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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Annie (1982): a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America

Featuring bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. 

Thirty-five years ago this summer, the movie Annie was released. Thirty-five years later, it still makes absolutely no fucking sense. It is a bizarre, patriotic portrait of capitalist white America with bizarre asides about Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, Bolshevism, taxes, the Great Depression, and the commercialisation of radio. Are you ready, children? Then we’ll begin.

We open at Hudson St Home for Girls. We know this because there is a sign that says Hudson St Home for Girls.

Annie is leaning out of the window, singing sadly and sweetly about her imaginary parents. Her childish ideas of what adults like – “Bet they collect things like ashtrays and art” – is actually very touching. A strong open for Annie.

We do, however need to urgently talk about her hair – a strange combination of Pippi Longstocking, Bowie’s Starman-era mullet and Tom Jones curls.

Despite this misfortune, Annie seems to have absolutely bags of confidence – first singing loudly about her living parents as the only non-orphan in the home while all the other bereaved children try to peacefully cry themselves to sleep, then threatening another child three times the size of her with tiny, angry fists and cocky walk. Look at her, swanning around like Billiam Big Balls.

Annie gives no fucks. Until Dahlesque villain Miss Hannigan enters with a comedy-sized bottle of gin and a frankly iconic silk robe. She immediately threatens to outright murder all the children, and also does that high-pitched Stop copying me! mimicking voice, so there’s really nowhere more villainous for this character to go. She’s peaked.

Now for the cleaning montage: where every child reveals themselves to be a secret Olympic-level athlete.

This girl is cleaning the staircase with every single limb.

Everywhere in this orphanage is dirty, falling apart and miserable. Seemingly hundreds of girls are under the care of a single, drunk abusive guardian and get all their sustenance from a meal called “mush” (served hot and cold!). You might be thinking, Wow, seems like what this children’s home needs is some good ol’ fashioned taxpayer funding increased state intervention and government regulation! But apparently you’d be wrong!

At the end of their cleaning montage, Annie sneaks out of the home in a laundry thanks to Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry. A man so aligned with his small laundry business that he seems to have been predestined for it in a striking incident of nominative determinism. Mr Bundles of Bundles French Style Chinese Hand Laundry is a stand-up guy who protects the orphans by sending them out into New York City, alone.

Annie spies her enemy: men.

But as soon as Annie is out in the world she runs into the ultimate evil: the meddling state. She just manages to escape a stern looking policeman, in order to beat up six scrawny boys with her tiny, powerful fists – a touching feminist scene. Just look at those Why I Oughta fisticuffs!

Don’t mess with the bad bitch.

After she has joyfully hurt the boys, she barely befriends a cheerful dog before the New York City Pound tries to rip it from her warm embrace. Then the stern-looking policeman is back, and Annie is frog-marched back to the home. And she would have got away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling government agents! Just look at these badge-wearing wankers.

But who is this classy broad?

Another meddling state official? The New York Board of Orphans sent her? Miss Hannigan goes into a tizzy – but never fear! The woman, Grace, insists, “I am the private secretary of Oliver Warbucks.” Yep, you heard it here, kids. Johnny Big Dollar! Geoffrey Moneybags! Hilary Capitalism-Is-The-Only-Equaliser! She’s his secretary. And private secretary at that – none of these public secretaries for millionaires.

She wants an orphan, for one week, to make Mr Warbucks look good. Annie persuades Grace to pick her, and Grace persuades Miss Hannigan to let her go. So Grace runs off with Annie to the Warbucks mansion. Oh, boy! It’s beautiful!

Pause for the awkward Inexplicably Magical Ethnic Minority stereotype. His name is “Punjab”. He doesn’t speak, but does often spontaneously dance, and can seemingly make inanimate objects levitate, control animals and fix injured body parts. This is a truly and deeply racist portrayal.

Annie is asked what she wants to do first – and thanks to years of trauma and abuse she assumes they mean which thing she should clean first. The staff chuckle warmly at these symptoms of a horrific and exploited childhood. Then they all sing about how nice this luxury mansion is and how Annie will never have to lift a finger in this house, the most soothing musical number I think I’ve ever heard. This is my safe space. Wait on me, Drake!!!

It’s also in this scene that Annie reveals she used to sleep “in a tomb”, which is pretty fucking dark for a cheerful movie musical.

Daddy Warbucks arrives and Grace runs him through his messages. “President Roosevelt called three times, sir, this morning, he said it was very urgent.” “Everything’s urgent to a Democrat!” he spits back because THIS MAN IS CLEARLY A REPUBLICAN. We get it, Daddy.

This is also the scene in which Annie asks Daddy Warbucks to “hang me in the bathroom”, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical.

Cut to Miss Hannigan drinking water from a vase and making out with a radio, which is pretty fucking weird for a cheerful movie musical. She launches into an amazing, three-and-a-half-minute song about how horny she is. Cool. Normal. Fine.

Her brother Rooster turns up, and maybe I’ve just been watching too much Game of Thrones, but I get extremely strong incest vibes from the pair of them. I’m convinced this film can’t get much stranger.

In the ensuing five minutes, back at the Warbucks mansion Punjab disposes of a bomb, left by a “Bolshevik” singing The Internationale. Warbucks “is living proof that the American system really works,” Grace explains to the audience Annie, “and the Bolsheviks don’t want anybody to know about that!” I love capitalism!!

Next up is a scene taking directly from my subconscious: Annie takes her dog to the movies, gets overexcited, falls asleep & is carried home by a billionaire. Everyone sings about how great it is to go to the movies with your dog and your billionaire. Suck it, La La Land.

Deep depression / What do we care? / Movies are there! The dancers sing, which is also my personal life philosophy.

Anyway, they go to see Camille (1936) which has a MESSAGE about LOVE and MONEY or something. The next morning, Grace suggests Warbucks adopt Annie. “I’m a businessman. I love money, I love power, I love capitalism, I do not now nor never will love children!” “You know, they’re never going to love you back,” says Grace. Warbucks has a sudden awakening and decides, actually, he loves Annie more than he loves money. (But he still really, really loves money.)

In one of the weirder moments of the film, Grace celebrates Annie’s adoption by singing She makes you relax / Like a big tax / Rebate! Did you even see the orphanage, Grace?! Maybe a little less rebates would mean a little more basic provisions for orphaned children!

Warbucks goes to formally adopt Annie and Miss Hannigan sings another three-minute song about how bloody horny she is. Gotta respect that level of horn. It does include lyrics about her “very wet soufflé”, but she doesn’t call him Daddy even once.

We learn Daddy Warbucks was born very poor in Liverpool but “decided” to be rich when his brother died of pneumonia as a child. By 21, he was a millionaire. The American dream works! USA! USA! USA! He says that not having someone to share his life might almost be as bad as being poor. Luckily for him he has bought the affections of a ten-year-old, so one has really led to the other. USA! USA! USA!

Annie says she’d rather find her real parents than be adopted. The hunt begins!

But first, a totally arbitrary diversion to watch the recording of a toothpaste advert. Obviously. It’s cute though.

Once that’s over, it’s obviously time to go to Washington (?!?!) to see the President (?!!). Warbucks and President Roosevelt debate 1930s New Deal Programs to create jobs for the unemployed. The President asks a ten-year-old to help him devise this social welfare programme. She responds by singing a song because, hey, she doesn’t understand the Civilian Conservation Corps, she’s ten!

Everyone sings and thinks about how great and progressive America, and centrism, are around a big oil painting of George Washington.

Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan and her brother are flirting outrageously about concocting a plan to impersonate Annie’s parents (dead, we learn) for the reward money.

Annie’s parents (Rooster and his girlfriend) turn up, collect their reward money, and take her away. Miss Hannigan gets in the car too and Annie catches on. The ragtag bunch of orphans run and tell Daddy Warbucks what’s up. Meanwhile Annie escapes from the car and we’re in that classic movie trope: car chasing orphan on railway drawbridge. Miss Hannigan suddenly seems to care for Annie’s wellbeing when Rooster starts trying to kill her, and Rooster suddenly hits his sister and knocks her out, which is pretty fucking dark for a children’s movie musical. Annie and Rooster climb extraordinarily high on the raised drawbridge.

Deeply uncomfortably, the climax of the action comes when Punjab rescues Annie from a helicopter by unwrapping his turban and using it as a rope to swing down and grab her.

With all that behind them, Annie and Daddy come together to sing about how amazing their rich lives together are. Warbucks has gone on an amazing journey of discovery to learn that money isn’t the most important thing. (The most important thing is actually money AND orphans.) I don’t need anything but you – and the enormous private circus hosted in the garden of my stupendous mansion with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance! I’m rich as a Midas! Warbucks sings happily.

God Bless America!!!!

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