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

Photo: Warner Bros
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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.