Why humans are fascinated by birds

Our obsession with creatures of flight, from Homer to Hamlet to Hitchcock.

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Birds. They’re everywhere, aren’t they? The only non-human creature you’re almost guaranteed to see every day. Step out the door and there they are. Yet it is extraordinary how not there they are, too; beloved by some – to an obsessive and sometimes misanthropic degree – and disdained by the rest. And while it’s hard to ignore their crazy alarums in spring, the most succinct quotation used by Stephen Moss in his entertaining and enlightening new book, Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, comes from performance-poet AF Harrold’s “Dawn Chorus”, in which he sums the whole show up as: “a double-edged request/fuck off or fuck me”.

 Moss takes us on a series of wonderful diversions into bird etymology, tracing the tracks of avian meaning. The goose is the first bird in Western language whose name survives, earning its name, ghans, from the misty mix of the language known as Proto-Indo-European. In Britain, it was the invasion of Norman French that sped the evolution of bird designations, such as the Old French pijin, meaning “young bird”, and the Latinate peregrine, “coming from foreign parts”. Lapwings (beautifully evoked by Moss as they “lap through the sky like swimmers in a calm blue sea”) segued from the Old English hléapewince, or “moveable crest”, signifying their glorious uptick – to the Norman lappewinke before finally landing in Hamlet: “This Lapwing runs away with the shell on his head”.

Avian otherness reflected a medieval shape-shifting, from the mysterious properties of barnacle geese – believed to have been born from the shells – to swallows, which, even as late as Gilbert White’s records in the 17th century, were thought to overwinter at the bottom of ponds. If Aristotle believed that the redstart could turn into a robin each winter, why not classify a tasty Manx shearwater as a fish and thus circumvent the Church’s tiresome proscription on meat during Lent?

 It took Carl Linneaus to spoil all the fun, with his tiresomely precise binomial naming system. But Moss sidesteps the usual suspects – Linneaus and White – for the more obscure and interesting characters. White’s correspondent, Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), was far more important in recording and even inventing names such as the eider, the oystercatcher and the avocet, among our most beautiful watery birds. In the 19th century the catalogue grew apace as colonialism – another kind of human migration – sent back rare birds; in the 1820s, John Latham created names for a dozen Australian birds he’d never see alive. Latham was also responsible for naming the Sandwich tern (after the town, not the snack), and the Dartford warbler, identified from a specimen he shot miles from Dartford, on Bexley Heath in 1773. Birds usually died to acquire their meaning; a sort of reverse christening.

A hundred years before Latham was letting fly at the wildlife, Francis Willughby invented the way we look at birds. As Tim Birkhead chronicles in his precise and rigorously told biography, The Wonderful
= Mr Willughby
, Britain’s first official ornithologist was a product of a tempestuous period: mid-17th-century England. It turned out to be a good time to look up and figure out what all that aerial flutter above us was about.

Born in 1635, Willughby studied the new sciences of natural philosophy and natural theology at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1650s. In 1663, he and his collaborator, John Ray, set off on an extraordinary continental journey with the intention of documenting everything they saw for the newly formed Royal Society. Armed with dissection kits and botanical presses, they travelled through the Low Countries, collecting sights and specimens enough to fill any cabinet of curiosities: narwhal tusks, a great skeleton of a fish in Leiden that was clearly a whale’s, Muscovy ducks from Mexico dabbling in the Palace Gardens in Brussels, and the surprising sight, to them, of cormorants nesting in trees.

Of the 380 birds that Willughby would describe in his book, Ornithology, 155 were dissected; he knew his specimens inside-out. In Augsburg he shot a blue roller – a vivid turquoise, red and purple-plumed bird, famous for having been painted a century earlier by Albrecht Dürer. Birkhead is amused that as Willughby and Ray go to great pains to describe the bird’s warts and tongue and toes, they fail to stand back and note its outrageous plumage.

Further south, Venice’s fish market – which included many species of bird, at a time when almost every wild fowl was considered good to eat – proved “better than the best zoology class” in providing specimens. It also supplied the Blakean image of a pet flea for Willughby, fastened to a fine gold chain. It fed on its master’s blood for several months until it perished in the winter cold.

Birkhead’s book is an extraordinary record of early science, but also of a young man’s fascination for the natural world before such curiosity was constrained by the disastrous schism of art and science. Willughby’s obsession is matched by the author’s: when he wants to describe a bittern, Birkhead dissects a freshly dead specimen before our eyes. There’s a quiddity about his writing that follows in his subject’s steps. Anyone personally acquainted with birds – living or otherwise – will bear witness to how utterly different they are in the hand or, in Birkhead’s case, under the knife. But sadly, Willughby did not live to see the fruit of his life’s work published. He died in 1672, aged just 36, leaving John Ray to publish Francisci Willughbeii: Ornithologiae Libri Trei in 1676, its Latin title all but turning the author’s name into a binomial, as if he’d become a specimen of his own studies.

In Birds of the Ancient World, Jeremy Mynott, author of the brilliant Birdscapes (2009), takes us back to the beginning of birds in European culture. The classical world was open to the presence and meaning of birds because southern climates allowed life to be lived outdoors. Birds were readily co-opted as auguries – the word itself shares the same root as avian. The seasonal migrations became markers of time when time, too, was yet to be “invented” in the way that we measure it; birds could be clocks or calendars in the sky. The first reference to birds in European literature is Homer’s account of Greek troops mustering like “the many tribes of winged birds/geese or cranes or long-necked swans”, taking their stand, “there in the bright meadows,/numberless as the leaves and flowers in spring”.

Swallows and swifts announced that spring; but so did the kingfisher, whose name, the alcyon, brought halcyon days. Darker messages were carried by crows and ravens. The Latin poet Lucretius writes of “the ancient race of ravens or flocks of rooks” summoning storms inland, while at the beach, “the raven spraying his head with brine,/anticipates the rain and stalks the shore with unsteady gait”. Birds come alive in these texts, but were also hunted, cruelly. Passerines got stuck to limed branches. Ostriches unwittingly settled to brood on nests filled with spears. Jackdaws were caught by a bowlful of oil in which they admired their own reflections, only to fall in. Great crested grebes could be deceived at night by a lantern, which they’d mistake for a star. But Aristophanes’ play The Birds imagined an avian revenge familiar to Daphne Du Maurier or Alfred Hitchcock, announcing that anyone abusing their number “will be arrested by the birds/and it will be your turn to be tied up and serve us as decoys”.

Geese, ducks and pigeons were regularly farmed. Julius Caesar believed that only Britons were fussy about such matters, considering it wrong “to partake of hare, cockerel, or geese, but they keep these instead for reasons of affection and pleasure”. Yet Greeks and Romans certainly kept peacocks and gallinules for their decorative value, rather like moveable garden ornaments, and Lesbia the poet cherished her sparrow. Birds spanned this and the other world, by virtue of their ability to fly; it was easy to imagine them slipping in and out of human business. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is full of transformations: the raven was changed from white to black because of its love of gossip, and Ascalaphus was punished for spying on Persephone by being turned into “a slothful owl, a dire omen for mortal men”.

With a glorious array of references, vivid images and his own astute philosophical commentary, Mynott deftly brings all this into sharp focus: are all these ancient associations, uses and abuses really so different from the way we see birds? We still kill, venerate or tame them. In The Silent Spring (1962), the founding text of modern environmentalism, Rachel Carson employed the plight of birds poisoned by insecticide as a symbol for our dysfunctionality. Birds remain our closest yet farthest connections with the natural world. If they were once dinosaurs, then they also seem relics of another empire, spanning and outliving our gravity-bound species. In the great vista of deep time, it hardly matters what names or attributes we give them now.

Philip Hoare’s books include “Leviathan” and “RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” (both Fourth Estate)

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names
Stephen Moss
Guardian Faber, 368pp, £16.99

The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist
Tim Birkhead
Bloomsbury, 368pp, £25

Birds in the Ancient World
Jeremy Mynott
Oxford University Press, 480pp, £30

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article appears in the 22 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis