Spring again, and our neighbours are restless

Spring again, and our neighbours are restless

We have been entertained these past few days by the busy bustle of spring among the birds in our garden: a blue tit has found a hole in the sandstone wall and flies back and forth carrying nesting material, disappearing inside what should be a safe and warm shelter for its chicks, while a pair of magpies sift through the flower beds and fly off with beaks laden with twigs and leaves. Continue reading “Spring again, and our neighbours are restless”


A woodpecker skirmish in the park

A woodpecker skirmish in the park

This is the time of year when the morning dog walk in Sefton Park is accompanied by the loud drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpecker. It’s a handsome bird when you catch a glimpse of it, either clinging to a tree trunk or flying from tree to tree in a flash of black, white and red. This morning I heard a commotion in the branches above me and saw something quite remarkable.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker
A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker (identified by the large red patch on its head)

Since the 1950’s these birds have become increasingly common in parks and gardens throughout Britain. Once you have spotted one, they are easy to identify, being predominantly black and white, with a patch of red at the base of the body. You can distinguish males from females because the adult male has a small red patch on its head (juvenile birds exhibit a larger red patch that later disappears). But in spring their presence is usually betrayed by the sound of their drumming.

Although many people assume that they’re hearing the sound of a nest being drilled, that may not be the case, at least early in the season. In February, before the onset of the breeding season, the male woodpecker drums to signal for a mate. Selecting a hollow tree or dead branch with promising resonant qualities, he taps rapidly on the bark with his bill, making a rattle-like drum roll that is startlingly loud and carries for a considerable distance through woodland. Males not only drum in order to attract a mate – throughout the year they will continue to drum to proclaim their territory. Each male has his own drumming sequence and stops to listen to the replies of males nearby.

The drumming’ is the sound the birds make as they hammer their hard bills against the trunk of a tree. I’ve often wondered how the bird can do this repeatedly without doing itself serious brain damage.  Here’s the answer, given on the British Trust for Ornithology website:

Hitting a solid tree with your beak so hard that splinters fly ought to cause the brain to rotate in the way that causes concussion in Man. Not a bit of it. The evolution of the bird’s drilling equipment has provided very sophisticated shock absorbing adaptations involving the way that the bird’s beak joins the skull. The stresses are transmitted directly towards the centre of the brain and do not cause the knockout swirl.

The beak is used like a combined hammer and chisel to drill into trees and branches and carve out deep nest holes. When woodpeckers hammer into wood to get at grubs they also have another anatomical adaptation designed to help them feed. The roots of their tongues are coiled round the back of their skulls and can be extended a prodigious distance to harpoon insect larvae in their tunnels.

Once a couple have paired off, the nesting hole, neat and round, is bored in soft or decaying wood horizontally for a few inches, then perpendicularly down. At the bottom of a shaft, usually from six to twelve inches in depth, a small chamber is excavated and lined with wood chips. The female lays up to seven glossy-white eggs in the dark chamber, each parent taking turns to incubate the clutch and later feed the greyish, red-capped fledglings. The young leave after three weeks. The nest hole is rarely used again, though other holes are often bored in the same tree.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
A male Great Spotted Woodpecker (identified by the small red patch on the head)

What I saw this morning, alerted by a commotion in the branches above, was the sight of two males skirmishing outside a freshly-bored hole.  I stood and watched for several minutes as they went at it with a fair amount of ferocity. I assume that what I was seeing was one male attempting to take over the freshly-chiselled hole of the other.

Woodpecker is rubber-necked
But has a nose of steel.
He bangs his head against the wall
And cannot even feel.

When Woodpecker’s jack-hammer head
Starts up its dreadful din
Knocking the dead bough double dead
How do his eyes stay in? 

Pity the poor dead oak that cries
In terrors and in pains.
But pity more Woodpecker’s eyes
And bouncing rubber brains.

– Ted Hughes, from Under the North Star, 1981

See also

Tim Dee’s ‘The Running Sky’: to live is to fly

Tim Dee’s ‘The Running Sky’: to live is to fly

They were simple things, but they gave me much pleasure.  A flock of starlings twittering as they settle, disperse, and settle again on a row  of trees in the cemetery where I’m walking with my dog.  A raucous mob of sparrows, stirring up the next street as they trade news, insults, or whatever it is their racket signifies.

Starlings over the Somerset levels
Starlings over the Somerset levels

Both birds were once so common they were hardly worth remarking upon.  Now, with numbers collapsing, both are the RSPB’s red list. In our garden, we hardly ever see either these days, yet some of my strongest childhood memories involve these birds.  I loved the sparrows’ noisy gregariousness; they seemed to be everywhere you looked.  On Cheshire evenings I’d stand transfixed as great columns of starlings made their way towards their roosts in nearby woods. Which is why those recent sightings filled me with such delight.

Birds. How we do love them.  The most popular feature of Springwatch are, I’d guess, the live cams on the birds’ nests. In the park at this time of year, fellow dog-walkers and others share the latest news about the progress of newly-hatched goslings and cygnets. In any season, you might encounter someone peering into a bush, staring up into the branches of a tree, or simply standing listening to the morning’s avian chorus.

Why is this?  One answer, I think, is that birds are our neighbours – and the neighbours’ comings and goings are always fascinating. And rather than play music loud like some neighbours, they sing – joyously and mellifluously.  Rita caught this in a poem she wrote some time ago that I really like, called ‘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.

Then there is the puzzle – and wonder – of migration. For sedentary humans the arrival or departure of migrating birds is a powerful indicator of the year turning as the seasons change.  The return of the swifts to the skies above our avenue is an annual moment of joy.  But where have they been?

Swifts, especially, birds that spend their whole lives in the air, epitomise another feeling we have when we watch birds – our earthbound envy at their freedom in flight. Townes Van Zandt might have been thinking of swifts when he wrote ‘To Live is to Fly’:

We got the sky to talk about
And the earth to lie upon.
Time is yours to take;
Some sail upon the sea,
Some toil upon the stone.

To live is to fly
Low and high,
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes.

Swallows, illustration by C F Tunnicliffe
Swallows in summer, illustration by C F Tunnicliffe

Perhaps it’s because I have just finished reading Tim Dee’s miraculous book The Running Sky that these thoughts are uppermost in my mind.  His book has been lying around the house for a couple of years, but I picked it up after reading a superb piece on Derek Walcott in the London Review of Books. As producer of the Radio 4 poetry series The Echo Chamber, he’d been to St Lucia with Paul Farley, doubling up as sound recordist). Both men are keen birdwatchers, and Dee’s piece is attentive to the species they were rubbing shoulders with on the island:

It’s odd, in a world fizzing with insects and furious hummingbirds, to hear Walcott speak with such affection about Edward Thomas and John Clare; odd to follow his gaze out to sea and hear him quote Walter de la Mare’s ‘Fare Well’ with its intimations of an English pastoral afterlife. When at the party Glyn Maxwell, or perhaps it was Paul Farley, asked him what it was to be a ‘Caribbean’ poet, he lapsed into silence, the chorus of insects and birds answering on his behalf. The two British poets were putting the questions as I held the microphone and watched the sound levels: the high-pitched calls of hummingbirds set the needles jumping – two species, the green-throated Carib and the Antillean crested, hard to see clearly because they move in a way quite unlike other birds and at such speed.

There were bananaquits too. As we were talking a few came close to us, not much bigger than hummingbirds, black above and yellow below, like birds zipped into bee suits, anxious, constantly on the move, making their thin quit call. We were being audited for our potential sweetness and the birds were disappointed. The bananaquit loves nectar, bowls of sugar on café tables, rotting fruit and anything fermented to around 4-6 per cent alcohol. It will happily come to a bar and sip at an untended beer, returning to tipple throughout the day with no ill effects. (Unlike parrots, which as Aristotle knew, have no head for alcohol: in Australia, where they binge on over-ripe pears, birdwatchers have seen them getting legless, Amy Winehouse-style, faltering on branches and plummeting from trees.) For a long time no one in avian taxonomy knew where to place the bananaquit, and it was bottled nicely in its own family. Recently it has been lumped in with the ungainly ‘pan-American tanager’ cohort. Although it is one of the commonest birds in the towns and villages of St Lucia, away from its syrups it cuts fast through open space and busies itself in the interior of leafy trees, making it tricky to get a good look at. You hear bananaquits almost continually, but their quits are often lost in the general pulse of grackles, crickets, cicadas, hummingbirds, mosquitoes and the wider vegetative buzz.

Tim Dee was born here in Liverpool in 1961, but grew up in Bristol. He has worked as a BBC radio producer for twenty years. The Running Sky was published to great acclaim in 2009, while his latest book, Four Fields, has been gathering positive reviews in the last few weeks.

At first sight, The Running Sky might not seem that special: a memoir of his birdwatching life presented in diary form, with a chapter for a different month in one birdwatching year (though not of any specific year).  But this book is more – much more – than a twitcher’s tally (in fact, it’s not that at all). This is not just an account of one man’s love of birds and birdwatching.  It is an open and deeply personal memoir in which he recalls significant moments in his life – recollections which spin off into meditations on the natural world which draw upon poetry, music and literature.

Even that doesn’t really do justice this beautiful book. Because it is Dee’s writing that makes this book a transcendent experience: it reads like an extended, perfectly formed prose poem. He is expressive in his descriptions of events and people in his life, and eloquent in expressing emotions and thoughts. Dee’s memories merge into one stream of conciousness as he braids accounts of observing bird behaviour in various places at home and abroad with recollections of his childhood, his parents (who encouraged his early obsession with bird-watching), and adult encounters.  He begins in Liverpool, with the first bird he can remember.  It was a swallow, and, he writes,’all swallows since have joined that bird appearing above me and flying on ahead’:

The first bird I can remember watching flew through the garden of the house where I was born.  It was summer. I had just had my third birthday. I was pulling my red wooden train on its string; the train driver with his blue cap swayed a little, because the grass beneath was bumpy. We were in the back part of the big garden of the house – it was called Acresfield – on the outskirts of Liverpool. I steered carefully because we were going along a thin strip between furrows of turned soil where the old man who lived in the flat above us grew his vegetables. I concentrated to make sure that the train followed me and the driver – he had a column of blue painted wood instead of legs – didn’t wobble too much, topple over and roll from the train.

I heard shouting and I looked towards the noise: far across the wide lawn beyond the vegetable patch, the old man was leaning out of an open window and waving his arms like a bear. A year or so later when I met Mr McGregor in The Tale of Peter Rabbit I knew him already. The man at the window seemed too far away to be real, and though his voice must have been loud and angry, it grew thin and fell towards the lawn.  But he was shouting at me and I didn’t like it, It was too much. I had to drop the string, abandon the train and driver, and flee.

I looked up for my mother, who was somewhere in the garden,and headed for the greenhouse at the edge of the vegetable patch. The path bulged around a water butt; I followed it and kept going towards a wide black space of dark, the opening of the garden shed. From behind me, over my head as I moved towards the dark, came a bird. It pulled up into the dusty black rectangle of the open doorway and disappeared inside. It was showing me the way. I followed it.

In the sunshine, the space seemed to be hung with a black curtain. I walked through it; the air cooled and the noises dimmed. The throat~catching smell of warm creosote came. Everything was still. My eyes liked the bandage of the dark. Then, with a suddenness that made me gasp, the swallow was there and gone, diving back into the bright. It called once as it left, its buzzing twitter like an electrical spark. I looked up through the murk and saw on a crossbeam a little mud pie with tiny sticks of straw poking from it.  I forgot my train and the shouting.

That afternoon my father took me back to the shed so I could peer into the nest. Again, as we stepped into the dark, the swallow slipped over us; it was so close I could feel the air rub against me. On my father’s shoulders I raised my arms towards the nest, slowing and softening my reach as I felt for the bumpy balls of mud and the prickly stems. There were no young birds, or even any eggs yet. I couldn’t see into the cup, but let my fingers creep over its rim, feeling the smoothed lip and the feathers lining the tiny bowl. It was warm.

Some days later, I went to the shed but found it empty. On the hard ribbed concrete floor was a square mess of baby swallow, a miniature hooked beak, downy balding feathers, raised but useless open wings, dead half-meat beneath thin bat-skin.

I remember just these two scenes – one of calm and one of horror.  I didn’t see the birds fledge any young; I had no concept of their departure.  But I became a birdwatcher that summer.  The swallows, their flight, their music, their stopped moments perched on wires or incubating their eggs, their nest – all this was somehow laid inside me, like iron in my blood, so that no swallow after Acresfield has been my first, but all swallows since have joined that bird appearing above me and flying on ahead.

A theme to which Dee returns frequently and compellingly is the mystery of migration. The autumn departures and spring arrivals of birds ‘have made a timetable in my life’, he writes.

To be deprived of an autumn, its chilling lift, its emptying blast, and all its atmospheres between, held indoors shuttered from the wind and the light, or exiled to the seasonless tropics, would be a kind of death. My children have been born, my parents have grown old, relationships have been made and foundered and made again, my work has flowered and soured and rallied – all these human adventures are what my life has been built from. Yet my years throughout have been rhythmically driven by the step up into spring and the swing away into autumn and the movements of birds through them. Comings and goings. Windfalls.

He records the passage of migrants in places as far-flung as Fair Isle (one of the first places in the world where passage birds were logged and studied, and where the mystery of migration began to be solved) to the plain before Troy, in western Turkey, where Dee encounters one of his favourite birds – the redstart, en route from Russia or Ukraine.  The rusty red of the redstart’s tail reminds Dee that Aristotle thought that the summer redstarts of Greece turned into its winter robins.

Thinking of redstarts also reminds Dee of John Buxton who, while a prisoner of war in a German camp in Bavaria in 1940 observed a family of redstarts ‘unconcerned in the affairs of our skeletal multitude, going about their ways in cherry and chestnut trees’. When the next spring came, and the redstarts returned, he set out to study the birds during the hours he in the camp that he spent out of doors.  The result was The Redstart, published in 1950 and, in Dee’s opinion ‘one of the finest bird books’.  Dee writes:

His ornithology was good, but what makes Buxton’s book so unusual and distinguished is his beautifully expressed humility in the face of what he sees. Before the book has got under way he is saying he hasn’t really written a work of natural history at all: ‘These redstarts . . . I loved for their own sake and not for the sake of adding to men’s knowledge.’ His modesty, his gently expressed jealousy of the redstarts’ freedom, his assertion again and again that the birds might not be doing what he thinks they are – all make for remarkably tender science.

He quotes this passage from Buxton’s book:

I must be understood to refer only to my redstarts. […] My redstarts? But one of the chief joys of watching them in prison was that they inhabited another world than I; and why should I call them mine? They lived wholly and enviably to themselves, unconcerned in our fatuous politics, without the limitations imposed all about us by our knowledge. They lived only in the moment, without foresight and with memory only of things of immediate practical concern to them – which was their nesting hole, and which their path to it, where lay the boundaries beyond which they would not go; memory also, perhaps, of the way back when their one necessary urgent purpose was done, to the hot sun of Africa.

Throughout this illuminating book, Dee is alert not just to the details of the birds he is observing, but also to the various ways in which birds have inspired artists, poets and musicians. He notes, for example, that in May 1940, the same month that John Buxton was captured, Olivier Messiaen was imprisoned in Stalag VIIII-A at Gorlitz.  It was there he wrote – and premièred – his Quartet for the End of Time, which features musical accounts of a blackbird (played on the clarinet) and a nightingale (the violin).

Thinking about prisoners who preserved their sanity by taking pleasure in the freedom of birds leads Dee to recall the strange and inhumane experiments conducted on swallows during the Cold War by the Soviet ornithologist, DS Lyuleeva. To determine the energy costs of birds’ flight, she caught swallows and swifts, deprived them of food to empty their guts, then sewed their bills shut so they couldn’t feed on the wing, and threw them back into the air.  Later, the birds (or those that survived) were recaptured and had their mass losses calculated. As Dee dryly observes:

This episode suggested that considerable losses of weight, characteristic of swallows deprived of food for a long period of time, induce torpidity and subsequent death. Perhaps I am missing something, but this doesn’t seem a major scientific breakthrough – if a bird cannot eat it dies.

He goes on to draw a grim moral from these experiments, conducted in the 1960s on the Baltic shore of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which was then a military zone and a heavily policed frontier of the USSR, with watchtowers and border guards – ‘and just a few permitted scientists from Leningrad stitching shut the beaks of swallows’.  The people there were cut off  from their shore, kept from their sea:

Declared out of bounds to ordinary people, the bow-line of sand became a slowly shifting northern desert. In a decade of concrete and iron, walls and wires, weaponry and rust, on a cold Soviet shore an ornithologist is sewing a thread through the nostrils of a swallow, a bird that had come freely into that pallid spring from its winter in the skies of South Africa, another country then savage towards its own people. It is hard not to see some human envy, unspoken but deep, at work in these experiments. The birds come and go, we are stuck here, let us catch them and tie them to us.

Or, as one poet put it (when thinking about dogs):

When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs
I am compelled to conclude
That man is the superior animal.When I consider the curious habits of man
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.
Meditatio by Ezra Pound

Another striking feature of The Running Sky is the way in which Dee repeatedly slides between birdwatching  episodes and moments in his personal life. Perhaps the most vivid example comes in the chapter in which he remembers his childhood in Bristol, when a daily paper round would take him past the Avon Gorge where he would watch birds as they coped with the ‘wind machine’ of the Gorge, ‘the bash and thrust of air funnelled and collected by its cliffs and slopes’ that made its own wind: ‘gusts, thermals and aerial maelstroms’.  He watched jackdaws and other birds there, but there was always one kind of bird that was missing – the peregrine.

This chapter combines a brilliant analysis of the book about peregrines which has become a classic – JA Baker’s The Peregrine – and the afternoon when, as a twelve-year old on his paper round,’I saw a man jump into the Avon Gorge and I learned as deeply as seemed possible, then and now, that we cannot fly and we must make our escapes in other ways’.

Dee’s is the best discussion of Baker’s strange yet wonderful book that I have come across.  It is a book, avers Dee, ‘the weirdness [of which] cannot be overstated’.  ‘Blood-drenched and strewn with corpses’, Baker’s book is also:

A grounded man’s love affair with the airborne, a story told by a downed Icarus long after his fall, earthed, haggard and self-loathing, traipsing through marshes, crouching in ditches and lurking on field edges, and looking up before a greater creature.

The Peregrine is, Dee asserts, ‘nature writing’s Goya’.  It was the greatest ‘and most needed’ bird book of his youth.  Then, on his paper round one November afternoon and looking out for peregrines, he was cycling across the bridge over the gorge when a young man just in front of him

Turned his head to the right and glanced over his shoulder.  Perhaps he saw me, maybe he didn’t.  As he turned his head, he brought a cigarette in his right hand to his mouth and dragged on it; its tiny fire throbbed brightly back to me.  Then, still walking, with the cigarette in his mouth, he put both hands on the wooden railing of the bridge to his left, and vaulted over the side.

The precision of the observation, written down now decades later, speaks of a birdwatcher’s accuracy – and of a horror that was burned into a young boy’s memory, and which would not leave the man.  Dee writes how, ten years later, his breath faltered as he entered the building at Tring where the Natural History Museum’s bird collection is kept.  There was something about ‘the hospital-clean corridors’,the ‘institutional quietness’ and the sense of ‘being in some giant tomb’ that took him back to the coroner’s courtroom in Bristol where he had been summoned to make his statement about the suicidal leap into the void.

Starling murmuration, Somerset Levels
Starling murmuration, Somerset Levels

For me, the finest chapter is that in which Dee describes dusk on the Somerset Levels at the winter solstice, as thousands of starlings arrive to roost.  ‘Every evening’, he writes,

through the winters of the past few years, thousands, even millions, of starlings have come to sleep here. Eight million were counted, somehow, in one roost here a year or so ago. Th0′ may be the largest ever gathering of birds in Britain. Imagine Hyde Park Corner in failing light and the entire population of London arriving there from all points across the city.

By the time Dee arrives flocks of a hundred or more are already out on the Levels:

Local birds and arriving birds mixed, squabbling, feeding and talking. […] They seemed to be joining some necessary action. A call-up was under way.

That evening, summer was further off than it would ever be. Stowed sunshine from months ago was rationed, like the last grains of sugar in a siege. Its light and heat survived in only the flimsiest of things: the feathered seed heads of the reeds that engraved fine scratches onto the plate of the sky, and the tiny contact calls swapped between parties of long-tailed tits as they moved through the willow tops, living in the warmth of their own talk. Everything else was, or soon would be, a shade of black.

Tim Dee’s description of what follows is magnificent:

From all sides there were lines of starlings, in layers of about fifteen birds thick stretching for three miles back into the sky and coming towards the reed beds that surrounded me. They came out of the furthest reaches of the air, materialising into it from far beyond where my eyes or binoculars could reach in the murk. All flew with a lightly rippling glide, as if the net they were making of themselves was being evenly drawn into a single point in the reed bed.

Their arrival and accumulation had been eerily silent. From the early afternoon, first in the villages and then in the staging fields, there had been great noise. A collective telling and retelling of starling life rose through those hours of pre-roost talk to a complicated but loquacious rendering of all things – idiomatic adventure, mimetic brilliance and delighted conversational murmur. Once this annotation of the day was done, the birds grew quiet and lifted up and off to begin their thickening flights towards the roost.

There were thousands of mute birds around me, their wheeze and jabber left behind. Many thousands more were too far away to hear, but their calm progress towards the roost suggested they flew in silence. Closer, the only noise was of the flock’s feathers. As they wheeled and gyred en masse, the sound of their wings turning swept like brushes dashed across a snare drum or a Spanish fan being flicked open. The air was thick with starlings, inches apart and racked back into the darkening sky for a mile. Every bird was within a wing stretch of another. None touched.

A rougher magic overtook them as they arrived above the reeds. Great ductile cartwheels of birds were unleashed across  the sky. Conjured balls of starlings rolled out and up, shoaling from their descending lines, thickening and pulling in on themselves – a black bloom burst from the seedbed of birds. One wheel hit another and the carousels of birds chimed and merged, like iron filings made to bend to a magnet. The flock – but flock doesn’t say anything like enough – pulsed in and out.

Dee is overcome by the scale of it all: to describe the flock is ‘like trying to hold on to a dream in daylight – it slips from me, it cannot be summoned except in fragments, and they cannot be transcribed’.  Then he makes a remarkable comparison:

Try singing it. I thought of Thomas Tallis’s forty-part devotional motet Spem in alium from 1570. […] Could its eleven and a half minutes of singing light the black midwinter night and the black midwinter starlings?

Spem in alium doesn’t describe what the flock does. It is the flock. The music – unaccompanied singing, or rather singing that only accompanies itself – comes in, opening its throat before us, beginning with some tentative note on some frontier of sound, arriving into a space from a place without space, from far away. It might be one bird flying, or the sound of a wave beginning far out in the Atlantic. The sound catches and swirls towards us, becomes a striving, and folds into itself and floats and opens further with a beautiful frail young solo which twists my ears and then gives onto a landscape like the great heave of an abstract painting, making me think of Peter Lanyon’s sky masterpieces, as well as starlings hatching from the evening.  It is huge and everywhere, but tilted and very close.  And all along there is the strangest of pulses, a breathing, a flexing continuo, that rises into the heights…

Brilliant writing: the birds have become music; the music’s form consists of birds in movement.

In the touching ‘Afterword- Singing’ Dee recalls the time when, ten years old, he was kissed by a girl for the first time.  But he ‘couldn’t kiss her back – a mistle thrush got between us’.  Dee tells it with a mysterious lyricism:

A cold ragged day had begun without promise. The year had pulled into itself. Light came up but there was no sky, the blank space above looked as if it had been rubbed with a dirty cloth, a worn grey smear pushing over everything. It was Surrey and the weekend and I was bored. Autumn was over, Christmas a long way off.

My mother called me to the front room and pointed through the window. There was a girl standing on the road, at the bottom of our driveway, below the line of bare beech trees, looking up to the house. I knew her – it was Karen – and I knew straight away why she had come, but I wasn’t ready. My mother said she  had already been there for a while and that I should go out to her. I didn’t want to but I did.

I opened the front door, starting down the gravel. It was about a hundred yards to Karen. As I walked I could see her lips moving, her mouth opening and closing. I couldn’t hear her because a mistle thrush had started shouting its song from somewhere high up in the trees. I heard the bird as you might hear a lighthouse – a voice on its own, powering away through the wind, a clean brittle shout of far-carrying pure song. It lit all quarters of the sky space with
short repeated stabbing notes that made me wince as if it were cold.

Karen had come up through the hundred-acre hangar of trees … from where she lived, near our school. She was like a mistle thrush herself – lean, leggy, a little severe, with a short haircut and spectacles – and as I stepped closer, though I still couldn’t hear her, her lips moved and she seemed to be singing
the thrush’s song, as a troubadour might recruit an ‘auzel’. Love had brought her here, love of a kind, like the thrush. She and it were working against the season — it was November – the days were still shrinking back, but the bird was lighting the way to spring and Karen wanted to do the same.

I couldn’t answer her – I was not even eleven, she was six inches taller than me, and it was all too soon. The thrush had stopped my ears. Karen smiled and tried again. She looked down sweetly to me, her head falling to her chest as if she’d been hung from a hanging tree. She steeled herself and said that she would go if I would let her kiss me.

She leant in and kissed me on the lips. The mistle thrush was directly above us, high up in the broom head of the bare trees. I felt it was singing into my skull, annealing my whole  body with its bright, white music, heating me up and cooling me down. I followed Karen’s eyes as she looked up, and replied
with a peck on her cheek; it was all l knew.  She turned and as I watched her cross the road and start down the path through the wood, the mistle thrush was still banging on, shouting after her.

The funny thing is that, although The Restless Sky received unanimous praise from the critics when it was published, if you go to the book’s page on Amazon and scroll through the reader reviews posted there, you’ll find many irritated and disgruntled comments. Along the lines of:

I imagine going birdwatching with him and decided that you just couldn’t walk 2 yards without some literary quote. Look it’s a Skylark, (ah yes Shelley said…) it’s a Carrion Crow (ah yes Shakespeare) shall we go in this hut (ah yes it reminds me of a Canaletto) – arrrggghhhh!


I only made the start of the third chapter before hurling it with some force against the wall. The inappropriate adjectives, the redundant metaphors, the flights of fancy!!!

I suspect there is a certain kind of birdwatcher who (like Chris Packham, perhaps) just wants the unadorned facts, and no poetic flights of fancy.  But as Tim Dee points out somewhere in the book, both poetry and science can contribute to our appreciation of the natural world:

Science makes discoveries when it admits to not knowing, poetry endures if it looks hard at real things. Nature writing, if such a thing exists, lives in this territory where science and poetry meet. It must be made of both; it needs truth and beauty.

Simon Armitage, in The Poetry of Birds (co-written with Tim Dee) wonders why poets have written so many poems about birds. ‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level,’ he writes, ‘birds are also our souls’. He continues:

Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.

Without the poetry of birds we would be left only with Larkin’s ‘huge and birdless silence’ (‘Next Please’).
Look through my eyes up
At blue with not anything
We could have ever arranged
Slowly taking place.
– from WS Graham’s ‘Enter a Cloud’, set somewhere between Zennor and Gurnard’s Head

 See also

The call of the river

The call of the river

Canada geese in flight

Canada geese in flight. Photo by Philippe Henry

The day began, walking with the dog in the park, with a skein of geese flying overhead, a honking arrowhead of birds heading straight for the river. I don’t think there is any another sound that so lifts my spirits.  By mid-afternoon, the sunlight slanting brightly in the avenue, I heard the call of the river too.

As if pulled by the same primordial force that drew the geese, I headed out of the city, beyond Speke and the airport to Pickerings Pasture.  This is one of the best places to gain an appreciation of the breadth of the Mersey estuary, gouged and widened by glacial ice as it advanced south-eastwards and flooded as sea levels rose at the end of the ice age.  Here, at high tide, the river makes a broad S-bend sweep from the pinch point of the Runcorn gap south and west along the Cheshire shore towards the silver towers and chimneys of Stanlow oil refinery, glinting in the late afternoon sun.  Beyond lie the darkening outlines of the Clwydian hills.

The tide is running strongly toward the sea as, with the dog at my side, I set off to walk the short stretch along the river to the Runcorn bridge.  It’s a walk that embraces wild beauty and big-sky views, whilst snaking around the fringes of the Merseyside edgelands with its arterial roads, industrial estates, retail distribution centres and mysterious industrial processes.

Pickerings Pasture walk 18

The starting point, Pickering’s Pasture Nature Reserve, symbolises this dichotomy. Until the 1950s the  area was a salt marsh, grazed by cattle and home to wading birds and estuary plants. Then, for the next 30 years, the site was used as an industrial and household waste tip and a mountain of refuse rose on the salt marsh. But the land has now been reclaimed by Halton Borough Council, creating a haven for wildlife, covered by wild flowers, shrubs and trees and once again a place visited by resident and migrating birds. Surrounded by industry, it is a place of peace and quiet with magnificent views of the Mersey estuary.

Pickerings Pasture walk 1

We’re walking a section of the Trans-Pennine Trail here, encountering the occasional commuting cyclist who creeps up silently behind.  Along the track the autumn abundance of this ‘mast year’ is apparent; a year when, as the Guardian’s Plantwatch noted a few weeks back:

Trees are weighed down with an astonishing crop of nuts. … A mast year includes all the other nuts of woodland trees – acorns, sweet chestnuts, conkers, hazel, ash, maple, lime and many others. … Berries have also appeared in a bonanza season that should make for good foraging. There are heaps of big blackberries, elderberries, bilberries, sloes, rowan berries and others.

Pickerings Pasture walk 3

There were still a few blackberries, battered by the wind and rain of the past two weeks, along with elderberries and rowan, and lots and lots of rose hips.

Pickerings Pasture walk 2

Along with all those easily-identifiable berries there was this unfamiliar (to me) large shrub with long thin leaves and bright yellow berries.  I later identified it (I hope correctly) as Sea Buckthorn that gets its name from being largely confined to sea coasts where salt spray off the sea prevents other larger plants from out-competing it.  The berries are an important winter food resource for birds, especially the fieldfare – a bird regularly sighted here by the volunteers of the Friends of Pickering’s Pasture.

Pickerings Pasture walk 4

The Pickering’s Pasture site was regenerated between 1982 and 1986 when Halton Borough Council reclaimed the land, safely covering the waste of the land fill site with a thick layer of clay.  A little way along the river bank is this obelisk, erected on the site of an old navigational beacon that was used by shipping on the Mersey right up to 1971.  The obelisk was constructed by men employed on the regeneration project.

Pickerings Pasture walk 5

One of the benefits of that scheme was the construction of the elegant white footbridge across Ditton Brook that rises somewhere around Netherley and flows through Ditton Marsh before joining the Mersey at this point.  Before its construction, the idea of walking from Hale to Runcorn along the river must have been out of the question if you weren’t carrying waders.

Pickerings Pasture walk 1b

The brook, edged with tidal mud that attracts many wading birds, winds through the low-level industrial units of Halebank Industrial Estate.

Pickerings Pasture walk 6

But, at the eastern end of the footbridge a staircase of steps leads to a very different view: turn your gaze towards the river and, at high tide you’re presented with a view of the broad sweep of the Mersey with Cheshire’s sandstone ridge rising up behind Frodsham on the far bank and the hills of Wales on the skyline to the west.  The view is at its most impressive as sunset nears.

Pickerings Pasture walk 8

Walking on, the path is edged on the landward side by classic edgeland scenery: storage tanks, drainage ditches, railway arches and industrial units. We’re looking at the back end of the grandly-named Mersey Multimodal Gateway which, ‘if you’re into the movement and storage of goods’ – according to the group’s website – ‘is a unique piece of infrastructure with unrivalled features’.   At one point the path runs right alongside a food processing plant that is both noisy and smells richly of some ingredient that might be used in the brewing industry.

Pickerings Pasture walk 10

Since I last walked this stretch a huge Tesco distribution hangar has appeared, while nearby there is an Eddie Stobart cold storage yard where a ceaseless procession of articulated lorries were returning from making the day’s freight deliveries.

Pickerings Pasture walk 9

By now the bridge is dominating the view, although to be accurate there are two: the more westerly rail bridge and the distinctive Runcorn-Widnes road bridge that carries the A533 over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal, opened in 1961 as a replacement for the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge which I remember crossing the Mersey on as a child.

Pickerings Pasture walk 11

Pickerings Pasture walk 14

At the foot of the railway bridge are the remains of an old dock, the walls constructed from the distinctive red sandstone of this region.

Pickerings Pasture walk 13

Pickerings Pasture walk 12

Pickerings Pasture walk 15

Returning along the path, I could make out the Manchester Ship Canal on the opposite shore, with what looked like another Eddie Stobart distribution facility adjoining it.  Beyond loomed the sandstone crags above Frodsham.

Pickerings Pasture walk 21

As the sun began to set behind clouds to the west, a Ryanair flight made its descent towards John Lennon airport.

Pickerings Pasture walk 17

Pickerings Pasture walk 18

The western sky was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set beyond the Welsh hills.

Pickerings Pasture walk 19

Pickerings Pasture walk 20

Pickerings Pasture walk 23

Walking back I suddenly realised that I was not alone: above me, silent columns of seagulls leisurely made their way, following the river, headed for the sea.  There were hundreds in any one batch, thousands strung out ahead of me moving towards Liverpool, and more coming on silently behind.  I don’t know if this is a nightly movement towards roosting areas on the shore along the coastline of the Mersey Bay, or whether it was associated with the tide, running strongly towards the sea. Whatever it signified, it was a magnificent sight, making a perfect end to a day that begun for me with that honking skein of geese flying above me in Sefton Park.

Pickerings Pasture walk 22

Pickerings Pasture walk 25

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’

Pickerings Pasture walk 24

See also

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

The goldfinch: symbol of salvation yet thrice-cursed, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’

Yesterday I wrote about the connection between Donna Tartt’s new novel and the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch.  That set me thinking about why Fabritius had chosen the bird as a subject for a painting, so I thought I’d consult the book I received as a birthday present recently: Birds and People by Mark Cocker.

What I found there proved to be fascinating.  In a sense, Carel Fabritius was following a well-established tradition of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance of featuring a goldfinch in paintings, especially images of the Madonna and holy child.  What mattered for these artists was not the accuracy of natural history but the bird’s symbolic or allegorical meaning.  Cocker reckons that close on 500 paintings in this period included the goldfinch motif.  In the case of the Madonna images, the bird often occupied a central place in the composition, perched on Mary’s fingers or nestled in Christ’s hands.

Taddeo di Bartolo Sienna , Virgin and Child, 13C

Detail from Taddeo di Bartolo’s ‘Virgin and Child’,14th century

Virgin and Child, Florence, 13 or 14C

‘Virgin and Child’, Florence, 14th century.

So what was it about the goldfinch that warranted its inclusion in hundreds of paintings?  The answer lies in the bird’s plumage and lifestyle, which had produced in the medieval mind powerful symbolic associations. Cocker quotes the scholar Herbert Friedmann who wrote in The Symbolic Goldfinch (1946) of the ‘ceaseless sweep of allegory through men’s minds.  They felt and thought and dreamed in allegories’.

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, detail

Detail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymous Bosch, c1510: rampant allegory featuring an outsize goldfinch.

What did the individual feel, then, when they saw an image of a goldfinch? First, there was the bar of gold across the bird’s wings, a colour which, since the ancient Greeks, had been associated with the ability to cure sickness.  Then there was the splash of red on the cheeks: as with the robin’s red breast this was a sign to medieval Christians that the bird had acquired blood-coloured feathers while attempting to remove the crown of thorns from while Christ was being crucified.

Finally, not only did thistles have a symbolic association with the crucifixion: thistle seeds are the staple food of the European goldfinch, and thistles were themselves regarded as curative (long credited, for example, as a medicinal ingredient to combat the plague).

John Clare, always observant of bird behaviour, noted the goldfinch’s preference for thistles in his poem, ‘The Redcap’ (an old country name for the bird):

The redcap is a painted bird
and beautiful its feathers are;
In early spring its voice is heard
While searching thistles brown and bare;
It makes a nest of mosses grey
And lines it round with thistle-down;
Five small pale spotted eggs they lay
In places never far from town

(Indeed, goldfinches often come to our bird table here in Liverpool.)

Through its association with thistles, the goldfinch came to be seen as a good-luck charm, ‘warding off contagion and bestowing symbolic health both upon those who viewed it and upon the person who owned it’.  Thus the goldfinch came to be a symbol of endurance and, in the case of paintings of the Madonna and child this symbolism was transferred to the Christ child, an allegory of the salvation Christ would bring through his sacrifice.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, 1480

Carlo Crivelli, ‘Madonna and Child’, 1480

In the Venetian artist Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child, apples and a phallic and misshapen cucumber symbolise sin and a fly evil; they are opposed to the goldfinch, symbol of redemption from the belief that when Christ was crucified, a goldfinch perched on his head and began to extract thorns from the crown that soldiers had placed there.

Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino Madonna of the Goldfinch detail

Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’).

In Birds and People, Mark Cocker makes a broader point: that the story of the goldfinch in late medieval art is an indication of how our views of nature have changed.  Until relatively recently most people ‘genuinely thought birds existed to fulfil very specific human ends’.  He quotes one 18th century author as asserting: ‘Singing birds were undoubtedly designed by the Great Author of Nature on purpose to entertain and delight mankind’.

Which, in a way, brings us back to Fabritius’s goldfinch.  Cocker describes the goldfinch as ‘thrice-cursed as a cagebird’: once by its beauty, then by its pleasant song, described by one writer as ‘more expressive of the joy of living than of challenge to rivals’, and finally by its dextrous coordination of bill and feet.  In order to feed off thistle heads, the goldfinch has developed the ability to hold down an object with its toes while pulling parts towards them.

Fabritius, The Goldfinch,1654

Carel Fabritius’s ‘Goldfinch’,1654: ‘thrice-cursed’.

It was precisely these three ‘curses’ that resulted in the predicament of the bird in Fabritius’s painting.  Finches like the chaffinch and goldfinch were highly valued as cagebirds for their melodious song, but goldfinches brought something more: they became  popular house pets in Holland, kept in captivity attached to a chain and trained to perform the trick of drawing water from a glass placed below the perch by lowering a thimble-sized cup into the glass.

It’s not beyond the bounds of probability that Fabritius, making this painting six years after the United Provinces had gained their independence from Spain, also expected his viewers to read his work as an allegory of freedom chained.  In this sense, the painting shares an emotional character with Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Caged Goldfinch’:

Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.

There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.

A few decades after Hardy, Osip Mandelstam, in ‘The Cage’ written after Stalin had ordered his arrest and internal exile in Voronezh from 1935 to 1937, summoned the goldfinch to symbolize his yearning for freedom and self-expression and rage at being caged within ‘a hundred bars of lies’:

When the goldfinch like rising dough
suddenly moves, as a heart throbs,
anger peppers its clever cloak
and its nightcap blackens with rage.

The cage is a hundred bars of lies
the perch and little plank are slanderous.
Everything in the world is inside out,
and there is the Salamanca forest
for disobedient, clever birds.

There’s another goldfinch poem by Thomas Hardy – ‘The Blinded Bird’ – that communicates the same sense of rage at freedom denied, ‘enjailed in pitiless wire’:

So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!

Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!

Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.

Hardy – who was an antivivisectionist and founder-member of the RSPCA – wrote the poem as a protest against the Flemish practice of Vinkensport in which finches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. In preparation for the contests, birds would be blinded with hot needles in order to reduce visual distractions and encourage them to sing more. In 1920, after a campaign by blind World War I veterans supported by Hardy the practice was banned.  Vinkensport – considered part of traditional Flemish culture – continues today, though the birds are now kept in small wooden boxes that let air in but keep distractions out.

Writing this now brings back the memory of standing in a narrow street in Naples this spring, echoing with the roar of motorcycles and the shouts of people passing.  Above the din, I heard a bird sing. Opposite, a tenement rose up, balconies draped with the morning’s washing, and on a fourth floor balcony, my eyes found the bird that sang.  Some kind of finch, it was trapped in a cage no more than twice its size.  I wrote about that experience back in April, and of the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that gave Maya Angelou the title of the first volume of her autobiography:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Leonardo, Madonna Litta detail

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘Madonna Litta’, detail

Maybe Hardy had read Leonardo da Vinci’s words on the goldfinch:

The gold-finch is a bird of which it is related that, when it is carried into the presence of a sick person, if the sick man is going to die, the bird turns away its head and never looks at him; but if the sick man is to be saved the bird never loses sight of him but is the cause of curing him of all his sickness.

Like unto this is the love of virtue. It never looks at any vile or base thing, but rather clings always to pure and virtuous things and takes up its abode in a noble heart; as the birds do in green woods on flowery branches. And this Love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity; as light does, which shines most where the place is darkest.

Ted Hughes celebrated the twitching, thrilling vitality of goldfinches in their free element in ‘The Laburnum Top’:

The Laburnum Top is silent, quite still
in the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen

Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddeness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

And the laburnum subsides to empty

Simon Armitage, in The Poetry of Birds, wonders why poets have written so many poems about birds. ‘Perhaps at some subconscious, secular level,’ he writes, ‘birds are also our souls’. He continues:

Or more likely, they are our poems. What we find in them we would hope for our work – that sense of soaring otherness. Maybe that’s how poets think of birds: as poems.

Reviewing Donna Tartt’s novel in today’s Guardian, Kamila Shamsie writes that at the conclusion of the book she leads her readers to a place of meaning: in her words, ‘a rainbow edge … where all art exists, and all magic. And … all love.’

Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch, 1870

Henriette Browne, ‘A Girl Writing The Pet Goldfinch’, 1870: freedom to fly

See also

Charles Tunnicliffe at Oriel Ynys Mon: ‘the love of nature absorbed him’

Charles Tunnicliffe at Oriel Ynys Mon: ‘the love of nature absorbed him’
Tunnicliffe book cover
The cover of Oriel Ynys Mon’s publication,Tunnicliffe

In my last post I wrote of our visit to Oriel Ynys Mon on Anglesey to see the exhibition of paintings of Venice by Kyffin Williams.  It was the second time I’d been to the gallery and on both occasions I was delighted to see exhibits from the collection of work by Charles Tunnicliffe held by the gallery.  If you grew up in the fifties like me you probably read Ladybird nature books and collected Brooke Bond tea cards – all illustrated by Tunnicliffe. You might even have read the Puffin edition of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, with its cover and beautiful illustrations also by Tunnicliffe.

Another reason for my interest in Tunnicliffe is that he grew up not far from where I lived.  He was born in 1901 in Langley, just outside Macclesfield, and spent his early years on a farm at nearby Sutton Lane Ends where he helped out with daily tasks and began to take a keen interest in observing animals and birds closely. There’s an early drawing, The Kestrel, which I’m pretty certain depicts the view from there, with the Cheshire plain and the smoking chimneys of Macclesfield’s textile and silk mills smoking in the distance.

Tunnicliffe, The Kestrel, 1926
Tunnicliffe, The Kestrel, 1926

At the village school he learned to draw and became interested in art, later winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London where he rubbed shoulders with  Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Edward Burra.  After graduating Tunnicliffe began to make a living from selling etchings and engravings of rural scenes, but with the onset of the depression in 1930s the market for prints declined, so he began to teach illustration and graphic design. His big breakthrough came in 1932  after his wife had encouraged him to submit illustrations for a new edition of Henry Williamson’s best-selling novel Tarka the Otter. It was this series of wood engravings that bought Tunnicliffe widespread recognition.

Tunnicliffe, Tarka the Otter coverTunnicliffe, Tarka the Otter

In 1947 Tunnicliffe’s long association with Anglesey began when he moved from Manchester to ‘Shorelands’ a cottage at Malltraeth, on the estuary of the Afon Cefni near Newborough, where he lived until his death in 1979.  On Anglesey, Tunnicliffe set about consolidating his knowledge of the island’s many bird haunts.  In 1952, one of his best-loved books, Shorelands Summer Diary, was published – one of the artist’s masterpieces, it’s an evocative record of one glorious season on Anglesey.  In 1954, Tunnicliffe was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy in recognition, not just of his excellence as an illustrator and bird portraitist, but also for the breadth of his achievement in a variety of media – watercolour, pen and ink, woodblock engraving, etching and scraperboard – and across a variety of subject matter.

Tunnicliffe Ladybird books
Tunnicliffe illustrated these Ladybird books

His name became a familiar one to kids like me in the 1950s, reading the Ladybird Books that he illustrated (I remember I used to own the ‘seasons’ series) and collecting the Brooke Bond tea cards that featured his meticulous paintings of birds and wild flowers. One of the first albums I collected was the set of his bird portraits from 1957.

Tunnicliffe, Bird Portraits album, 1957
Tunnicliffe, Bird Portraits album cover, 1957
Tunnicliffe, Bird Portraits cards, 1957
Tunnicliffe, Bird Portraits cards, 1957

By the sixties, my brother – ten years younger than me – was collecting Brooke Bond cards.  This is a spread from the Tunnicliffe-illustrated album Wild Birds in Britain album of 1965, which contains this prescient introduction by Tunnicliffe:

There is always something new to be discovered about birds. Also we must not forget their beauty – a difficult quality to define, but one which is made up of form and colour, balance and movement ~ quality to which all sensitive and alert people respond, and which birds have in abundance. Surely, then, these value able creatures are worthy of our care and protection. But alas! modern man’s activities are, on the whole, against their survival. Towns increase in size, land is drained, harmful chemicals are used in the cultivation of the soil, more and more people shoot birds, and so the destruction goes on. Will many of our birds be but a memory in a few years to come ? Some are already just that.

Tunnicliffe, Wild Birds album, 1965
Tunnicliffe, Wild Birds in Britain album, 1965

In Tunnicliffe’s bird paintings, artistic interpretation was rooted in meticulous observation and precise scientific method.  This is powerfully illustrated in the current display of the artist’s work at Oriel Ynys Mon, which features a number of the measured drawings through which Tunnicliffe recorded – from various angles and to within a millimetre of accuracy – the details of specimens that had been brought to him.

Charles Tunnicliffe painting a measured drawing
Charles Tunnicliffe painting a measured drawing

These post-mortem studies (always the result of chance – Tunnicliffe never countenanced the killing of birds) he called his ‘feather maps’;  they were used as the basis for his finished works.

Tunnicliffe, Measured drawing of Black-headed Gull
Tunnicliffe, measured drawing of Black-headed Gull

The current exhibits include several astonishingly detailed measured drawings of birds – and one of a fox which I found particularly breathtaking.  These are large works – near to life-size, and every detail of the animal’s anatomy and colouring had been carefully observed, with the fine detail of each hair of the fox’s coat almost visible.

Tunnicliffe, measured drawing of a fox, 1964
Tunnicliffe, measured drawing of a fox, 1964
Tunnicliffe, Measured drawing of a female Brown Hare, 1973
Tunnicliffe, Measured drawing of a female Brown Hare, 1973

Peter Scott, the ornithologist, broadcaster and fellow artist, believed that ‘the verdict of posterity in time to come is likely to rate Charles Tunnicliffe the greatest wildlife artist of the twentieth century’.  Looking at the measured drawings, you think he might be right.

Another source leading to the finished works were the high-speed drawings that Tunnicliffe made in the field, especially around Cob Lake, the Cefni Estuary, South Stack Cliffs, Llyn Coron, Aberfraw, and Cemlyn.  These were then worked up in a superb set of sketchbooks full of accurate and colourful ‘memory drawings’.

These sketchbooks are works of art in themselves, and examples of these are on display at Oriel Ynys Mon, too. The open pages reveal the drawings and watercolours that the artist made to quickly record the details of the colouring and movement of a particular bird or animal.  Alongside, he would add copious hand-written notes.

Tunnicliffe, Short-Eared Owl and Montagu's Harrier, Cefni saltmarsh, sketchbook, 1956
Tunnicliffe, Short-Eared Owl and Montagu’s Harrier, Cefni saltmarsh, sketchbook, 1956

Tunnicliffe kept his sketch­­books and measured draw­ings at home in Anglesey until the end of his life. He could not work without them and always had them by his side for reference.  At his death, much of his personal collection of work was bequeathed to Anglesey council on the condition that it was housed together and made available for public viewing. This is the body of work which can now be seen at Oriel Ynys Môn.

Tunnicliffe, Coming in to land
Tunnicliffe, Coming in to Land

There’s one painting of Tunnicliffe’s, Coming in to Land, which must have been painted from sketches made at the mouth of Afon Cefni, looking toward the lighthouse of Ynys Llanddwyn and the Snowdonia mountains beyond.  It depicts one of my favourite sights, a skein of geese in flight.  You can hear the honking.  There’s a beautifully-composed, balletic quality to Curlews Alighting, below.

CharlesTunnicliffe, Curlews Alighting
CharlesTunnicliffe, Curlews Alighting

Sometimes there is a tendency to dismiss the work of an artist like Tunnicliffe as mere illustration, but, as his friend Kyffin Williams said in a tribute to Tunnicliffe at the time of his first major Anglesey exhibition:

If this was so, it didn’t worry the countryman from Cheshire for his work was done for love: love of birds and of animals, of the wild flowers on the rocks above the sea, of the wind, of the sun and of the changing seasons.

The love of nature absorbed him … Every day he worked; in the fields, on the shore, in the Anglesey marshes and in his studio overlooking the sea.  When the world of art was arguing to decide what was art and what was not, Charles Tunnicliffe just lived and worked. […]

The best of his measured drawings are great works of art, as are some of his wood engravings and etchings.  All these were done from deep knowledge, so the integrity is immense, as in his wonderful etching of the sitting hare.

Indeed; it might be Durer.

Tunnicliffe, The Sitting Hare, 1920s
Tunnicliffe, The Sitting Hare, 1920s

Or take Dry Clothes and Rain, a work from around 1926 that hangs in Macclesfield’s West Bank Museum, where a room has been dedicated to his work that I must visit one day soon.

Charles Tunnicliffe, Dry Clothes and Rain, 1926
Charles Tunnicliffe, Dry Clothes and Rain, 1926


Welsh language art programme Pethe looks at a 2011 exhibition at Oriel Ynys Mon of works by Kyffin Williams and Charles Tunnicliffe including archive footage of the painters at work (subtitles).

Slideshow of Tunnicliffe’s bird paintings (you may prefer to mute the soundtrack)

See also

The caged bird sings: of things unknown but longed for still

The caged bird sings: of things unknown but longed for still

Caged birds

Four days in Naples, and of all the images imprinted on my memory from that city of teeming alleyways and cacophonous streets, one lingers ineradicable.  I was waiting outside a shop in a narrow street echoing with the roar of motorcycles and the shouts of people passing.  Then, above the din, I heard a bird sing. Opposite, a tenement rose up, balconies draped with the morning’s washing, and on a fourth floor balcony, my eyes found the bird that sang.  Some kind of finch, it was trapped in a cage no more than twice its size. Imprisoned, the bird was repeating the same movements over and over, the way I’ve seen a caged zoo animal  pace incessantly one way and back again. The bird fluttered to a top corner of the cage and back down, over and over without pause. The song I had heard was a fearful, endless shriek.

I wanted to climb the stairs and free the bird, but of course I didn’t. But the image of that desperate flapping has not left my mind. I’ve since discovered that what I saw was just one example of a plight that ensnares countless birds in Naples. As this report indicates, birds are caught in large numbers, particularly on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, to be openly sold on the streets of Naples despite Italian laws that outlaw finch trapping:

Goldfinches, Greenfinches and Siskins are traditionally considered to bring their owners luck in the sprawling conurbation of Naples. Everywhere in the narrow streets and alleyways of the old town, stopped up with vehicle traffic, the song of these birds can be heard from countless balconies where they are confined in small cages. For many long term residents of Naples a finch in a cage is a typical household item.

The birds are still  in clap and mist nets, as well as special cage traps, above all on The birds are sold in normal pet shops, which also sell the necessary trapping accoutrements. The birds and equipment are often not just available ‘under the counter’ but are openly on sale.

The report is illustrated by the photo (above) of goldfinches and siskins seized before they were sold on the back streets of Naples.

Finches in flight
Photo of finches in flight by Roy Churchill (http://www.rchurchill.f2s.com/)

Of course, the phrase that has been on my mind these last few days has been ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, the title of the first volume of Maya Angelou’s memorable autobiography. In naming her book, Angelou was honouring Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), an African-American poet whose works she had admired for years, and specifically referencing the third stanza of his poem ‘Sympathy’:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Maya Angelou wrote her own poem that shares the same title as her book:

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

There’s a poem by the American Mark Doty, ‘Migratory’, that speaks of longing, of our homesickness for the wild.  As John Burnside observed in a recent New Statesman article, it is a poem that

both delineates and accepts the limitations of being human, rather than animal …. As the birds fly over and away from him, forcing the speaker to admit ‘I wasn’t with them . . . of course I wasn’t’, we nevertheless see that, for the moment at least, he is touched with wonder and a lingering faith in a natural order that we all too frequently ignore. He has seen – and to see another animal in its true light, however briefly, is to recover a little of the connection that makes us compassionate, which is to say: whole. The leap skyward that Doty imagines reminds us that, unless we are able to experience the world, not just alongside but with other living things, we are incomplete. Compassion isn’t just what makes us human; it is what makes us real.

Geese in flight

Near evening, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts,
seventeen wild geese arrowed the ashen blue
over the Wal-mart and the Blockbuster Video,

and I was up there, somewhere between the asphalt
and their clear dominion – not in the parking lot,
the tallowy circles just appearing,

the shopping carts shining, from above,
like little scraps of foil. Their eyes
held me there, the unfailing gaze

of those who know how to fly in formation,
wing-tip to wing-tip, safe, fearless.
And the convex glamour of their eyes carried

the parking lot, the wet field
troubled with muffler shops
and stoplights, the arc of highway

and its exits, one shattered farmhouse
with its failing barn…The wind
a few hundred feet above the grass

erases the mechanical noises, everything;
nothing but their breathing
and the perfect rowing of the pinions,

and then, out of that long, percussive pour
toward what they are most certain of,
comes their – question, is it?

Assertion, prayer, aria – as delivered
by something too compelled in its passage
to sing? A hoarse and unwieldy music

which plays nonetheless down the length
of me until I am involved in their flight,
the unyielding necessity of it, as they literally

rise above, ineluctable, heedless,
needing nothing…Only animals
make me believe in God now

– so little between spirit and skin,
any gesture so entirely themselves.
But I wasn’t with them,

as they headed toward Acushnet
and New Bedford, of course I wasn’t,
though I was not exactly in the parking lot

either, with the cars nudged in and out
of their slots, each taking the place another
had abandoned, so that no space, no desire

would remain unfilled. I wasn’t there.
I was so filled with longing
– is that what that sound is for? –

I seemed to be nowhere at all.

Recently I’ve been reading Michael Symmons Roberts’ new collection Drysalter; among the fine poems is this hymn to birds, the risks they run and the meaning they hold for us, epitomised in the sound of the dawn chorus:

It begins in song, in fact in songs, such chaos
it’s as if each dead bird is reborn to join
the same dawn chorus: all those shot, mauled,
widow-blind, the roadkill, those whose
gist gave out in mid-migration, those whose
picking at the dry soil drew a blank, now caught
in one tremendous rinse and swoon of multiples
then down the song stoops circling and the tone
slides from tin to wood to stone it tips into
the vortex of its making, a sheer weight
of song too great to hold still and the birds
themselves are sucked in with it, corkscrew
curl of down, crop, tail and crest until it all
collapses into one dun thrush, a dusk yard,
cherry bough, a single note swells in its gullet.

(‘Abyss of Birds’)

Now I know that Spring will come again. Perhaps to-morrow?

Now I know that Spring will come again. Perhaps to-morrow?

Spring snow 1

Yesterday the first day of spring, today blizzards in a north-east wind.  Winter hasn’t let go this year: we’ve been stuck with anticyclonic conditions for three weeks, and this has sucked in cold air from Scandinavia.  For a while the weather was crisp, then it turned cold, damp and murky.  Today, an Atlantic weather front pushing in has met that cold air from the north-east and, here on Merseyside, we’ve had heavy, wet snow swept along in blizzard conditions. Not what you expect in late March, least of all in Liverpool.

Yesterday the Guardian, in an article on the unseasonal weather, noted that

One hundred years ago, on the official first day of spring, the Anglo-Welsh poet and naturalist Edward Thomas set off from Clapham Common in London to cycle and walk to the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The record of his journey, called In Pursuit of Spring, became a nature-writing classic, telling of exuberant chiffchaffs and house martins, daffodils and cowslips in full flower and ‘honeysuckle in such profusion as I had never before seen’.  Had Thomas taken the same route today, he might not have seen very much wildlife – and could well have frozen. Mist and fog, rain, a bitter north wind, and temperatures just above freezing are forecast for , the first “official” day of spring.

Certainly not much sign of honeysuckle around these parts, and the daffodils and crocus are only just starting to show.  This time last year it was very different: a heatwave and barbecues in the park. But, as Edward Thomas was well aware, it’s not unusual for winter to hold on through March; he wrote a poem about it:

Now I know that Spring will come again,
Perhaps to-morrow: however late I’ve patience
After this night following on such a day.

While still my temples ached from the cold burning
Of hail and wind, and still the primroses
Torn by the hail were covered up in it,
The sun filled earth and heaven with a great light
And a tenderness, almost warmth, where the hail dripped,
As if the mighty sun wept tears of joy.
But ’twas too late for warmth. The sunset piled
Mountains on mountains of snow and ice in the west:
Somewhere among their folds the wind was lost,
And yet ’twas cold, and though I knew that Spring
Would come again, I knew it had not come,
That it was lost too in those mountains chill.

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.
They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,
On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches
And while they fought, if they remembered to fight:
So earnest were they to pack into that hour
Their unwilling hoard of song before the moon
Grew brighter than the clouds. Then ’twas no time
For singing merely. So they could keep off silence
And night, they cared not what they sang or screamed;
Whether ’twas hoarse or sweet or fierce or soft;
And to me all was sweet: they could do no wrong.
Something they knew–I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour’s songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

I’ve remarked here before that I revere the Country Diary written by Paul Evans in the Guardian. Go here for the full text, but this is part of the entry he wrote yesterday:

Today is the vernal equinox: equal day, equal night, a moment of balance poised between the cold grey of winter and the green fire of spring.

Watching the budget on the news, I wait for George Osborne’s primavera moment, when zephyrs blow flowers through the halls of Westminster and birdsong drowns out the hectoring. Hope over experience, eh? He’s only going to frack it up so I switch off and walk outside where spring should be champing at the bit.

This time last year was sunny and warm, I saw butterflies and bees and at dusk bats flying under a strangely fat moon. What have they done with the spring? We had a day of it a fortnight ago and since then it’s been snow, hail, rain, fog. The ground is unyielding, greasy, sullen. Wallflowers and polyanthus are stunned by frost. A few sulky daffodils peer earthwards. Snowdrops are hanging on like a pillow burst of feathers from a peregrine kill, beautiful and pointless. […]

I stand under a dishwater sky, bone cold, cold as charity. Geese honk, hens cluck, small birds whistle without passion. The buds hold, tight-fisted, their little hopes. Between yesterday’s hail and tomorrow’s rain, the gutters run. I rummage through rattley hedges for that still point, the moment of balance where light and dark are equal, life and death cancel each other out. It’s a new beginning of sorts. Even though spring still feels as though it’s stuck up to its axles in mud, there is an urgency in the voices of birds. We agree.

It’s the birds I notice too on my morning dog walks through the park.  The other day I was astonished when a pair of scuffling male blackbirds flew out of a shrubbery and continued their mid-air wing-flapping sorting out of the pecking order at shoulder height just an arm’s length in front of me; they only gave up and flew off after I had reached out an arm. There’s a song thrush that always singing loud and sweet in the same tree by the Palm House every morning, and a heron that stands, shoulders hunched like an old judge, staring at the stream. The nuthatch whose song I was pleased to identify last year is back in the same tree, making the same electronic, staccato call.

After this morning’s walk in the park with the dog, at breakfast we watched for some time as a fox poked around the back garden, sniffing at the fat balls hanging for the birds, and scrounging some fallen bird seed.  The cold making for hunger, I expect.  Yesterday there was a different fox on the back wall; that one had a tail like a broom: smooth for most of its length, but ending with a furry flourish.

A Single Swallow

A Single Swallow

The swallows have long gone from the park fields; they no longer swoop and dive around me as I walk the dog there.  By now they are probably some where over the tropical forests of central Africa; by Christmas many will have reached South Africa.  The extraordinary journey that swallows make on their annual migration has fascinated me since, as a child growing up in a Cheshire village, I would see swallows gather in late August or September on telephone wires and I would know that summer was nearly over and I would marvel at the great journey they were about to make.

The swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson,
Touches the honey-slow river and turning
Returns to the hand stretched from under the eaves –
A boomerang of rejoicing shadow.

– Ted Hughes, from ‘Work and Play’

I suppose it was this unending fascination that led me, in a bookshop in the summer, to pick up and buy A Single Swallow: Following the migration from South Africa to South Wales by Horatio Clare.  I saved it for the end of summer, and finished reading it a couple of weeks ago.

When I finally settled down to read the book it was, at first, a disappointment.  This is not a book about swallows: it is, rather, a travel book in which swallows make only an occasional appearance.  But, as soon as I had adjusted to this mistake on my part, I found myself absorbed in Clare’s story of his journey north through Africa, swept along by Clare’s engagingly generous account of the characters he meets along the way.  For the strength of this book lies in Clare’s vivid portrayal of encounters with humans, rather than the birds he is ostensibly following.

Horatio Clare made the decision to follow the swallows’ route one summer’s morning in Wales when he saw swallows on the wires at his mother’s house. In a sense the journey will also replicate his father’s journey into exile, banned from South Africa in 1963, a student caught up in the anti-apartheid struggle.  After arming himself with visas and equipment to cover 14 countries in three months (his schedule defined to mimic the swallow’s own migratory timetable), Clare begins his journey  at the Cape of Good Hope, where the vast majority of Britain’s swallows pass our winter.

In his review of the book for The Guardian, the nature writer Mark Cocker observed a problem with Clare’s project; he wrote:

Swallows do not migrate in one vast observable swarm that can be tracked, nor do they take a single identifiable path between, say, Bloemfontein and the Welsh valleys. Rather, swallow migration, perhaps involving a fifth of a billion birds, is a diffuse, almost osmotic filtering of these tiny feather scraps from one continent to the other. You can intercept it, by standing in a single spot and letting parts of this delicate current of blue pass you by, but you cannot meaningfully replicate the journey yourself.

This is why, after seeking out swallows on a nature reserve at the Cape (where he sees ‘entire dark whirlwinds funneling down into the reeds’), swallows are only sighted infrequently and receive sparse mention once the journey north begins. The reader soon realises that he real subject of this book is Horatio Clare’s own experience. He would seem to be the single swallow of the title.

So, as Clare makes his way north through Namibia, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon – struggling with transportation, bureaucracy, and increasingly his own state of mind, encounters with swallows are fleeting – on power lines, streaming upriver, ‘whipping in swirling dives’, and at a desolate railway station in Cameroon, their ‘blue backs shining in the hazy sunlight like hardened silk’.

Mostly, when he tells those he meets why he is undertaking his arduous journey, people appear mystified, often unaware of the existence of swallows.  But the bird is known by some: in Zambia the swallow is nyankalema, ‘the bird that never gets tired’. In Niger, it is giri-giri and used in witchcraft: eviscerated and boiled to a paste, it affords protects from traffic accidents and plane crashes.

But the real story here is Horatio Clare: his journey by hire-car, bus, motorbike, canoe or on foot through jungle, and the  people he meets or travels with the way.  The vivid and personal accounts of these encounters and his own generous nature is what drives the book along and keeps you reading.  The account of the leg of his journey across Congo-Brazzaville – by crowded minibus and a Land Cruiser in an advanced state of dilapidation – to the river which will take him to Cameroon is truly gripping. When the road runs out at an isolated village, the passengers are required to cover the last stage of several hours on foot through the rain forest.  A young man also travelling on the Land Cruiser draws Horatio aside: ‘First ..we smoke some tabac congolais, to give us force’.

In Yaounde, he meets a Cameroonian rugby player, desperate to get a chance to play in Europe. Clare tries to help him, but fails.  In Nigeria he realises that he will not be able to cross Niger, where a civil war is in progress, except by air.  In Morocco he is fleeced by hash dealers in Casablanca, and falls helplessly in love with a beautiful British-Asian woman from Rochdale in Marrakech.

This is also the story of Clare’s interior journey, and his gradual unravelling until, reaching Spain exhausted in mind and body and close to mental breakdown, he hurls all his possessions, diary of his journey and passport included, into the sea. The single swallow returns to Britain where he badly needs the kindness and support of friends.

The swallows whose migration route Clare followed don’t require visas, they see no frontiers.  Clare’s account, by contrast, tells of a continent divided by unnatural borders defined by European colonisers, and torn by war and ethnic conflict.

This is the swallows’ route followed by Clare.  British swallows spend their winter in South Africa, having travelled south through western France, across the Pyrenees, down eastern Spain into Morocco, and across the Sahara. Migrating swallows will cover 200 miles a day, mainly during daylight, at speeds of 17-22 miles per hour.  They put on little weight before migrating, instead they travel by day at low altitudes and find food on the way. Despite accumulating some fat reserves before crossing large areas such as the Sahara Desert, they are vulnerable to starvation during these crossings. Migration is a hazardous time and many birds die from starvation, exhaustion and in storms.  The effort kills three-quarters of the birds before they reach full adulthood.

In recent years, a great deal of research has been conducted to uncover the secrets of the swallow’s annual journey, and thanks to the work of bird ringers, who fit an individual with a ring in the hope it will be recovered in some far flung place, their entire route from Britain to South Africa can now be pieced together.

The swallows remain around their breeding sites until the end of August, before gathering at places where they can roost safely at night – this is the time when we see flocks of swallows perched on telephone wires. They usually taking a month or so to reach the English Channel before proceeding down the west coast of France. When they reach the Pyrenees, instead of flying over the mountains they head eastwards along the northern rim before crossing the Mediterranean and the Sahara Desert.

The swallows pass through West Africa, and in Nigeria encounter their toughest hazard thus far. At one of their roosts near Ebok Boje, thousands of swallows are killed and eaten in an annual tradition. After Nigeria, less is known about the swallows’ route. They probably move east and south towards the great tropical forests of Central Africa until, after several weeks, they enter the more open country of Southern Africa. Finally after four months, as Christmas approaches in the north, they reach their destinations: wintering grounds in Botswana, Namibia or South Africa where they moult, feed, and regain weight.

Bird ringing began in UK in 1909 when people still had little knowledge of the scale and extent of bird migration.  But one swallow transformed our understanding. It is known only as B830, the identifier on the ring which John Masefield, a solicitor passionate about wildlife, slipped on to the leg of a swallow chick in its nest in the porch of his house in Cheadle, Staffordshire, on 6 May 1911.  That Staffordshire swallow flew off from Cheadle and ended up in a place no one at the time remotely expected.

Although it was assumed that they were going somewhere warmer for the winter, no one had any idea of how far into the African continent they penetrated until news arrived of John Masefield’s swallow, 18 months after he ringed it.  In a letter dated 27 December 1912 sent by Mr C H Ruddock, proprietor of the Grand Hotel, Utrecht, Natal, South Africa, he wrote:

Dear Sir, On December 23, a swallow was caught in the farmhouse of the farm Roodeyand, 18 miles from this town, with a metal label round its leg, with the words Witherby, High Holborn, London, and on the other side B830. The farmer, Mr J Mayer, took the label off and has it in his possession. As I am interested in birds of any sort and the migration of same, I shall be glad to know if you received this letter safely.

At a stroke this revealed that swallows breeding in the British Isles migrated to winter in South Africa, something which even today we marvel at: a tiny bird flying 6,000 miles down the whole length of the African continent. The story of John Masefield’s swallow is told in full in a book by Michael McCarthy, Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

– Sara Teasdale, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains

See also

Canada Geese in Sefton Park

Canada Geese in Sefton Park
Goslings 5 June (photo: Francine Palant)

Canada geese are familiar enough birds around lakes and town parks, and there are usually a dozen or so on the boating lake in Liverpool’s Sefton Park. But, back in the spring a pair settled on the upper reaches of the Jordan stream that flows down through the park. Very soon it was clear that the female was incubating eggs on the island in the stream, and at the beginning of June three goslings had hatched.

Canada goose nest with eggs (Wikimedia Commons)

Though Canada geese are a familiar enough sight, no-one could remember a pair successfully rearing young in Sefton Park.  So it was interesting to watch their development, and the behaviour of the parents, as the weeks went by.

3 June (photo: Francine Palant)

Canada geese are native to North America, where they are migratory, but since being introduced to Britain in 1665 as an addition to the waterfowl collection of King Charles II at St. James’ Park, they have developed a permanent residence and remain here all year round. This pair first came to my attention sometime in April, and, passing by on the daily dog walk, I soon noticed that the famale was safely ensconsed on a nest on the island in the stream.  A female Canada lays up to five eggs in a nest which is little more than a shallow scrape in the ground, lined with feathers and soft vegetation. She incubates the eggs for up to 30 days while the male stays near.

26 June (photo: Francine Palant)

As May turned to June the tiny goslings made their first appearance.  Newly hatched (top), the goslings  looked much like ducklings with yellow and gray feathers and a dark bill.  Within a week they had grown to be rather awkward-looking, fuzzy grey birds. They grew at an astonishing rate – compare the two photos above, taken a fortnight apart.

12 July

But what has been even more remarkable has been the devoted behaviour of the parents who never leave their goslings unguarded. The male bird, especially, is always alert, long neck raised, looking and listening for any approaching threat. The five birds are never more than a few yards from one another.

The adult pair could often be seen standing their ground and facing up to a dog that ventured too close.  Canada geese are not especially aggressive birds, but they can be when protecting their young. Dramatic evidence of this is seen in this Daily Mail report of a YouTube clip that shows a fierce battle between a protective bird and an office worker who strays too close to his nest in a public park in Ontario. The clip shows the lengths to which one of these birds will go to protect their partners and young.

18 July (photo: Francine Palant)

Numbers of Canada geese in Britain remained low until the 1950s when they started to increase significantly. There are now estimated to be as many as 100,000 Canada geese resident in the UK, with around 190,000 wintering here from homes in the Arctic.

5 August

Canada geese are found on large inland bodies of water such as lakes, reservoirs and large ponds; as well as on seashores and rivers.  They are grazers, not fishers so are often found on grassland. Their diet consists of plant material such as roots, tubers, shoots and leaves.  As for humans eating them, Canada geese are reputedly amongst the most inedible of birds.

5 August
5 August

As their numbers have grown across the UK, Canada geese have come to be regarded as pests in some areas where they congregate in large numbers and cause damage.  A large  flock, defecating every few minutes, can deposit a great deal of excreta. The geese can be responsible for extensive fouling of lawns and other grassy areas, footpaths and lakes, causing an unpleasant nuisance. The droppings contain bacteria that may be harmful if fecal matter is inadvertently swallowed.

There has been argument and controversy over culls carried out in some places – and planned culls, such as a plan to kill 200 Canada geese on Lake Windermere earlier this year which has  now been abandoned. There, local landowners complained the birds were eating crops and polluting the water.  But when the move was condemned and a campaign launched to save them, experts reconsidered their decision. There are effective and humane methods of controlling Canada geese populations, including egg pricking or egg substitution.

A typical Daily Mail rant labelled Canada geese as ‘the most loathsome bird in Britain’ and went on to cast them as ‘unwelcome immigrants … winged thugs … lounging around all day doing nothing, claiming every welfare benefit in the book, driving their neighbours out of town and notching up ASBOs around the clock’.

5 August

By nine to ten weeks old, the goslings had grown their flight feathers and look like slightly smaller versions of the adult.  By the beginning of August, they were barely distinguishable from their parents.

Canada geese usually pair for life, and have been known to pine to death at the loss of their mate, recalling the ‘Out of the Cradle’ section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  A young boy watches a pair of mockingbirds nesting on the beach near his home, and marvels at the bond that binds them. One day the female bird fails to return. The male stays near the nest, calling for his lost mate. The male’s cries touch something in the boy:

Once, Paumanok,
When the snows had melted—when the lilac-scent was in the air, and the fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this sea-shore, in some briers,
Two guests from Alabama—two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,
And every day the she-bird, crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great Sun!
While we bask—we two together.

Two together!
Winds blow South, or winds blow North,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.

Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.

And thenceforward, all summer, in the sound of the sea,
And at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.

Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore!
I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me.

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.

He call’d on his mate;
He pour’d forth the meanings which I, of all men, know.

Yes, my brother, I know;
The rest might not—but I have treasur’d every note;
For once, and more than once, dimly, down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes,
Following you, my brother.

Walt Whitman’s poetry was a great influence on Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing.  Silenced by Mao’s regime for 21 years, from  1957 to 1978, Ai never lost his respect for Whitman, deepened by what Ai saw as a mutual concern for the afflicted, the poor, the weak, and the voiceless. It was during this period that Ai wrote a poem of similar delicacy and sympathy for a bird in pain, ‘Water Birds’, which describes the injury of a bird by a hunter while the mate flees in fright, leaving the injured bird struggling on its own to gain a hiding place amid crevices of stones, sadly and hopelessly waiting for the return of its companion:

At the moment
Amidst crevices of stones
With its own beak
The bird caressed its wound,
And in its sorrowful moaning of solitude
Expecting the return of its soul mate.

Two years ago, we experienced our own local tragedy when a female swan in Sefton Park was attacked by a dog and died as a result of her injuries.  The male swan remained, attentive to the needs of their six cygnets.

15 August

Yesterday the geese were gone.  After months of seeing them, always within a few yards of the spot where the female had sat patiently on the eggs, their absence seemed to leave a melancholy silence. Where did they go?  If these geese were in Canada or the northern United States, in the autumn, as soon as the young were strong enough for the journey, they would begin their migration south to the southern states or Mexico.  The young  learn the migration route from their parents and follow the same paths north and south in subsequent years.

But the Canada Geese in Britain are, in the main, sedentary birds.  They don’t migrate, but soon after their young can fly they move a short distance to join up with a larger flock nearby.  They spend much of the year in large flocks but disperse when they need to find breeding sites where they can raise their young.  This pair probably left a flock somewhere nearby in the spring and identified the Jordan stream with its secluded little island as a suitable place to breed.

Most recoveries of ringed Canada Geese in Britain have found that the individuals concerned were within about 30 miles of the place where they were originally caught (although some do move further – including some quite long distance movements within Britain to join flocks, and a few movements to the continent).

Pink-footed geese on Martin Mere

But there are geese that pass through the British Isles on migration routes that bring them south from the Arctic.  According to the RSPB around 700,000 geese arrive in the UK from overseas every year. The geese travel thousands of miles from their breeding grounds across the Arctic circle, Scandinavia, Canada and Greenland.  They migrate here to escape the harsh weather and to feed on salt marshes, estuaries and farmland.  England hosts extremely large flocks of migrating geese across various sites. One of the most notable of these is in the north-west at Martin Mere, twenty miles north of Liverpool.  There, overwintering flocks of Pink-footed Geese, usually around 20 to 30,000 strong,  arrive from late September through to mid-October.  Martin Mere also hosts a smaller population of Greenland white-fronted geese.

See also

We’re all bad birdwatchers

A nuthatch (photo source: Ron McCombe at http://www.wildlife-photography.uk.com/blog)

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’.

There's a nuthatch in this tree

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.

Crow Country: the path of the free

Crow Country: the path of the free

Rooks at Buckenham Carrs

Rooks at Buckenham Carrs (from East of Elveden blog)

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

At this time of year, as the afternoon light begins to fade, the open fields in Sefton Park gradually fill, first with a handful and then hundreds of rooks.  As the sun sets and the sky darkens, groups will rise and settle on the tops of nearby trees. This is a small-scale example of the phenomenon of the rooks’ night-time roost that Mark Cocker has spent the best part of the last decade observing, and which he writes about in his book I read recently, Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature.

The goings-on in Sefton Park underline the fact that Crow Country is to be found just about everywhere in Britain.  But whereas the display in our local park is a pretty intimate affair, Cocker is drawn to the stadium performances in which this spectacle involves tens of thousands of birds.  He’s travelled Britain to the places where the most dramatic gatherings can be seen, though most of his observations have been made near his Norfolk home, where, at Buckenham Carrs in the Yare valley, he has seen as many as 40,000 rooks and jackdaws gather to roost.

For me, the most characteristic trait of rooks or crows (hard to tell apart, even for experienced birdwatchers) is their casual insouciance: approached by human or dog they will lift off lazily at the last minute and descend after a few desultory wing flaps a few yards further on, those always maintaining an alert and possibly amused watchfulness with those eyes like deep, dark pools.

But what has impelled Mark Cocker to pursue his obsession with rooks and to write about it with the same sort of passion that nurtured another Norfolk bird book, J A Baker’s ecstatic paean to The PeregrineThe answer for Cocker would seem to consist of several elements: one the one hand, he admires rooks as migrants, their behaviour embracing a spirit of freedom and community.  He quotes a passage from ‘I Love, I Love the Free’ (1840) by Eliza Cooke:

The caw of a rook on its homeward way,
Oh these shall be the music for me
For I love I love the path of the free.

At the same time, Cocker concludes that studying the life of another living creature in depth and with total engagement is ‘a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so’.  Towards the end of his book, he writes:

It is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else.  So I would argue that rooking isn’t merely about a single raucous black bird.  It is about the whole world  – the landscape, the sunlight, the very oxygen we share – all that lies between myself and the bird.

Cocker’s style differs in certain respects from JA Baker’s: he is more of a scientist, more the expert and more  informative. Early in the book, Cocker notes that although crows are widespread they are mightily misunderstood, often to the extent of being confused with rooks and other corvids. He suggests that an easy way to distinguish crows from rooks at a distance is to count their numbers: a crow, he says, ‘passes its life as one of a pair isolated from neighbours by a fierce territoriality . . . Rooks, by contrast, live, feed, sleep, fly, display, roost, fall sick and die in the presence of their own kind’. Hence the old East Anglian adage ‘When tha’s a rook, tha’s a crow; and when tha’s crows, tha’s rooks’.

Despite its title, the book celebrates rooks in particular. His opening chapter is a rapturous account of how watching ‘a long ellipse’ of several thousand rooks and jackdaws head for their evening roost  fills him with ecstatic delight:

I am awaiting the arrival of night and all that it means in this landscape. Ahead of me lies a great unbound field of stubble sloping gently down towards the hamlet of Buckenham in the Yare valley. At the settlement’s southern margin is a tiny railway station, where I stepped down from a train more than thirty years ago on one of my earliest expeditions to this part of the Norfolk Broads. Beyond that steel line is the flat expanse of the Yare’s flood plain proper, and from my position on this upper northern slope I gain a sense of the entire valley, the whole flow of its contours, the way that the land dips down then rises again on the far shore like a shallow saucer, like a natural amphitheatre, fit for the spectacle about to unfold.

As day draws into its final hour, our own falling star has dwindled to a lens of brightness on the southern horizon resting in its own bed of lemon and rose light. I watch the clouds being pushed towards it by a biting northerly. They loom overhead like icebergs in an ocean of cold winter blue, and through this interplay of light and darkness arrive the birds I’ve come to watch.  A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually – a vague blur slowly taking shape – they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me.

Along the margins of these fields stand rows of stately ivy-clad oaks, where the birds that have already arrived clothe the bare canopy, creating a heavy foliage of black. The whole effect of animal and vegetation reminds me momentarily of the great flat-topped acacias of the African savannah. In the failing light they are mere silhouettes and even the birds that have landed on the ground, wandering among the jagged stalks of stubble, create a simple, fretted chiaroscuro of pale and dark.

My attention cannot rest on the perched birds for long because I’m drawn back inexorably to the drama of the fresh arrivals. The long cylinder of birds, perhaps a thousand in total, has started to coil and circle the sky above the landing ground. They wind up into a single swirling vortex that breaks apart as small groups fling themselves to Earth. It is an extraordinary performance. I am so mesmerised by the flock’s sudden and convulsive disintegration that I fail to absorb the trajectory followed by any one individual. But all cease briefly to resemble birds. They become wind-blown rags or scraps of paper. The best I can think of is a moment I saw once in Jaipur, India. Above the city’s white-washed skyline floated a thousand small multi-coloured kites all at play in the hot desert gusts on that Rajasthani afternoon. The rooks and jackdaws acquired the same brief power of wild movement, straining against gravity and wind in equal measure.

Even this dramatic show holds me just a matter of seconds because each new development seems more compelling than the last. From the east, from rookeries that I know intimately around the village of Reedham, comes an even larger flock. Perhaps 4,000 birds arrive in a single river of movement and then perform the same wheeling downward plunge of the previous group.  All the while that the visual drama intensifies, their accompanying vocalisations become ever more voluble and excited.

In this description of the process by which the rooks gather and settle on the fields, Cocker is merely describing the prelude to the main event – the sudden lift-off to settle in the trees and roost for the night:

It begins almost casually.  A single concentrated stream of birds breaks for the trees, the stands of trees that have remained almost  unnoticed until this point. Inconsequential while the drama built all around them, the woods known as Buckenham Carrs have grown steadily darker with the onset of night. Now that they have moved centre stage they have become a brooding cavity in the landscape. The birds pour into the airspace above it in ever- growing numbers, and they mount the air until there are so many and the accompanying calls are so loud that I instinctively search for marine images to convey both the sea roar of sounds and the blurry underwater shapes of the flock. It becomes a gyroscope of tightly packed fish roiling and twisted by the tide; it has the loose transparent fluidity of a jellyfish, or the globular formlessness of an amoeba – one that spreads for a kilometre and a half across the heavens.

Cocker compares this vision to ‘black dust motes sinking steadily through the gentle oil of sleep’ but admits that he is at ‘the limits of what my mind can comprehend or my imagination can articulate.’

Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd —
Rook, crow, and jackdaw,—noising loud,
Fly to and fro to dreary fen,
Dull Winter’s weary flight again;
They flop on heavy wings away
As soon as morning wakens grey,
And, when the sun sets round and red,
Return to naked woods to bed.
– John Clare, from ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar – January’ (1827)

Crow Country draws in autobiographical elements as well observations of bird behaviour. Cocker describes how he and his family moved from a city life in Norwich to make a home in the deep country of the nearby Yare valley. He writes about this move as an act of migration which is bird-like because he senses that it is driven by instinct.  As he settles into the new landscape, he discovers that rook-watching charges ‘many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance’.  The birds, he says, are ‘at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration’.

He recalls how, waking in their new home, he heard the rooks each morning, ‘the notes clattering on to the road and the rooftops of the village like flakes of tin’. Then he would see them in the evening, a long silent procession of birds heading north. He began to follow them to what seemed to be their roost, assuming that once they had settled on the hedges and trees that would be the end of the matter. But it was not:

It was virtually dark. There was so little light, I was barely sure if my binoculars were focused or not… Suddenly birds started to fly up in a purposeful jet of black shapes spurting for the trees. The movements of some seemed to act as a detonator on the others. Before I knew what was happening the whole host was airborne and swarming towards Buckenham Carrs.

When the flock was centred over the wood it began to swirl and twist. The birds were wrenched back and forth as if each was caught by the same conflicting impulses. When portions of the flock turned in unison through a particular angle the entire surface of the wingspan… was reduced to a single pencil line. The net effect in the quarter-light of dusk was that whole sections vanished and reappeared a split second later. It was as if a tonne of birds was being conjured and re-conjured from thin air.

He explains the distinction between the birds’ roosts and the rookeries where they breed from late February to June in the nesting season, and contemplates the sense of community endeavour that seems to underpin their behaviour:

In the nesting season, the abundant supply of worms is the key to the rook’s success. The onset of the breeding cycle in earliest spring is timed to coincide with the maximum availability of prey for the chicks. But the food items aren’t spread evenly, they’re clustered randomly…It’s thought that rooks have evolved to share resources and capitalise on the shifting and temporary abundances by pursuing a feeding strategy of follow-my-leader…. Each bird discovering a food hotspot faces the disadvantage of competition from neighbours, but it is more than compensated by the opportunity, on all occasions when it is less successful, to share the good fortune uncovered by others.

Roosts, by contrast, are located elsewhere and inhabited from October through to February.  They are usually in the middle of woods, even though these are birds that feed in grasslands (they often fly up to 25 miles to feeding grounds for the day), and Cocker suggests that protection from weather and predators are an important part of the roosting behaviour. But the biggest advantage for rooks in gathering together in huge numbers in roots  or rookeries is, he concludes, the spread of information about food sources.

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
– Edward Thomas, ‘Thaw’

Cocker quotes other writers who have been entranced by rooks:  Thomas Browne and Andrew Young, John Clare and Edward Thomas. There’s no mention of Ted Hughes and his Crow poems, but I think that’s because Hughes’ conception of  a bird with violent, rapacious and disorderly qualities doesn’t quite fit in with Cocker’s rather more sublime vision.  Thinking of Hughes, I came across this poem by Sylvia Plath, ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, which seems inspired by the iridescent, purplish-blue glossy sheen of the bird’s plumage: ‘a rook/Ordering its black feathers can so shine/As to seize my senses’.  Not simply black, but ‘Tricks of radiance/Miracles’.

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain –
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then –
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honour
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant

Of whatever angel any choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.

Rook flying with stick by C.F. Tunnicliffe

This poem, by Norfolk writer Martin Figura, was written in response to Mark Cocker’s Crow Country:

‘Rooks: for Mark Cocker’

Their broken voices call against the hard ground
of a day’s work. They are the dark coming home
in dissonant scores until this field of stubble
is soft-black with them, the telephone wires
thick and bowed. Ten thousand grey tongues
honour the dusk, the Lowestoft commuter train,
the woods of Buckenham Carrs.
Thrown like muck from a wheel until the sky
is blind with them, they are the exact opposite
of stars. And here they come, all bluster,
their ostentatious flight across the moon
to the hierarchy of branches, to the rough
belonging of bark in their claws.

Rooks going to roost on a Winter evening in Norfolk

To finish, I like these words by Matt Sewell on the Caught By The River site:

It’s almost as if they shouldn’t belong to the Crow family; sociable and generally vegetarian, Rooks are just out for a laugh really. With a clownish, daft face and a shaggy, dishevelled appearance, these croakers aren’t out to cause mischief like their cousins. In fact, when not in their rookery, they spend most of their time in fields not being scared by scarecrows (maybe if all the farmers got together and changed the name to ‘scarerooks’, that would work better). But farmers should just leave them alone as they eat as many pests and crop-eating bugs as they do seeds. Good old Rooks.