The plastic plight of seabirds

In recent years I’ve done a fair bit of thinking and writing about seabirds in early English culture (see here and here). I’d say, in fact, I can talk at quite some length about seabirds in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I’m currently researching the topic further for a chapter in a new book. My research and writing on the subject, though, gives me pause for thought, because despite similar imaginative responses to these remarkable creatures across the centuries, my experiences with seabirds in my own time are disturbingly and drastically different in ways that profoundly and irrevocably affect their cultural relevance to us in the twenty first century, and would have been unimaginably alien to our medieval ancestors. The picture of environmental destruction that afflicts seabirds is uniquely modern: we cannot think about seabirds without confronting how they are tied up, quite literally, with our detritus. The poet who depicts a gannet in the Old English Seafarer as a far-travelling companion on the winter waves could not have conceived of the strangulated individual in the harrowing image above.

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The contents of a decayed albatross carcass. Image: Algalita.org.

In particular, of course, I’m talking about plastic, and the gargantuan quantities of enduring waste it produces. It’s such an unavoidable aspect of daily life that we barely give the substance a second thought, and we don’t need to. We can legitimately throw away as much of the stuff as we want, confident that it will be disposed of somewhere else, by someone we don’t know or care about. That’s the situation the ‘progress’ of convenient, comfortable living has led to; we aren’t required to care. To be sure, most of us know we should care, and most of us use local schemes to recycle as best we can, or avoid using plastic bags when we go shopping. What most of us could never have guessed is just how pervasive plastic and its disastrous effects are when we think we’ve safely discarded it. Without even considering the devastating effects on all the other creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans, it is estimated now that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic (here and here).

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Plastic debris drifts from the ocean into this bay in the Philippines. Image: Erik de Castro.

In response to all this, and the sickening feeling we have about the sheer quantities that go into landfill every year in countries around the world (the stats are staggering: in Australia alone just toothbrushes produce 1000 tonnes of landfill a year!), my wife and I decided to go plastic and packaging free in 2018. We want to implement habits and routines that will slowly become a way of life. We know the realities—avoiding plastic entirely is pretty much impossible unless you want to completely cut yourself loose from modernity. We’ve done our research though, and have embarked on a scheme to dramatically cut down what we throw into landfill at the end of this year. (Later on in 2018 I’ll post again on this topic to let you know what we’ve done and how it’s going.)

In fact, we’ve apparently taken up this challenge at the right time: Blue Planet II has apparently really caught the public attention on issues of plastic; China has stirred things up by rejecting imported plastic from the UK from this year; and only days ago Theresa May made the headlines by discussing ambitions to force the big UK supermarkets to rethink packaging. Here’s hoping.

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A UK landfill site. Ironically, these mounds of waste have become beneficial for some seabirds, gulls, who have adapted to become urban dwellers. Image from edie.

I’m excited by our environmental ambitions for this year: they feel real and filled with genuine potential. But taking on this more explicit form of environmental action has prompted me to think about the importance of those other less obvious, less immediate examples of individual responsibility. Writing about the natural world is the most relevant example to me, and it sometimes seems arcane, detached and irrelevant. What difference does it actually make? In some slight yet important way, though, the thinking and caring that happens when people write about the natural world does matter. In my case, understanding how seabirds were experienced and represented in the earliest English writings is part of the narrative that leads to our engagement with these creatures now, and their plights, even if only because we might be prompted to a keener sense of loss and responsibility. It is all part of the passion and urgency we share to influence the way people think about, encounter and treat the natural world. We do this, always, with the hope of making just a little, positive difference.

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Call of the curlew: birds and the spirit of place

In these last days before Christmas my wife and I have escaped to our favourite place out here on the Essex marshes. On our first morning, the frost and brightness we’d hoped would last was suddenly replaced by mild Atlantic temperatures and thick, seeping mist. Still, this weather has its own spectral winter beauty. Like snow, mist can have the effect of flattening out time and place, as though to make indistinguishable everything that separates us from past and future. Marsh goes out into one empty and endless beyond. In the far distance I can make out the looming bulk of Bradwell power station, but even this is strange and ancient today, a stone-dark monolith suspended in white.

The mist doubles everything we love about these places—the deep sense of past centuries brought close in a landscape that is still wild and uninhabited. In these secretive, oozing creeks are the birds. Redshanks are always sudden alarm, piping urgently and flashing trailing white wings when they burst upwards at the last second. Curlews sound somewhere between woe and surprise, wail and sigh, wind down chimneys and an old kettle’s boiling scale. Like everything here, particularly on a day like today, the birds feel distant and elusive.

It is the waders that seem most distinctly of the marsh to me, as though their eerie calls evolved quite purposely to sound the evocative spirit of estuarine substance. We’ll never fully know what earlier people made of birds’ presences, but what evidence does exist suggests that they intimately associated birds and place as much as we do. Old English bird names emphasis hearing birds in general, but birds that appear in Anglo-Saxon place names and charters tell us that birds were not only noticed, but often featured as integral markers of place.

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The Anglo-Saxons certainly knew this place, the sealt-mersc. They managed and farmed it, and made it powerfully symbolic in their poetry. The land has come and gone here on the Essex coast, reclaimed and uncovered by the waves over the centuries, but the saltmarsh has always been here in some form, and for marsh-dwellers, birds were a part of these habitats. Medieval wetlands were inhabited by a much greater variety and numbers of birds than today, and these are recorded in place names that last to this day. The snipe, for instance, a very characteristic bird of fen and bog, is noted in Snitterfield (Snitefeld, 1086), and in a charter entry for Berkshire there is a snitan ige ‘snipe’s island’. Snipe are skulking birds, and it was probably their sounds that attracted attention as much as anything—another Old English term for the bird was hæferblæte ‘goat-bleater’, a marvellous description of the vibrating, eerie noise made by male snipe in their breeding flight as the wind rushes through their tail feathers.

One of the best known Old English poems implies that sea and coastal birds were clearly familiar enough residents of place to evoke a profoundly atmospheric maritime scene. It is, moreover, the birds’ calls that are highlighted in The Seafarer:

Sometimes I took the swan’s song for my game, the gannet’s sound and
curlew’s cry for men’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There
storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answered them, icy-feathered; very
often the eagle yelled, dewy-feathered. (The Seafarer, 19b-26)

This littoral environment is characterised and animated by birds. Perhaps most telling of how noticeably and vividly birds have always registered in people’s experiences of the marsh and coast, is the Old English name of an island south of here, past the Blackwater’s mouth, over the bulge of the Dengie peninsula, round to the River Crouch and across to Foulness Island—Fugel Næss ‘Bird Headland’. The place is still an island today—only reachable by a treacherous, ancient path across the sands until the 1920s—its north-east point leading out sharply into sea. The birds remembered in the name must certainly have been the flocks of breeding and migrating waders and geese that still frequent the place today in internationally important numbers.

Tonight is the year’s longest night. The mist is down and I walk out onto the sea wall from our cottage. There is no human sound I can make out at all, but even at this late hour wigeon and teal are whistling in the hidden creeks and redshanks still call out panic. The cloaked mystery of the marsh is at its most potently intense now. A curlew’s liquid trill comes to me down the watery channels through double mist and darkness. Little wonder birds of this place, like birds of the night, caused folk to imagine their eldritch notes as something bewitching—the luring temptations of malevolent sprites.

Storm Ophelia – inauspicious weathers

Last week, only a month after the hurricanes that devastated parts of North America, Storm Ophelia whirled up from the Azores to cause devastation in western Ireland, reaching wind speeds of 119 mph in County Cork—the most severe eastern Atlantic hurricane on record, and the sixth major hurricane in the Atlantic hurricane season, exactly thirty years after the now mythical Great Storm of 1987. At the end of the same week, Storm Brian lashed across most of England, bringing high winds and huge waves along southern coasts.

Ophelia over Ireland. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

For those of us lucky enough to be safe from the life-threatening effects of Ophelia, our experiences were more surreal and astonishing. Monday 16th October began calm, bright and just a little cool, exactly as expected for this time of year in southern Britain. I was teaching all day and paid little attention to the outside world until the afternoon was upon us. Quite suddenly temperatures became uncomfortably warm. My students fidgeted and complained—we flung windows wide and wedged the door open to encourage a draft. Down here in Kent, in fact, temperatures reached 23.5C that afternoon, the highest UK temperature in the warmest October on record. For us, that’s a balmy spring day, and wouldn’t feel out of place or dissatisfying in summer, even.

It wasn’t the heat that was most mesmerising though. It was the extraordinary colour of the sky—a lurid, apocalyptic orange that suggested some strange, cosmic conflagration. Dust from the Sahara carried on the winds and debris from huge wildfires in Spain and Portugal scattered the blue light wavelengths, and incarnadined the whole sky. The gloaming brought a disorientating haze across everything, that seemed to equally expand and foreshorten distances and turned the sun to pink copper, viewed through a supernatural element. The following day was still nebulous. It felt like we were inside it—a freakish weather happening.

Orange skies over London. Image: Peter Macdiarmid, The Daily Mail.

My shameless borrowing from Shakespeare in the previous paragraph is not accidental—I wanted to recall Mabeth’s famous line about ‘turning the green one [sea] red’ because I was teaching Macbeth at the time to my GCSE students. Act Two, scene four, in fact. The one where the Old Man speaks of ‘Hours dreadful and things strange’. Macbeth’s atrocities are mirrored in the great macrocosm, the cause of ‘the day’s shame’ which casts ‘Darkness’ over the ‘face of the earth’, as though ‘dark night strangles the travelling lamp’. ‘Duncan’s horses … turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out’.

Literature is full of prognostications from strange or dramatic weathers. It’s easy to see how this comes about, of course, particularly if you happen to be reading an example at the very moment these events occur! Coincidences can seem too unlikely, and truly marvellous or violent weather is so great and so unavoidably noticeable  that it can make one feel there must surely be omniscient, metaphysical forces at work. The day after Ophelia made its tracks across Western Britain, a cartoonist for The Times was clearly struck by weather events’ powerful and persuasive capacities to makes us feel that there must be some correlation with current human affairs. I’m quite sure that the sketch below was humorously received by many British readers.

Image: The Times, 17.10.17. Morten Morland.

Unsurprisingly given the religious leanings of the pre-modern age, medieval writings include lots of meteorological predictions. The events of last week sent me back to some of these texts to seek out responses to weird or remarkable weathers up to and over 1000 years ago. In particular, I thought of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles on that Monday (historical annals compiled by monks in various locations in the late Anglo-Saxon age). The accounts we find in these texts are not fictional, allegorical representations of weather, but genuine responses to real weather occurrences, observed and recorded as significant yearly events. I’ll leave off here, with just few entries for readers to enjoy.

774. And men saw a red sign of Christ in the heavens after the sun’s setting. (This was possibly some sort of aurora borealis or supernova event.)

793. Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense flashes of lightning,and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter. 

806. Here the moon grew dark on 1 September. And Eardwulf, king of Northumbria, was driven from his kingdom, and Eanberht, bishop of Hexham, passed away.

1122. And after that, the Tuesday after Palm Sunday, there was a very great wind on that day, 22 March; after that many signs came far and wide in England … Afterwards, on the day of 8 September, that was on the Feast of Saint Mary, there occurred a great wind from 9 a.m. in the morning of the day until dark night.

(All entries here are from the Peterborough manuscript).

Life in the in between: a sparrowhawk’s existence

Two weeks ago on a humdrum Monday a sparrowhawk came to our three-storey balcony, blowing our little space wide open in a burst of flight and feathers.

That’s how it is with sparrowhawks. There’s no preamble to the strike. Not the slowly-does-it buoyancy of a harrier’s quarter, nor the panic warning that accompanies a peregrine’s hunt over winter marshes. Most of my sparrowhawk sightings are barely sightings at all—an intimation of something bullet-brained, a sign of wing and greyness that registers just enough to count. They are glimpsed in their sheering horizontal strafes, sensed at the tilting up-and-over moment into hedgerow ambush. I have sometimes seen females soaring high in an eagle-fashion, and I’ve heard—seen photos—of individuals that do materialise for whole periods of time, all the hawk components suddenly but undeniably singular, complete, right there in plain sight of the kitchen sink. The most solid example I’d had till now was the filamentous ghost of wings from a momentary window zonk—the delicate traces of a botched hunt in a suburban garden. Sparrowhawk dust.

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A young female, identified by her size and the juvenile brown tips to her feathers.

As with all predators, most raptors’ hunting attempts end in failure. Not this one. A young female perfecting her game. She is big and broad, built for open-sky spaces, unlike the males who haunt the intimacies of summer full-leaved woodlands. Our creaking reactions have already missed the arrival, whole seconds too clunky to match her. We must surmise the action: a chance sighting and too good to miss, shift and accelerate towards the next second. She lives now at the cusp, slicing the in between of everything in the strike down to seize and overtake the present, straddling the instant like the poor-bastard dove she’s shafted from the iron railing. On the balcony floor she’s astride her prey as if in some strange copulation, plucking furiously, then tearing at the good meat.

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The space around was snow-silent in these minutes after the kill—a penumbra of small bird fear and human awe. We watched from just two feet away, edging closer on our stomachs right up to the window sill, making the most of this unpredicted hawk proximity. She saw us; of course she did—her whole being spins on those huge yellow eyes—but she was hungry and willing to tolerate us. Even so, we didn’t see her go. We’d turned to whisper, and right then she’d taken off with her carcass undercarriage, leaving a mess of dusky feathers to tell the tale, just in case we’d missed it.

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The remains of a collared dove.

What struck me in the days after was how many people miss out on such wonder, even when it thrusts itself right into our human centres. These chance happenings are so much on the margin for some of us—the countryside at the edges of our obsessive internalised urban lives. I called a friend that Monday, eager to share this remarkable incident on our fire-escape balcony, and knowing he was just minutes away. I couldn’t tempt him. Next time, perhaps. There is always hope that such things will take us by surprise, hurl our attention inwards to the ellipse of a hawk’s world.

The fish road: adventures upstream

Not a bird blog this time. I do sometimes hang up the binoculars and take up the fly rod instead to go fishing on Britain’s beautiful rivers. Some encouraging comments on a recent trip to Devon prompted me to write something about fish and fishing for a change.

The fish road isn’t an Old English term, but it should have been. Fisc-rad. It has that concise, pragmatic feel of many Old English compound names born of plain observation, whilst still conveying striking imagination. There is a whale-road (hranrad) and a swan-road (swan-rad) – Anglo-Saxon metaphors for the sea that depict oceans as travel-paths belonging to seabirds and mighty cetaceans. There is even an Old English ‘fish and river’ riddle that seems to imagine a river in these terms: both beings run their course together, the fish sometimes resting, the river always rushing forth, sometimes the fish swifter than the river’s flow. A fish journeys by river, is of the river.

It feels as old as rivers themselves, proverbial, as though it certainly should be recorded in the earliest examples of our language. The fish road. Inauthentic as it may be, it’s a term that occurs to me often on the river, because it speaks powerfully of astonishing fish marvels, of my attempts to see these creatures in their water-worlds, maybe even to catch one.

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My brother wading the fish road.

Fish do travel, of course. Some perform migration feats that rank amongst the most remarkable of all creatures. European eels begin life in the Sargasso Sea off the North America Coast, then make their way east, changing form twice by the time they swim up British rivers. They might spend up to 20 years in fresh water before heading back across the Atlantic to spawn. The Atlantic salmon performs almost the opposite journey: those born in British waters will mature at sea before surfing currents homewards, sensing Earth’s magnetic current through their lateral lines and literally smelling their way home to natal rivers. The brown trout can do the same – some anadromous forms of this species undergo a change which turns them seawards. They become salmon-silver, and will return just like their larger cousins to breed in fresh water. True travellers.

 

The fish road, though, is also ventured by those who endeavour to seek and catch fish – not necessarily to eat them, but more simply to wonder. From time to time, I am one such rover. I don’t claim skill. I own more than one rod, a pair of waders, and I can navigate sufficiently the arcane language of my fly box – sedges, klinkhammers, peeping caddis flies (and the more humorous residents – dog nobblers, boobies, foam daddies). I can cast a line now with accuracy and distance enough to satisfy a desire for progress, and I know as much as any fly fisherman the heart-lurching thrill of that sudden snatch that signals a take.

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The contents of my fly box.

I know others, though, who practise the art far better than I ever will. My brother and our good friend – both Richards – are obsessive river-travellers, unable to resist pausing at any bridge we pass to scope new spots and look for fish suspended in the water column just below the arches. I love the grace and ease of their casting – a choreographed sequence of arm and rod, flex and timing, to unfurl the line in big immaculate loops across the surface so that a tiny feather-fly touches down without a slightest splash.

Richard Burbidge casting a fly line. Photo: David Wood.

We have fished together across the country, on Cumbrian tarns, Hebridean lochs, off south coast shores. But most of all in rivers – the Taff, Wye and Exe, the Itchen, Avon, Rother. All these, as Roderick Haig-Brown describes, are ‘water in its loveliest form … life and sound and movement and infinity of variation … veins of the earth’. At least as much as the prospect of actually catching, it is the lovely form that compels us to keep fishing. To walk a river, alone and silent, is to know a way of being and moving that others cannot know. Wading upstream towards a river’s source in the same direction that fish face the flow, sometimes chest-deep, trout eye-level and necessarily slow, we leave others behind.

This week just gone we fished for brown trout in the Exmoor rivers in Devon – the Exe, Barle, Bray, Taw and Lyn. At times we whiled hours exploring just a few hundred metres of water. Strollers and dog walkers on their own paths knew nothing of our existence, and they did not see what we encountered so closely – kingfishers, dippers (once, an otter swam right past my brother on the Irfon in Wales). This is our privileged passage. Down here, where the bankside alders tunnel inwards the fish road is a long lost highway – a sequestered holloway that enters another world. There is no more intimate way to know the veins of the earth.

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Two roads at the Rother, Sussex.

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Sri Lanka’s endemic enigmas

Where earth’s greatest landmass narrows to a subcontinent, below where mountain thrusts up rock to earth’s highest peak and river runs down to dry plain, just beyond where land tips into ocean, in one slip of forest in the wet mid-hill tropics that rise up on a small island once bridged to south-east India, behind the obscuring branch of one jack tree, there is a blue magpie.

We’ve come a long way for this bird. It is truly magnificent though. Don’t think your usual black-and-white, garden-menace job. The Sri Lanka magpie is of quite another order: blue body, blue tail – true blue, bluest in the forest – head and wings of dark tamarind, feet and a heavy corvid bill the colour of pomegranate arils. The same red neatly circles the eye. It’s a bird to travel for.

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Sri Lanka blue magpie. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In cloud forest, good views of anything can be hard; it’s alarm and frenzy in the tops, exotic calls and brief flashes above. Tall is habit in a place like this – trees reach 40, 50 metres high, their boles straight up into tree domain – but such thick vegetation down here obscures verticals and heights.

The trick is to stand still, tune in to what you hear. In this valley, dawn is a broad coming like a passing eclipse. We stand in the green air on the edge of the clearing before the heat arrives, waiting for birds at first light. Orange-billed babblers are easy enough – their fuss and squabble shake the foliage with monkey-vigour. They are joined by the odd ashy-headed laughing thrush or drongo. Higher up, there are white-faced starlings and hill mynas.

The rasp of the magpie gives it away. And where there’s one, more follow. We watch six in total, a raucous mob tailing each other from tree to tree for just two minutes, so plainly blue you wonder how they do such a good job of disappearing.

 

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The rainforest canopy at Sinharaja
The Rainforest Ecolodge in Sinharaja forest.

We’re very pleased to see them. The thing is, you won’t find any of these birds anywhere else. Not just in Sri Lanka, but nowhere else in the world. Like so much of the immense biodiversity on this island – trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, flowers, butterflies, mammals, birds – the blue magpie is an endemic. Sri Lanka’s ancient insular existence has evolved a remarkable ecology of highly specialised creatures. Amongst birds alone, of the island’s 27 full endemic species (there are subspecies too), most of these can only be found in the wet-zone hills in the far south, and some of these, even, only in isolated pockets of this territory. Only sixteen years ago, in fact, a new owl species was discovered in these forest fragments that survived colonial rule. It’s a reassuring sign in this age of loss and destruction.

Sri Lanka hill myna. Image: Isuru Gunasekera.

Find this little lodge near Deniyaya on Google Earth, scroll in, then right out to see India, and Eurasia, and the whole globe. This is to know the fragility of every part of all things, yet wonder that the infinitesimal can still hold mysteries.

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Rhino horned lizard: one of the numerous endemic lizards. Image: Janaka Gallangoda

Wasps, owls and the dangers of anthropomorphism

I came across a humorous meme on Facebook the other day. It’s an ID card for commonly seen British bees. There’s the honey bee, of course, and bumble bee. And then there’s the wasp – the ‘c**t with wings’. It’s funny. We all know the scenario: late summer, a round of drinks in the pub garden on a lazy Sunday, but the calm is ruined by the presence of dratted wasps.

Beyond the joke, though, the meme raised some more profound queries for me. Vespine malice, indeed, may not be as harmless as we think. It’s a good example of what I call the cultural persuasion of anthropomorphism: the pejorative impact that can come from attributing human qualities to nonhuman creatures. Sometimes, reputations are established for innocent nonhuman parties that can be impossible to reverse; involved in conflicts that are ultimately about human priorities or prejudices, the history of a particular species can be significantly affected and defined by our cultural representations.

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Gary Larson’s well-known Far Side cartoons brilliantly satirise anthropomorphism and other human treatments of the nonhuman.

It can begin harmlessly enough. Animals, of course, are very often employed in metaphors to depict human behaviours: pigs are filthy, foxes are cunning. We understand that we are actually dealing with humans who are squalid or sly, but the process of metaphor is never one way – these enduring comparisons affect the animal itself. Foxes may well show all sorts of sophisticated predator cognition (and remarkable urbane adaptability in the modern world), but we should not equate this with human concepts of deceit, as the familiar metaphor encourages us to do. Pigs suffer an even worse cultural fate, repeatedly invoked as the epitome of uncivilised (that is inhuman) behaviour: we must not eat like a pig, or live in a pigsty, or conduct ourselves with the emotional insensitivity of a pig.

In the case of the wasp, there are cultural implications too, if not quite as familiar. Some are innocuous enough, even positive: it was once fashionable to have a wasp waist; a person who is easily peeved or angered is ‘waspish’. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes made use of wasp characteristics to depict one of his most famous eponymous choruses – a busybody swarm of geriatric jurors. What we can easily overlook though, is how this generalised portrayal of wasp-ness reduces the diverse complexity of wasps’ astounding being to a singular, misrepresented aspect. The common wasp we love to hate (vespula vulgaris) is only one of hundreds of thousands of species worldwide, all playing important ecological roles (here and here). Good old vulgaris, for instance, is essential to keeping down insects that would otherwise decimate harvests on farms and in gardens, and they rid our towns and cities of organic waste.

People don’t lash out at wasps buzzing round their pint of coke because they are consciously acting in response to these processes, but it is possible that deeply embedded prejudices or persuasions do contribute to these culturally validated reactions: “What the hell do wasps do anyway? They’re just bloody pests!” The mechanisms here are no different to those operating in racism or sexism: the cultural and the biological are confused to the point where moral judgements placed upon a particular person, group or creature lead us to think that they are naturally and inherently depraved or inferior.

A group of creatures that has repeatedly been the victim of misrepresentation throughout the age of Western culture is the owl family. The remnant of this legacy in modern times is largely positive – owls are wise. But they have more often been made symbols, associates and scapegoats for a whole range of ills. The doom and gloom aspect has been around since classical times, but it was the Middle Ages that were particularly responsible for setting these associations in stone. Several owl species were identified in the popular natural history books of the period (the bestiaries), and each had its own negative significance: you will find noctua and nyticorax, night owls who fly by night and cannot see in the day; bubo, the horned owl who befouls its nest; and ulula and strix, screech owls known for their wailing calls. It’s not difficult to imagine how owls’ nocturnal habits made them ideal metaphors for sinners who shun the light of Christ.

A typical bestiary owl with a hook-nose to denote the Jew. Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 153r

At best, these cultural distortions of owls were just wrong (owls can certainly see in the daylight); at worst, they could turn nastily on owls themselves, infecting the real bird and dangerously instructing the ways humans act upon nature. Take bubo (the eagle owl). From biblical sources, this species was thought to have an unclean nest – a metaphor for the sinner in the mire of his own filth. The problem is that this characteristic, like others, gets transferred across all owls in the bestiaries, so various species end up getting lumbered with the invented trait of one owl in particular through association (something similar happens in the wasp meme – disparate species are all shoved alike under the term ‘bee’). All owls shun the light, all owls are dirty. As the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale reveals, this mishmash of owl representation meant that the birds themselves were defamed as ‘loathsome and foul’: all people, the owl is told by the nightingale, think about how to kill you; they ‘pelt you and stone you, and smash your horrible bones to pieces’.

Medieval representations even managed to make the familiar practice of mobbing owls by small prey birds a justification for the innate sinfulness of owls. Because mobbing became a metaphor for approved attack on human sinners, the birds involved in this activity against owls by default show the same inclination: they attack the owl because it is wicked.

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An owl being mobbed. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 73v

The ultimate and most dangerous manifestation of this metaphorical blurring is evident in medieval obsessions with a specific type of sinner – the Jew. In Norwich, where anti-Semitic hostilities and riots were prevalent in the late Middle Ages, the cathedral still bears witness to such hatred – there are no less than six owls included in various wood carvings, some of which explicitly portray the proverbial mobbing scene: the action of mobbing owls in the real world has genuinely become an endorsement for the violence inflicted against a particular social group. Whilst there is no hard evidence to show us how this impacted on real owls, the popularity of this cultural pairing must have, to some extent, increased traditional beliefs in owls’ ‘loathsome and foul’ characters.

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One of the Norwich owl carvings. An owl is clearly being mobbed by smaller birds here.

Anthropomorphism can have its positives: it can establish connections across boundaries of difference; it can elicit empathy. It can even prompt us re-evaluate whether nonhuman creatures do in fact lack those faculties we have always assumed to be exclusively human. Charities use the tactic all the time, and the viewing figures of Springwatch must be due in part to the popularity of Spineless Si the Stickleback or Sophia la Wren. But the technique is always fraught with difficulties. Yes, these names encourage a bond, but they also recommend that we see these creatures in human terms to make them more memorable: as Chris Packham has commented, “People don’t remember the blue tits we didn’t give a name to.”

Overlooking blue tits because they are unnamed is unlikely to have terrible ramifications, but when cultural portraits become so powerful that they distort and turn destructively on the real creature, there is an urgent need to re-think how we perceive and interact with the natural world.

Gary Larson, The Far Side