Winged messengers: The precarious lives of birds

That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, writes John Burnside.

Urban singers: roosting white wagtails are lit up by a street light. Photo: David Tipling

Birds and People
Mark Cocker and David Tipling
Jonathan Cape, 592pp, £40

If ever a book was timely, it is this gorgeously produced 600-page compendium of ornith - ological facts, images, myths and narratives. Mark Cocker, whose marvellous Crow Country reshaped our rather prejudiced views on corvids, and the leading bird photo grapher David Tipling explore the many ways in which “people’s lives are entwined with, and are very often shaped by, their encounters with birds . . . how birds live within us – and how they have been, in the words of . . . Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘good to think’ and to reflect upon”.

Yet, as much as this book is a celebration of birdlife, informed by that mixed sense of wonder and careful inquiry that Cocker has called “the poetry of fact”, it “inevitably contains many stories of our exploitation of birds, both in the past and in the present” – and sadly this is in large part what makes it topical. For although most of us no longer feast on parrots’ tongues or bathe in flamingo blood, as some Romans once did, millions of songbirds are still caught in mist nets, or on lime-sticks, all across the Mediterranean, while (to take just one example) over half the European population of northern lapwings has, in a single human generation, been lost to agricultural changes that not only degrade and pollute the land, but also produce inferior, polluted foodstuffs. As miraculous and varied as the lives of birds may seem (Cocker notes that “the entire class . . . has occupied more of the earth’s surface, on terra firma and at sea, than any other vertebrate life form”), their existence all too often becomes precarious when they are obliged to cohabit with people. It is hard not to despair when we read how, not so long ago, that consummate bird-lover W H Hudson claimed “to know English country estates where they killed nightingales because the celestial song kept the pheasants awake”.

Nothing illustrates this troubled relationship between birds and people as keenly as the recent controversy over the death-bywind- turbine of a white-throated needletail – a member of the swift family, not pictured here, but noted in passing as “one of the fastest animals on earth . . . recorded at 170kmph (106mph)”. Though badly sited horizontalaxis wind turbines are increasingly recognised as a significant threat to raptors and migratory birds in particular, this specific death was an environmental anomaly: the needletail, which normally breeds in China and Mongolia, was far from home and its death can only be accounted as an unhappy accident, irrelevant to the overall debate about the damage done to birds and bats by wind turbines. Nevertheless, it quickly became the focus of the unease many of us feel about our disregard for birdlife – and that unease deepened significantly after a comment piece in the Guardian by the RSPB’s “head of climate-change policy and campaigns” came across more as an apology for the wind industry than a reasoned defence of birds:

The fact is that the infrastructure that supports the kind of lives we have become accustomed to kills wildlife. Since 1980, we have lost 300 million birds from Europe’s farmland, victims of ever more intensive farming. Barn owls, suffering from a lack of suitable hunting grounds, can often be seen hunting alongside major roads; as a result, about 30 per cent of the species’ deaths are attributed to collisions with vehicles. Energy infrastructure in particular is a killer. One study compared the fatalities as a result of wind power with nuclear and fossil fuels. It looked at deaths across the full lifecycle, including extraction of raw materials and the impacts of any pollution it causes, and found that for every gigawatt-hour of electricity generated by wind power there are about 0.3 fatalities. For nuclear it was 0.4 and for fossil fuels it was 5.2 to 17 times greater than wind.

There is no attempt here to examine “the kind of lives we have become accustomed to”; it seems killing birds is what we do and there’s an end on’t.

For some of us, such reckoning of “acceptable” bird mortality sticks in the craw, no matter what the circumstances, but it is also worth pointing out that this rather blasé position on bird death rates sits uncomfortably with research done elsewhere (by the Spanish Ornithological Society, or by various groups in Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere). What that position does reflect, however, is the danger posed to birds not just by our appetites, or our supposed sporting instincts, but also by ideology. When recently I inquired at Friends of the Earth Scotland why they were so unconcerned about turbine-related bird (and bat) mortality rates in Scotland, I had this response:

That wind turbines pose a major threat to birds is a common misconception – in the US alone, it’s estimated that less than 40,000 birds [sic] (of all kinds) are killed by turbines each year, while up to one billion are killed by flying into windows . . . The same goes for bats, where numbers as [sic] negligible compared to bat deaths by other forms of human intervention. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), it’s not just pollution and habitat destruction. People accidentally waking bats from their daytime sleep kills [sic] far more bats than wind turbines ever could.

When I wrote back to suggest that, when it comes to the environmental damage done by wind turbines, taking the AWEA’s word for it (as both industry folks and faint-hearted greens have consistently done so far) was the equivalent of accepting the American Coal Council’s assertion that coal has “a strong environmental track record that continues to improve”, I received no response at all.

Yet, while this particular threat to birdlife continues to be shrouded in controversy (mainly, I suspect, because of disinformation spread by industry lobbyists and the kinds of lucrative “consultancy” deals that have been struck between some NGOs and energy companies), many others are common knowledge. The ill-regulated and excessive use of pesticides worldwide; the slaughter of eagles and other predators in rural areas (because, in the words of one mid-20th-century gamekeeper quoted here, “my job was to kill everything that His Lordship couldn’t eat”); and a range of other factors, such as deforestation and the recently documented mass destruction of grasslands to provide cheap biomass crops – these are all known.

Sadly, the overall numbers are huge: as Wallace P Erickson, Gregory D Johnson and David P Young noted in 2005: “We estimate that from 500 million to possibly over one billion birds are killed annually in the United States due to anthropogenic sources including collisions with human-made structures such as vehicles, buildings and windows, power lines, communication towers and wind turbines; electrocutions; oil spills and other contaminants; pesticides; cat predation; and commercial fishing by-catch.” Killing birds is, indeed, what we do.

In 1789, Gilbert White observed in The Natural History of Selborne that the parish in which he lived was “a very abrupt, uneven country, full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds” – and there is ample evidence that such diverse and uneven terrain is as beneficent to the human spirit as it is to avian life. Today, we would be more likely to render “abrupt and uneven” as “diverse”, yet for all our apparent understanding of such concepts, our way of life, from the land we drive through on the morning commute to the food in our supermarket trolley, has been engineered to depend on the elimination of the abrupt and the uneven.

Still more in thrall to a Gradgrindian business ethic of efficiency and reductionism than we choose to admit, we may claim to be a bird-loving nation (the RSPB has around one million members). But when the abrupt and the uneven are under threat, too many of us forget the greater good that depends infinitely more on the birds and the bees than the supposed truths of hard economics or the paper prosperity of City traders. For that reason alone, reading The Natural History of Selborne in a post-Reaganomics world is a salutary reminder of this steady addition to our well-being.

It even comes across in White’s prose, as Richard Mabey points out in his biography of the parson-naturalist: “What is striking is the way Gilbert often arranges his sentence structure to echo the physical style of a bird’s flight. So ‘The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes’; and ‘Woodpeckers fly volatu undosu, opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising and falling in curves.’”

A similar spirit – that “poetry of fact” that renews and re-envisions the natural world – informs Birds and People, making it a worthy addition to the tradition of such writers as White and Hudson. Yet it also raises a question that haunts all eco-critical thinking today, the problem Tolstoy formulates as: “What then must we do?”

How do we even imagine a world where a book that avowedly “explores and celebrates” our relationship with birds need not refer so frequently to habitat loss, deforestation and various forms of direct persecution? For some time now, books and documentaries about the natural world have tended to flipflop between desperate warnings of present and impending losses on a catastrophic scale and informed celebration of what still remains of the wild; and the debate as to which of these approaches is the more successful will no doubt continue. However, it is clear that, to rediscover the abrupt and uneven in our parishes, we must begin by reawakening our imaginations from the slumber of reductionist economics – and on the evidence of Birds and People, it seems better that we err on the side of celebration. This comes out as much in Tipling’s extraordinary photographs as it does in Cocker’s prose. The haunting image (on page 496) of a “roost of white wagtails in a neon-lit city street” is a wonderfully persuasive instance of that celebration: the birds seem to subsist in light and the curious gaze the central pair turn back on the camera is strangely inclusive.

“We are all responsible for everything and everyone in the face of everybody,” says Dostoevsky, “and I more than the others.” Taking that declaration as a starting point, Emmanuel Levinas created a philosophy in which each of us is confronted with what he calls “the face” of the other, which both implores and challenges us not to do it harm, but to respond to it from a position that goes beyond mere respect, or even compassion – a position that, because it understands the necessity of the other to our own continued being, approaches the deeply unfashionable condition of reverence. That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, a solipsistic mode of thinking that takes such absurd indicators as GDP or the Dow Jones as measures of prosperity.

As Cocker points out, “To assume that we alone are all that matter and to contemplate with any kind of equanimity the loss of these other species, or a part of them, is to risk losing our very souls and silencing our own imaginations.” Reading Birds and People, it becomes possible to see that a more imaginative economics (grounded, perhaps, on such indicators as Avian Health and Diversity, say, or a Dawn Chorus Audibility Index) could be built around Gilbert White’s abrupt and uneven parish, “full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds”. We would all be the richer for that.

John Burnside’s most recent book is “Something Like Happy” (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred