Whether you’re an enthusiast or not, you’re probably aware of the fact that birders can sometimes seem a bit extreme about their avian observation activities. Yes, we can be exuberant, passionate even. From what I understand, though, the British birder is a breed apart. The anoraks of Albion take avian obsession to a whole new level. But it must be said, they love their birds.
This is why the upcoming publication of Birds Britannica faces such monumental expectations. Its predecessor, Flora Brittanica, has been described as nothing less than “the most remarkable event in natural history publishing in recent years.” A tough act to follow, indeed. Birds Brittanica, by Mark Cocker, aims to be the ultimate book on British birds. At 270,000 words and nearly 500 pages, it has ample room to deal at length with all the 225 or so species known to have bred in Britain and plenty of migrants as well. Rather than being an ordinary ornithology textbook, this tome will delve into, among other things, folklore, superstition, social history, poetry, art, gastronomy, and linguistics. Here’s a taste, although note that Columbia livia has been renamed the Rock Pigeon and the European Robin is a different species from the American Robin:
Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus)
This mysterious bird seen in the dusk and the dawn – it sleeps through the day and is active at night – is known in many European countries as the goat-sucker, the meaning of the Latin generic name. No one knows how the legend began – that the bird sucked the udders of goats causing their milk to dry up – but Cocker’s book points out that it was recorded by Aristotle and may have been ancient then. It probably arose because the birds would often feed near livestock to pick up the insects that would be abundant there, because nightjars have a remarkable gape, and also because the giving of milk was surrounded by ritual and magic in pastoral communities. Nightjars are confined to our dwindling heathlands and young or freshly cut conifer plantations.
Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
The spectacular red kite, Birds Britannica says, is a prime example of a bird whose symbolism has undergone a transformation. In Shakespeare’s London, this carrion-eater was a common city scavenger feeding in flocks on refuse dumps, and regarded as a low-born creature. To be called a kite – as Lear calls Goneril – was a gross insult. But it was persecuted (perhaps because it was a chicken stealer) until it was extinct in England, and was reduced by 1900 to a few pairs in central Wales. This population slowly increased and the birds became symbols of their homeland. The reintroduction of the species to England and Scotland has been a great success story of modern conservation.
Rock Dove (Columba livia)
Along with the raven and the eagle, the rock dove is “part of a great trinity of bird symbols for Western civilisation”. While the other two have represented death and power, the dove has come to represent peace and love, but in ancient Mesopotamia it represented something more basic: fertility. This may be because the birds show remarkable fecundity, breeding up to six times a year. Wild rock doves, still found in Britain on northern Scottish coasts, have gradually metamorphosed into our domestic pigeons; they are thought to have been kept as early as 4,500BC, making them a contender, with the red jungle fowl (later the chicken), for the world’s earliest domesticated bird.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
As the most magnificent birds of prey, eagles have symbolised the apex of power for at least 5,000 years: there were eagles represented in Lagash, a Sumerian city in Mesopotamia in 3,000BC. Almost all succeeding empires took over the imagery, including the Greeks (to represent Zeus) and the Romans (to crown the standard of the legions). Great conquerors from Charlemagne to Napoleon adopted eagle crests, as did ruling dynasties in Russia, Austria, Germany and Poland. Britain is an exception, so we tend to associate the eagle with our enemies, Hitler (“with a severely angular art deco eagle image perched literally on his forehead”) being the most recent. Birds Britannica points out that last year, eagle clashed with eagle, when the eagle of the US collided with the eagle on the flag of Saddam’s Iraq.
Raven (Corvus corax)
Our long intimacy with the grandest of the crow family may well be more ancient than that with any other bird, Birds Britannica suggests, for a simple reason: because ravens eat us. “In addition to them taking our dead livestock, they have taken human flesh with equal relish from the battlefield or gibbet.” Stone Age communities sometimes exposed their dead instead of burying them and ravens picked the bones clean. The bird was a widespread symbol of death and foreboding. But today it is not seen as more than an occasional nuisance, preying on livestock and sometimes pecking out the eyes of dying animals. Found throughout the northern hemisphere, it was once widespread across Britain, but persecution drove it into the hills and mountains; now its population is recovering.
Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
The reason our most popular feathered friend figures so frequently on Christmas cards may not be the one you think. The book unearths the fact that Victorian postmen wore red coats, and when the cards habit took off commercially in the 1860s, robins were often depicted as postmen with a Yuletide missive in their bills. In Britain, robins are cherished for their tameness and sprightliness, but in continental Europe they are more likely to be relished: they have long been one of the favourite songbirds to eat. By contrast, killing a robin has always been regarded as unlucky here and likely to bring all sorts of dire consequences. The word robin itself is relatively recent, a diminutive of Robert, and a bird “personalisation” such as Mag Pie and Jack Daw: for 1,000 years in England the bird was known as a ruddock.