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30 May 2022

From the NS archive: Londoners and birds

11 March 1922: Robins are selfish birds. Sparrows, on the other hand, are sociable.

By Y Y

Many have attempted to philosophise on the difference between the townsman and the countryman. In this article from 1922, the writer YY believes they have discovered the distinction: in our attitudes towards birds. “No one in the country would think of feeding birds,” they write, for in the countryside birds’ food is freely available. In the city birds become beggars and reliant on our charity. But even in urban areas the appeal of birds is not universal. YY details the differing and complex attitudes towards sparrows – “cheeky, cockney, insuppressible” –the “selfish” robin, and ducks – tufted, teal and alike – to name a few.

It is the mark of a townsman to feed birds. No one in the country would think of feeding birds, except caged birds, or tits, or pigeons, or fowl, or during a frost. There is food, indeed, in every tree and in every garden and in every field. To throw breadcrumbs to birds in such circumstances would be merely a rather ridiculous hobby, like flinging pennies to be scrambled for by peers on their way to the House of Lords. In London, on the other hand, conditions are changed. Here the birds are beggars and dependent on our charity. The black-headed gulls swoop down in procession by Blackfriars Bridge, each with a beggar’s whine. The ducks in the parks stand on their heads, as it were, for halfpence. The sparrows, if you have so much as a crust of bread on you, will gather round you like guttersnipes demanding “mouldies”.

Many people speak ill of sparrows. I can understand dislike of them in the country, but I cannot understand it in the town. In the country they are invaders, driving out of the neighbourhood better birds than themselves. Other birds apparently regard them as low, and will not consort in the same garden with them. They will not, at least, make friends, and have a happier air when the sparrows are gone. In town, on the other hand, the sparrow is at home. He does not keep the other birds away, for they would not come in any case. He has no music for the traffic to drown – no bright plumage for the smoke to blacken. He is a little parasite, who can pick up a living where a more sensitive bird would starve. He is cheeky, cockney, insuppressible. He is, in a sense, vicious. He will go through a bed of crocuses and break their necks with as little compunction as a fox destroying geese. It would not be so bad if he really wanted to eat the crocuses, but it is as though he actually enjoyed wasting them. He leaves them lying, yellow, and purple and white, like a battlefield of flowers. No cat was ever more cruel.

But, apart from this, I do not see what can be said against him by the townsman. How charming a little dancer he is as he hops in scores and in fifties round a Londoner who has bread – hops backwards and forwards like a marionette or like someone whose feet have been tied together for fun, or like a small child hopping up and down in sheer excitement. He may not, as an individual, be so confiding as the robin. But the robins do not come dancing round a human being in families like the family of the old woman who lived in a shoe. They are selfish birds, and no robin will share a human being with another robin. Sparrows, on the other hand, are sociable, like a crowd of children begging from a tourist. They may be greedy; they may fight over the spoils; but their vices are the vices of creatures that love the company of their kind.

[see also: The photo that shaped me: Lucy Ellmann on her childhood bird costume]

The seagull, however, seems to me to be a more interesting London bird than the sparrow. The seagull is a bird that can spy a piece of bread almost as far as a vulture can spy a corpse. It is impossible to enter one of the London parks with a piece of dry bread in your pocket without every seagull knowing it for a mile around. I was standing by the Round Pond the other day, when a small girl came up with a paper bag full of bread to feed the ducks. She opened the bag and, taking out a slice that had seen better days, said to me gravely, “Would you like a bit?” I felt it would be ungracious to refuse, and no sooner had she passed me the slice of bread than a cloud of gulls came falling down out of the sky, each gull with a different sort of patch on its head. They whirled about us with such clamour that there was nothing to be done but begin to feed them. I have never before thrown bread at seagulls, but I found it extraordinarily satisfying. It is like watching the most brilliant possible fielding at cricket.

It may be that in time one learns to distinguish between the cleverness of one bird and the cleverness of another in catching fragments of bread on the wing. Sometimes a catch is missed, and the bread has to be retrieved from among the ducks in the water. But as a rule one of the birds proves its genius by breaking out of the crowd and intercepting the bread with open beak at the beginning of its fall. There is certainly enough variety of catching and missing to prevent feeding the seagulls from ever becoming tedious. It would, I fancy, be rather monotonous if it were not for this constant element of doubt. Every time one throws bread into the air, however, one has a sort of gambler’s interest in what is going to happen. One is playing with the unknown. The permutations and combinations of chance are as numerous, perhaps, in the feeding of seagulls as in anything else.

To the outsider it may seem a foolish and infantile hobby, but it is clear that it must be a more prolific field of experience than the outsider realises. I am only a beginner at it, but it seems to me already as though I had discovered an occupation that will leave me little time for anything else on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It is one of the few amusements that seem always to come to an end before one is tired. As you throw the last corner of the last slice of bread you have brought into the scramble of birds, you regret with a pang that you did not bring ten times as much. You feel that you had only begun to enjoy yourself; besides, you feel that the birds are still as hungry as ever, if in fact they have not become even hungrier as a result of being fed. At least, that is what I imagine you feel. I felt it by proxy as I watched the little girl searching for the ultimate crumb in the two corners of her paper bag.

[see also: Why we must fight the threat of a “silent spring”]

This may only have been the enthusiasm of an initiate: once I felt as enthusiastic about philology, about postage stamps, about hens. What child that has ever lived much on a farm believes that the interest of hens can ever come to an end? It is not merely that he can name the breed of every hen in the yard – Spanish, Leghorn, Dorking, Cochin China, Brahmaputra, Game, Bantam, Buff Orpington, and all the rest – but he knows the life, the habits and the appetites of each. He knows them as mothers; he knows which of them lays the most charming eggs; he knows which of them is the greediest and always arrives first with long, foolish strides beside the scattered banquet of mash. He knows the very chickens all but by name. He remembers the first effort of the young Dorking cockerel to crow like his father – a noise like a gramophone gargling. He notices the ungainly, feathery legs of another overgrown cockerel, and being reminded of a figure in the Scriptures, names him “Lazarus rising from the dead. He also knows every loose liver in the yard – immoral hens that do not lay in the orthodox nests, but make nests of their own in the plantation across the road, or under a haystack or in a dark corner of the barn.

Hens, indeed, are to him a crowded world, as some tribe of savages who would bore you and me are to an eager anthropologist. We may take it as certain that there is this infinite variety in any corner of life into which we peer with sufficient intensity of vision. The man of science looking through a microscope at a drop of water sees a world of living creatures of which the rest of us know nothing but by hearsay. If his microscope were strong enough, no doubt he would learn to distinguish each of these infinitesimal creatures from each other, and give each of them a separate name as a farmer gives separate names to his cows. If his microscope were stronger still, he might discover within one of these infinitesimal creatures an apparently infinite number of still tinier living creatures, and so on, worlds without end.

Hence, it seems reasonable to suppose that the study of seagulls alone might keep a man interested and still making new discoveries for a lifetime. At present, I know nothing about them, except that they have an endless appetite for bread that even a restaurant-proprietor would shrink from putting into a cabinet pudding. But I know enough to make me understand and envy the people who stand on the Embankment and on the bridges and bring a world of white birds down about their heads to share their poor luncheons. Some people love throwing things to dogs – biscuits, lumps of sugar, etc – but to feed the seagulls is as good as throwing things to many dogs.

Then there are ducks. The countryman may boast of his nightingales, his larks, his woodpeckers, his kingfishers, his jays. But, after all, the ducks on the Serpentine have points of superiority to any of these birds. They, too, will repay you if you take your courage in both hands and go out boldly with bread in a paper bag. How nobly they ride the ripples of the stormy pond, awaiting the bread-giver! How, on catching a distant sight of him, they hasten like a fleet of small motorboats to his neighbourhood! How exquisitely the blue feather shines out of the drab in the wing even of the dullest duck! How gorgeously the drake’s head gleams with blue and green colours that seem like shifting blue and green lights! How lordly his tail curls! Was ever a pig’s tail prettier?

[see also: The wood may not yet be silent, but its birds are far quieter]

Then there are the tufted ducks, each with its straight back hair blowing about in the wind like the straight back hair of a quack-dentist, or a piano-tuner, or an elocution-master. Each of them, too, has a little round eye as yellow as bright sunshine, and each of them has the gift of standing on its head and performing feats. I saw a small, ragged boy in Hyde Park last week amusing a baby in a perambulator extemporised out of a sugar-box by throwing small stones among the tufted ducks. I dislike the habit of throwing stones at ducks, and, though none of them seemed to be hitting the birds, I felt nervous for their little daffodil eyes. I spoke my mind about it – not to the small boy, for I am always afraid that if I reprove people my clerical manner may assert itself, but in an aside to a lady. She went across to him, and instead of treating him as a brand to be plucked from the burning, as I should have done, she spoke to him almost as a fellow-sinner. “You’re taking care not to hit any of them, aren’t you?” she said, beaming on him. He turned up a large face on which there was a large smudge on each cheek and a large smudge on his small nose. He was just big enough to be able to walk and talk without collapsing. He beamed good nature and said in a series of gasps of excitement: “You throws things at ’em, and they stands on their ‘eads.” It was certainly true. The tufted ducks were standing on their heads, peering after the sunk pebbles, till they must have been giddy. As I watched them my attitude to the youngster changed. I, too, had rather see a duck standing on its head than almost any other sort of acrobat. I love to see the uneasy equilibrium, and the kicking legs with the joints going up and down like piston-rods. Besides it amused the baby.

Was it virtuous? I do not know. If one of the ducks had been hit, my attitude would probably have changed back again to the normal and I should have spoken my mind angrily – to the lady. But no harm was done beyond giving the ducks headaches. 

But the subject of ducks is endless. Have you ever seen a teal? Why, a teal alone is the beginning of a story as long as The Arabian Nights.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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