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2 March 2022

The wood may not yet be silent, but its birds are far quieter

The lesser redpoll population has fallen to one tenth of what it was more than 50 years ago, when as children my cousin and I hunted them so freely.

By John Burnside

When I was seven, my cousin took me on a bird-hunting expedition. Five years my senior, Kenneth knew the woods inside out and was admirably indifferent, not just to school and church, but to the grown-up world in general, alternately charming and mocking the adults he encountered with a complete disregard for the consequences. In fact, the only person he spared in his war against authority was his father, who encouraged his interest in birds by building a spacious aviary at the foot of their garden from pieces of offcut timber and chicken wire.

Here, Kenneth housed the birds, mostly redpolls, that he caught in the woods using a simple drop-cage trap consisting of a light wooden box, a purloined school ruler and a length of twine. The trick was to position the box over a scatter of bait, so that the edge was perfectly balanced on the upright ruler, around which one end of the twine was tightly knotted, and then, with the other end in hand, to find a hiding place in some nearby undergrowth – and wait.

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The waiting took all the patience a seven-year-old could summon, but it wasn’t really that long before a bird dropped out of nowhere and approached the baited trap, tantalisingly close, but not yet within range. Care had to be taken, at this point, to make no noise and to refrain from pulling on the twine before the redpoll moved directly into the target area.

But the truly difficult part of the entire process came when the ruler was yanked away and the box fell, trapping the bird in sudden darkness. For it was at this point that my cousin had to lift the fallen box just enough to dart a quick hand inside and catch the redpoll before it escaped.

I knew that I could not have done it. But as the day wore on, Kenneth performed the manoeuvre easily and often, snatching up one bewildered redpoll after another with a speed and accuracy that I begrudgingly admired, even as the whole performance brought me close to tears.

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At the same time, I felt a surge of relief whenever he missed his mark and his intended prey fluttered up into the trees, alighting on a high twig for a
moment and gazing around as if to get its bearings, before it flitted away forever, presumably a little wiser than it had been to the ways of humankind. When this happened, Kenneth cursed under his breath and grimaced, but for me the woods felt just that little bit deeper, marginally safer and strangely timeless.

Of course, I hid my concern about the redpolls from Kenneth. In our world, such tender sentiments were a matter of shame, unbecoming in a boy. However, considering how smart he was, I could not conceal my feelings for long and, because I was his little cousin, he must have decided to go easy on me.

Kenneth offered some kind of consolation, telling me that the birds were probably better off in his aviary, where they were well fed through the winter months, safe from cats and foxes, and happy among their own kind. Besides, he added, as an afterthought, they were common enough birds; it wasn’t as if they were rare.

And I had to grant him that, back then, when he was almost 13, and I was seven. Which, by my calculation, makes the year of this adventure 1962, the year Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first serialised in the New Yorker. At that time, many condemned her vision of a complete silence in the woods, a death of birdsong, as an exaggeration (some said that, as a childless, unmarried woman, she was simply being “hysterical”).

But, according to reliable sources, the lesser redpoll population has fallen to one tenth of what it was that day when Kenneth and I hunted the birds so freely. The woods may not be silent yet, but they are very much quieter.

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times