13 December 2008
On 23 March 2006 the House of Lords had an important debate. They had just two items on the agenda. The first was the Iraq War, which the noble lords discussed for exactly 9 minutes, as Hansard records. The second took rather longer: for 2 hours 31 minutes they debated the threat to the native British red squirrel from the invading grey squirrel, originally imported from North America. Various peers spoke eloquently about their love of the red squirrel, its importance as a national icon, immortalised as Squirrel Nutkin in the works of Beatrix Potter, and one of them said he had even had tea once with Beatrix Potter in 1941 (goodness – how old are these people!), who he was sure would support robust action. Anyway, they duly decided that the grey was a pest, and one to be controlled or eliminated; indeed, Lord Inglewood went so far as to suggest that the best way to do this might be to eat them and recommended a number of good squirrel recipes, as well as a nice restaurant in the Lake District which served them (he turned out to be a part-owner…).
A very British story. It made me think about another immigrant we tend to eat at this time of year, the pheasant, in this case an immigrant we have encouraged and protected. Pheasants are native to Asia, and the scientific name Phasianus colchichus reveals its origins near the River Phasis at Colchis on the Black Sea. The ancient Greeks imported them into Europe and the Romans imported them into Britain, where they have thrived and are a very familiar part of the landscape, if still a rather foreign one with all those gaudy colours and that extravagant tail. Some 20 million pheasants are reared, fed and released here every year, and then about 12 million of these are promptly shot for sport, though it has to be said that many of them are by then almost too fat to fly. This annual ritual has had a large effect on our culture and countryside: on the rural economy (since it generates jobs and income), on social history (since this has long been the preferred sport of the landed classes) and on the landscape itself (since the sport has helped preserve woodlands that might otherwise have been cut down). In conservation terms it’s a complicated story too. On the one hand the associated suppression of foxes and crows has helped other ground-nesting birds, but over-protective attitudes in the past have also resulted in the indiscriminate killing of rare species like the red kite, buzzard, raven and peregrine. The nineteenth-century naturalist W.H. Hudson even reported one case where a zealous gamekeeper killed all the nightingales in a wood because he thought they were keeping his precious pheasants awake at night.
To eat or be eaten, that is the question. Happy New Year!
20 November 2008
Christmas seems to be starting earlier every year, just as policemen keep getting younger. I could swear I spotted the first Christmas decorations in High Streets back in September, which is ridiculous. But every year I am also reminded how important birds are to our rituals and their representations. Most people expect to eat some turkey on Christmas day, but do they know why? And why do our Christmas cards so often picture robins? That link goes back to the early nineteenth century, when the postal service began and the connection is a surprising one. The first postmen (and they were all men at the start) were nicknamed ‘robins’ because they wore red uniforms, and red was the royal colour of the Royal Mail, post boxes, and later telephone boxes and PO mail vans. Later on the postmen changed to blue uniforms, apparently because the red ones showed the dirt too quickly (one hears the voice of the weary spouse here…) and because the military style of the uniforms is said to have frightened old ladies in London out of their wits. Anyway, the link with robins was established and robins were commonly shown on the newly fashionable Christmas cards as holding a letter in the beaks to deliver to customers. The redbreast (the older name of the robin) has also provided nicknames for at least one regiment (the Fifth Royal Irish Lancers), three professional football teams (Swindon Town, Bristol City and Cheltenham Town) and one car (the Robin Reliant).
But other birds get dragged in too. Last year at about this time I made a rare field trip to Trumpington south of Cambridge and found in the Waitrose store there a Christmas biscuit tin of great ornithological interest. It was a very handsome Crabtree & Evelyn gift box. On the lid there was a seasonal design with the statutory partridge in a pear tree. That would be an unusual sight in itself but never mind; what was really striking was the identity of the other birds swooping in at the top of the design – swallows (in December!) and terns (in December and in woodland!!). So it was with an eager sense of expectation that I again visited Waitrose this last week to see what Crabtree & Evelyn would come up with on their 2008 Christmas tin. I was again taken by surprise. This year there is a pheasant in the tree (disregarding the doctrinal authority of the Christmas carol which specifies partidge), and the tree itself seems to have morphed into the Samuel Palmer magic apple tree, while sneaking in low from the right there is … a snowy owl. Now, the snowy owl is an arctic species and a very rare visitor indeed to the British Isles (though one year I did see one in the Hebrides, which can be a bit like the arctic). These people clearly need an ornithological consultant, and I’m applying. (The biscuits aren’t bad though).
19 October 2008
I have always maintained that the ears are more important than the eyes for anyone interested in birds. Birds sing and call from deep cover in fields, hedges and woods where they are quite invisible most of the time and even when they are technically ‘in view’ you very often hear them before you see them. Sound travels round or through visual obstacles like bushes, crops and trees; it approaches us from all sides and at all angles; it reaches us at all times of day and in all light conditions; and it carries just as clear signals as do visual messages. Birds themselves rely largely on sound to communicate with one another over life’s essentials (sex, territory, food, mutual protection, and so on), so shouldn’t we do the same if we want to understand them?
Anyway, I thought I’d carry out a little experiment. I have decided to take a walk out from the village for half an hour and note which species I can identify and whether I do so by sound or sight or both. It is 3 pm on 18 October 2008. It’s sunny and windless, with just a touch of autumn chill in the air – good conditions for both watching and listening. I’m going to walk up the Carlton Road, a quiet minor lane that runs out of the village and has an avenue of trees on one side and a well-established hedge on the other; after about 400 yards it reaches a small grass paddock where there may be horses, and it then goes on into the open countryside between arable fields bordered by hedges, with some copses in the middle distance. Typical piece of East Anglian countryside. This is quite a demanding test for my thesis, as it happens, first because very few birds are singing this time of year (I’ve only heard robin, wren and starling at all regularly this week, with occasional bursts from dunnock and wood pigeon), and secondly because mid-afternoon is in any case generally the quietest time of day; moreover, I’m going into fairly open country, not dense woodland, so you might expect more birds to be readily visible. But I’ll see what I find. To make it a fair test I won’t take either binoculars or an ear-trumpet, but will just rely on my own eyes and ears.
Here are the results:
Heard but not seen: robin, wren, fieldfare, pheasant, coal tit, goldcrest, marsh tit, bullfinch, buzzard, great spotted woodpecker, house sparrow
Heard first and then seen: redwing, dunnock, blue tit, long-tailed tit, meadow pipit, yellowhammer, skylark, mistle thrush, chaffinch, blackbird, pied wagtail, collared dove
Seen but not heard: lapwing, stock dove
Seen first then heard: jackdaw, woodpigeon, great tit, starling
It is a very unscientific test, of course, but to adapt a parliamentary expression I think the Ears have it over the Eyes. So why do we go on calling it birdwatching?
23 September 2008
September and October are the great months of change for many of our local birds, with huge arrivals and departures almost every day. People have been fascinated with bird migration for centuries and as far back as the time of Aristotle in the fourth century BC both experts and ordinary people have puzzled over the mystery of it: where do the birds go to and come from, how do they find their way, and are they the same individual birds returning each year? Some early theories were quite wild – that swallows hibernated in the mud in ponds, for example (an idea which lasted at least until the eighteenth century), that they went to the moon for the winter (a notion suggested, perhaps, by the sight of swifts and swallows spiralling away high in the sky in the evenings), or even that they changed into other species (for example, the summer redstart into the winter robin). The first actual experiment appears in a story told of the Cistercian prior, Caesarius von Heisterbach, in the thirteenth century. He is supposed to have taken a swallow from its nest and attached to its foot a piece of parchment with the message (in Latin), ‘Swallow, where do you live in winter?’ Next spring the bird returned bearing the message (also in Latin), ‘In Asia, in the home of Petrus.’ Well, the story deserves to be true, at least! Eventually more scientific studies were done, of course, by setting up observatories, ringing birds and recording exactly when and where they were recovered, so that now we have a very good idea of the movements and distribution of most species. Most, but still not quite all. We do know exactly where the swallows go – to southern Africa mainly, where they are welcomed in ‘winter’ just as we welcome them in ‘spring’, and where they roost in vast numbers in reedbeds and so are very conspicuous. But it is still a mystery just where the house martins finally go (some of them are still lingering in the village with their last broods). It must be somewhere in Africa, but that’s a big place, and unlike the swallows the martins don’t congregate in big roosts so they are less visible. Spare a thought, then, as the last stragglers leave Thurlow over the next couple of weeks. “House martin, where are you spending the winter (but see you in April, anyway)?’
21 August 2008
We may still be waiting for summer to start, but I’m afraid the world won’t wait and the signs of autumn are already with us. The swifts left Thurlow punctually on 8 August and we shan’t again see that sickle-shaped silhouette in the skies or hear the screaming parties of swifts chasing madly round the houses until about 7 May next year. The swallows and martins are still here, though, and the latter may linger on into late September, sometimes fitting in a final brood that will have to tumble straight out of the nest and into the air to escape the coming frosts. It’s easier to notice birds arriving than departing, of course – we remember the first cuckoo of spring, but what about the last one of summer? Peoples with more primitive technologies, however, tend to use birds as both clocks and calendars all the time. In New Guinea there are tribes that use the daily movements or songs of birds to fix meal times and social gatherings, and we ourselves talk about being ‘up with the lark’, even if we don’t manage it very often. The ancient Greeks knew that the clamorous departure of the crane was an important reminder about the agricultural cycle:
Take note when you hear the voice of the crane, who every year calls out from the clouds above. He gives the signal for ploughing and marks the season of rainy winter.
And Napolean famously failed to give due attention to the warning signals from birds when he was advancing on Moscow with his army in 1811. If he had condescended to observe the flights of storks and cranes passing over his fated battalions, subsequent events in the politics of Europe might have been very different. These storks and cranes knew of the coming-on of a great and terrible winter; the birds hastened towards the South, but Napoleon and his army pressed on to the North. The news here isn’t that dire, however. The robin started singing again about 20 August after his mid-August break and will now carry on until the end of the year. I say ‘his’ holiday, but in fact there’s an interesting twist to the year’s cycle in this case. It is indeed the cock robin who sings in spring and summer – to attract a mate and warn off rivals, as with other songbirds. But when the song starts up again in late August both sexes sing and hold territories, and to the practised ear this autumn song has a rather different quality, quieter and more wistful and meandering. I think the poet John Keats may have realised this. In his famous Ode to Autumn he urges us to welcome autumn too for its own characteristic sounds and pleasures:
Hedge crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
15 July 2008
It’s hard to believe it’s already August. I feel as though I’m still waiting for summer to get properly under way. I saw a book the other day which had the title, Why Life Speeds up as you get Older, and I thought, ‘Ah, yes’, but of course I was too speeded up and busy actually to read it. Perhaps the book would have said that being busy is more a state of mind than an objective fact. I certainly know people who think they are busy though it’s very hard to detect what they might actually be doing … It’s got nothing to do with whether you are ‘retired’ or not – the longer you live the more things you should find worth engaging with. It seems to me rather, to adapt Shakespeare, that some people are born busy, some achieve busyness and others have busyness thrust upon them. I could go on, but this is the nature note not the rector’s slot, and there is a sort of connection with the natural world that I will at last come to!
If you take a local walk now the thing that may strike you the most is just how quiet it is. The trees and bushes are in full leaf, weeds and flowers are bursting out all over the place, and everywhere seems full of rampant growth and life. But it is eerily silent. Even the robin has stopped singing and has become temporarily invisible. Where are all the birds that were so busily singing, nest-building and feeding their families in our gardens? The answer is that they are busy doing something else – and that is moulting. It’s a very important stage in the cycle of their lives and has to be fitted in between all the other activities at precisely the right time. Birds rely utterly on having their feathers in good shape, but of course they get worn in the course of the year and have to be replaced like old clothes. And while they are doing this they are very vulnerable because they can’t fly with full efficiency and so they lie low until they have their new plumage. But there is another twist to this, and of a surprising kind. Most songbirds moult in late summer after the rigours of breeding season are over, but the time the male birds need to look their best is the next spring not in the autumn. The natural wear and tear goes on all the time, of course, and what happens is that the gradual abrasion of the soft tips of the feathers over the winter unmasks and reveals the gleaming new plumage beneath, just in time to impress the females when the sap is rising, so to speak. Clever stuff! And it just goes to show that there is sometimes a lot more activity than appears on the surface, in their lives as in ours.
20 June 2008
Well, this is summer, or as near to it as we are going to get. We’ve passed the longest day already (can you bear it?) and already the volume of bird song is slackening as they busy themselves with the exhausting tasks of child-rearing (with two or even three broods of demanding nestlings to bring to independence in only a few weeks – just imagine!). There are still a few birds of passage around as well, though. Before the last depression swept across the country with sudden winds and rain I was out walking and saw large numbers of swift massing in a dark, swirling vortex high up in the sky. Swifts pick up the signs of approaching storms, presumably from small changes to air pressure, temperature and wind-speed, and they fly ahead of the weather fronts, if necessary many miles out of their way. They make good forecasters that way. The ones I saw could have come from as far away as the Continent, and when the storm had passed through so had they. The other unusual sight – or rather sound – I came across was a bird calling from deep in a field of long grass: a three-note WHIT whit-whit, repeated continuously, especially in the evenings. That was another visitor from the Continent, in this case one overshooting in its migration overnight and ending up well north of where it really ought to be. It was a quail, a tiny game bird about the size of a pheasant chick and with a stripey plumage. But you are not likely ever to see one unless you nearly tread on it, since they sit very tight and even when you think they must be just a few feet away from you when they are calling they are very hard to spot. In the bird books they usually represent the call as ‘wet my lips’, which isn’t at all bad as an imitation and used to be one of its old country names. Whether the word ‘quail’, meaning ‘to cower’ comes from the bird or vice versa, I don’t know. It’s like ‘duck’, ‘hawk’ and ‘crane’ – words that denote actions so characteristic of the birds that the two have become fused. And that’s even before you start thinking of cases like cuckold, goose-step, cocksure, rooking, grouse, sniping, swanning around and jinx (which has a very curious origin from the Latin name for a wryneck – thought to be a bird of ill-omen). These may be quite unfair attributions, of course, but they have all entered the language for better or worse and can’t now be got out of it. Birds are good to think with, and always have been.
23 May 2008
Like most birdwatchers I keep a number of lists. One of course is my Thurlow list – now at 120 species, which is not bad for a small pair of villages a long way inland, but of course fewer than it would be if we were on the coast and attracted a lot of passing migrants. We get a very good coverage of some families of birds, like warblers, tits and finches that thrive in a rural environment as well provided as ours is with hedges, fields and woodland areas. For the same reason we do well with rodents too, and that means we also attract the birds which feed on them, notably owls. The common owl here is the tawny or ‘brown’ owl – that’s the one that is supposed to say tu-whit-tu-whu, though in fact it’s the female that says tu-whit and the male who says tu-whu. We also have little owls breeding nearby – the rather dumpy small one that often sits on telegraph poles in the evenings, especially along the Temple End Road. Barn owls occasionally show up too, wafting over the fields like giant white moths, and I once saw a long-eared owl hunting up near the old airfield. One day I hope to see a short-eared owl to complete the set of the commoner owls in Britain, and that should be possible because unlike all the others they prefer to hunt by day and so would be quite conspicuous if they come our way. They are mainly winter visitors to Britain, especially when the supply of voles runs out in their homelands in Scandinavia and they have to forage more widely abroad.
That would just leave one other owl, the charismatic snowy owl, a resident of the far arctic and an extremely rare visitor to these shores. And I did actually see one of those the other day, though not here in Thurlow, alas. I was on one of my boys-own (and indeed boys-only) trips to the Outer Hebrides and was walking in the lovely machair of North Uist, the flowery grasslands by the Atlantic coasts which are such a wonderful sight in early summer. And there I came across one, a huge female sitting quietly on a little mound and looking as much at home as it would be on its native tundra. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Then the next day I had an even more extraordinary experience – about two miles away from the first spot I saw a second one, this time a pure white male. He looked for all the world like a fluffy snowman, with stumpy legs, yellow marbles for eyes and a black beak stuck in by the children. Now, to see one snowy owl is a privilege, but to see two makes you wonder what’s in the water up there. If only the two could meet …
15 April 2008
There are various traditional sights and sounds of an English summer. Larks in the air singing as they spiral upwards, rooks making their noisy clamour in a country churchyard, and the humming of turtle doves and buzzing insects, which you can almost hear in Tennyson’s lines:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmur of innumerable bees.
Traditional sights and sounds, yes, but where are they now? The populations of larks and turtle doves have crashed as a result of changed farming practices and land use – the numbers are down by a disastrous 80% or so over recent years; rooks have been shot out of their rookeries in many places by misguided gamekeepers; the elms have succumbed to Dutch Elm disease; and the bees are under attack from parasites and diseases which sweeps through hives leaving a trail of destruction. More collared doves, magpies, greenfinches and foreign ladybirds aren’t much of a compensation, are they? There’s one sign of summer, however, which is still to be seen and heard in these parts, although it is becoming rare elsewhere, and that is the yellowhammer. This is a lovely bunting – brilliant yellow, as the first part of the name suggests, which sings from the tops of hedges and telegraph poles, usually out in full view. The best places to see one around the Thurlows are along the Temple End Road and from the concrete track that leads from Little Thurlow Green to the sewage facility. The yellowhammers like tall, untrimmed hedges to nest in and fields with weedy verges and plenty of seeds and grain to feed on. The second part of the name comes from the old dialect word ammer and just means ‘bunting’. So it is really the yellow bunting. It has also been called the ‘scribbling lark’ or ‘writing lark’ from the irregular wavy lines on its eggs. But perhaps it’s best known from its song, a very distinctive refrain, endlessly repeated between now and September. The usual rendering of the song is ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’. But if you listen carefully it doesn’t quite say all that and a shorter and ungrammatical version might be more accurate, like ‘a little bit of bread…CHEESE’. Another rendering I heard was the supposed flirtatious response of the milkmaid to the farmer’s boy, ‘No, no, no, no…PLEASE’, but that’s probably just another male fantasy.
26 March 2008
March is going out more like a lion than a lamb this year. I spent Easter on the Suffolk coast and there were violent storms of rain, hail and snow, with huge gusts of wind from the arctic north. One of these gales brought in a bird whose Latin name is, appropriately, fratercula arcticus, which means in English ‘little brother from the arctic’ – the puffin! We all love puffins. This is the clown with the outrageous multi-coloured beak and the sad eyes; the earnest bumbling walk in a formal dinner jacket; the soft, round, cuddly toy; the magic and make-believe of rocky island homes; the ultimate photogenic celebrity. It’s hard to see a puffin, except through these metaphorical spectacles, but the one dying on the beach was a very sad sight, I’m afraid, and only too real. It made me think how, when birds become symbols or myths, we can scarcely see them for what they are any more.
At the other end of the world, for example, there is a counterpart to the puffin, the penguin. This Antarctic bird is only encountered in Britain in zoos or in the company of David Attenborough on TV, but we feel as if we know it well. The penguin charms us with the ‘penguin suit’, the funny walk, the body-shape, the upright posture and their busy city life amid the wilderness of rocks and sea. What do they remind us of? Ourselves, of course. The documentary film ‘March of the Penguins’, was an enormous box-office success, not because of an upsurge of popular interest in the breeding biology of the emperor penguin but because the commentary presented it as a moral fable. The film was duly hailed by the Christian Right in the USA as a demonstration of the truth of Intelligent Design and the importance of monogamy, fidelity, self-sacrifice and family life. The opposition countered by pointing to Roy and Silo, the resident pair of gay penguins in Central Park NY, and the un-American behaviour of emperor penguins outside the breeding season. Penguins were shown to be monogamous only for one breeding cycle, and to be able to watch with insouciance while a proportion of their offspring were being eaten by petrels and skuas. But this was ignored, or not really seen. No wonder Allen Lane selected ‘Penguin’ and ‘Puffin’ as the names of his two most famous publishing imprints. They considered and rejected various names like ‘Phoenix’, ‘Dolphin’ and ‘Albatross’, and then Lane’s secretary piped up from behind her partition and said ‘What about Penguins?’ Lane decided on it immediately and despatched a designer to go to London Zoo to sketch one for the covers. In justifying his decision Lane said the name had ‘a certain dignified flippancy’, but he must have known instinctively that it went deeper than that.
21 February 2008
‘What’s in a name?’, asked Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ But would it? Names seem to matter to us. Why else would Reginald Dwight, Ethel Gumm, Allen Konigsberg, Marion Morrison, Cassius Clay and Eric Blair change their names, respectively, to Elton John, Judy Garland, Woody Allen, John Wayne, Muhammed Ali and George Orwell, and why do parents agonise over finding the ‘right’ name for their children? Bird names certainly tell us something about their owners, at any rate. Many describe some conspicuous colour or shape: obvious in the case of blue tit, blackbird and greenfinch, less so in the case of redshank (red legs), wheatear (white arse) and bullfinch (bull-necked). Others pick out a characteristic quality or behaviour: flycatcher, swift, woodpecker and kingfisher. Others a favourite food: mistle thrush (mistletoe berries), bee-eater, corn bunting, oystercatcher and herring gull (those were the days). Yet others a place or habitat they are associated with: reed bunting (also arable fields now), garden warbler (more often woods), house martin and marsh tit. A few celebrate famous naturalists: Montagu’s harrier, Cetti’s warbler, Bewick’s swan and Leach’s petrel. And a very large number represent the voices of the birds and are said to be ‘onomatopoeic’ (literally ‘making their names’): some are obvious again, as in the case of cuckoo, curlew, peewit, chiffchaff and kittiwake, but in others the word forms have changed over time and the original imitations have become obscured, as in jay, kite, dove, crow and crane.
If you go birdwatching overseas other delights await you, etymological as well as ornithological. America has an oldsqaw (a duck, but surely that is very politically incorrect – a sexist, ageist and racist description in just one short word?), Africa has a cloud-scraping cisticola, Australia a double-eyed fig parrot and South America an oleaginous hemispingus. You must beware of the horned screamer, the satanic-eared nightjar, the giant coot and other nightmare candidates, while you may have difficulty finding the shy albatross, the mysterious starling and the invisible rail.
But returning home, the best names in my view are those ancient popular names whose origins are now obscure. They are like pebbles, shaped and polished by centuries of geological activity and which may now have only a distant relationship to the landscapes from which they once came. Could you really call a wren, robin, rook, heron and gull by any other name and still mean the same thing? Words have roots as trees do and even if these are now invisible and deeply buried they may still nourish the meanings we use and understand.
19 January 2008
I’ve just heard the song thrush singing for the first time this year, joining the robin, great tit and wren that have already been performing for some time. The song thrush is one of my markers for the approach of spring, part of that irresistible tide which starts with the first aconites in January, rolls on with the snowdrops and the chaffinch song in February, and then the blackbird in early March and before you know it brings us the first chiffchaff arriving from Africa singing down by the river in mid-March; and finally, for most people in England, it is the arrival of the swallow and cuckoo in April that really prove the annual miracle has happened again and summer is on the way.
People have always had markers of this kind, in every country where there are actually different seasons to notice and welcome. In central Europe it is the crane and the stork. In America in the eastern states it is the bluebird, the robin (theirs not ours) and the purple martin that serve this symbolic function; in Canada and the mid-west people rush outside to greet the returning geese; while in southern California the cliff swallows return every year from Argentina to San Juan Capistrano and are celebrated with processions in the festival of St Joseph on 19 March each year. In Japan it’s something quite different. There was a government crisis there last year on 14 March 2007. The official Meteorological Agency forecast the start of the cherry blossom season incorrectly. This really matters in Japan. There is a brief period when the delicate pink flowers bloom at their best and everyone plans celebrations to mark this great event, a brief honeymoon period between the contrasting rigours of winter and summer. Travel agents put on tours to the best localities, towns plan festivals, and Japanese companies have parties where salary-men and office-ladies can celebrate under the trees each night until the blossoms fall. Nor is this some new ‘invented tradition’. In Kyoto, the former Japanese capital, the cherry blossom records go right back to 705AD. But despite this wealth of historical data the forecasters got it wrong by three crucial days in 2007 and the embarrassment was profound. The bows of apology could not have been deeper. ‘We have ruined the spring for those who relied on us’, the meteorologists abjectly confessed, before very sensibly going on to blame a computer bug.
We hear a lot of reasons to be worried about global warming and climate change but there is one fundamental concern I’ve never heard mentioned. What if we lost the spring altogether, and with it the sense of change and renewal we have every year. Yes, it might be nice for a while to get more warmth and sun and to see exotic birds like bee-eaters and hoopoes nesting in Britain as the Mediterranean climate moves north. But wouldn’t you miss seeing that first swallow?