Birds are part of our common culture: ‘You can concrete over the land, but you can’t concrete over our minds. We are all bad birdwatchers’.
The reason for this is that birds are everywhere – they’re part of everyday life, in a way that mammals aren’t. Leaving cats and dogs out of it, we don’t see many mammals routinely: they tend to keep out of our way with the result that it can be a real thrill to see any wild mammal.
Birds, though, are our neighbours, as someone very close to me once wrote in a poem, ‘From the Window’:
All day I watch the mistle-thrush at work
Building with twigs and grass borne piece by piece
To wedge in its wind-ridden tree-top perch
And endure a season only.
While the long-tailed tit in solitary grace
Is dancing with a feather on a stone
Determined to subdue its air-light line
To the contours of a spider-web spun home.
They will be our neighbours then this year
Whose singing will greet us when we wake at dawn
Stirred by the whispering, barely discernible sound
Of what we have built begin to crumble down.
Moreover, Barnes points out, birds can fly (we can’t, so we’re fascinated), and they can sing:
They sing to tell us who they are and where they are and what they are and how bloody marvellous they are. And we humans thrill to the songs.
The book is full of tips on how to get more out of watching birds; but as he passes on his hints, Barnes digs a little deeper into the philosophy of looking, and the science that underlies what we’re seeing. So when he takes up one of the first qualms that novices might experience – that there are so many of the damn things, and how can you keep all this knowledge in your head? - he gets onto talking about diversity in birds – and why there is an immense number of species. He explains how each species is perfectly adapted to taking advantage of a particular environmental niche, and does this quite brilliantly in a very down-to-earth manner, using the example of tits.
We all see tits in the garden, and most of us notice that there are a few different sorts. He explains that ‘the little blue chaps’ are blue tits, while the ‘bigger fellows’ are great tits. They have similarities (both like peanuts on the bird table) but they are also very different. And the difference is this: though both birds nest and forage for food in deciduous trees, the blue tit prefers to look for food in the higher part of the tree, and along the outer edges of branches, whereas the great tit prefers the lower part of the tree and the inner branches.
This leads Barnes to ponder on the fact that evolution – life – is about survival, and each species has a different survival plan. Blue tits, which would easily lose out to great tits in any tussle, have found a niche where the great tits can’t compte – because they’re too big and clumsy. So, Barnes concludes, ‘watching birds is a way of understanding this – every bird is another solution to the problem of life’ ,and: ‘The meaning of life is life, and it comes in a million forms’.
There’s a philosophical bent, too, to the next chapter in which Barnes ponders the value in knowing the names of things. Is it simply the nerdish, tick-box peccadillo of the twitcher? Not at all, argues Barnes; knowing a thing’s name makes a difference, because with recognition comes the beginning of understanding – and that’s the beginning of science.
He argues that birdwatching is at its best, not when chasing the rare, but when it entails the quiet contemplation of the special. And you may find that special thing in your own neighbourhood, observing the comings and goings of birds there, day by day, season by season, year by year. In a memorable passage, Barnes – who has travelled the world and seen a fair number of rare birds in his time – describes a walk near his home ‘in the frost and feeble winter sun of a January day’. He hears a dunnock sing its heart out. The dunnock is the kind of bird that many twitchers would disparage as the classic boring LBJ – ‘little brown job’ – but, continues Barnes:
There he was against the cold blue sky, every feather picked out by the low winter sun and he sang his song of spring and gave it absolutely eveything. It was a song that made the whole day better. A common bird: a rare moment.
Later, Barnes introduced me to a concept that I had not come across before. ‘Jizz’, a term which refers to the general behaviour of a bird, the thing that is immediately identifiable about it, was, he tells us, coined by a chap in the 1920s. Barnes himself defines jizz as ‘the art of seeing a bird badly and still knowing what it is’. This skill comes about, he says from birdwatching, that is, bird watching, watching birds – not ‘twitching’ or chasing after rare birds and ticking them off on a list:
You acquire the skill of jizz recognition simply by looking. By looking at birds you have already identified; because, you see, identification is the beginning and not the end of the process – and that is why birdwatching is the exact opposite of train-spotting. Every seeing is a moment of greater understanding. Every seeing makes the bird more fully a part of you, a part of your life.
I could understand this: just recently I gained a great deal of pleasure and personal satisfaction from identifying the song of a nuthatch (top). I already knew how to recognise the bird – its colouring and behaviour – but I could not have told you what its call sounded like. In fact, there are few birds I can identify by their song. I know, in the garden or the park, that I’m most likely hearing blackbirds, robins, tits or thrushes – but I can’t distinguish them. So, one morning recently, arrested by a call that sounded like an electronic alarm going off, I stopped and tried to locate the source. It was coming from a tree where I have often seen a nuthatch climbing the trunk foraging for insects. In a short while I located the bird, and confirmed that it was the source of the call. I pass that tree every morning now and hear the call, and I’m pleased with myself for accomplishing this first act of birdsong identification (OK, I know ducks quack). As Barnes would say: ‘a moment of greater understanding’.
Barnes writes that Rob Hume wrote a book called Birds By Character: A Field Guide to Jizz Identification, and on his recommendation I bought a copy second-hand. Hume’s descriptions avoid scientific language – this is how he describes the nuthatch:
Medium-sized, unbalanced form owing to long bill, deep flanks, short tail. Jaunty, strange. Jumps jerkily along bark, up, along, down, head-first, using feet, not tail. Sways head, bobs and flicks wings. Noisy, inquisitive. Song: rapid, whistling twee-wee-wee.
Returning to Barnes’ point about birds being part of our common culture: what’s interesting is that before the 18th century birds only figured as food or bad omens. As the Wikipedia entry on birdwatching points out, observing birds for their aesthetic or scientific value only came about in the late 18th century with people like Gilbert White, Thomas Bewick ( who produced the first significant book on British birds in 1797), George Montagu (who published an Ornithological Dictionary) and John Clare (who observed closely, and captured birds, though in poetry). The Victorians brought rigour to the study of birds and study of birds and natural history became fashionable – though birdwatchers then tended to take a shotgun and remove all the eggs from a nest, even as they acquired the knowledge to identify birds.
Popular interest in birdwatching grew exponentially in the 20th century, linked to growing concern with conservation and protection of habitats, threatened by industry, urban growth and the increased use of chemicals in agriculture.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was founded in 1889 by Emily Williamson at her house in Didsbury, Manchester. The original members were at all women – the focus of their campaigning was directed against the fashion of the time for women to wear exotic feathers in hats. In the 1890s the RSPB had only two rules, one of which was ‘that Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted’.
Reflecting the growing popularity of birdwatching as a hobby, and the need for a pocket-sized identification guide, the first Observer’s guide – on British birds – was published in 1937. It sold three million copies.