It’s easy to imagine why some birds appeal so well to our myth-conjuring habits. I think particularly of those species that make a skill of obscurity. Crepuscular birds excel in shadow—the nightjar or woodcock are no more than ghostly silhouettes in dusk-dark. By day you’ve not a chance—their plumage is the very stuff of earth, intricate and cryptic patterns of leaf-litter, mulch, soil.
The bird that most comes to mind for these evasive sleights, though, is the bittern. It does not need darkness; this bird has perfected invisibility in specialist reed bed living. The woodcock’s argillaceous plumage is matched in the bittern by habitat imitation so effective it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed in metamorphosis, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks. It’s colour and striations mimic the close, vertical world of marsh and fen exactly, especially so when the bird lifts its beak right up, narrows itself to reed-thinness and sways gently with the wind-rustling stems.
This morning I’ve been waiting since dawn at Ham Wall RSPB reserve for the briefest of glimpses. It’s April and I can hear one male booming—a sonorous, eerie bass note that carries over a mile. It’s this aspect of the bird, in fact, that humans have responded to for millennia. The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter. These marvellous names go way back. In the Anglo-Saxon age, when King Alfred was hiding out here on the swampy Levels, the bird was a raredumle, probably meaning something like ‘reed-boomer’. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular term was miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’. The strange booming spurred inventive explanations about how ‘a bitore bombleth in the myre’ by lowering its head ‘unto the water doun’ (Chaucer), or blowing through a reed. Inevitably, the supernatural aspect of the disembodied noise associated it with omen and disaster.
The old names alert us to the priority given to bird sound in the past, and even now the bittern is certainly a bird more encountered by its unique call than sight. Its presence in the once extensive marshes of Britain bred inventive myths down the centuries. Here on the Levels, bitterns stalked the prehistoric swamps alongside pelicans, cranes and white-tailed eagles. Neolithic tracks across the marsh still exist, preserved in peat beneath the watery landscapes recreated in recent years. What did our prehistoric ancestors make of the bittern’s booming call? What was their word for the bird? We’ll never know, but surely they were equally struck by its eldritch presence. Perhaps those medieval myths and names reach back this far.
Like many of Britain’s fen and marshland birds, the bittern became extinct. It recolonised in the early twentieth century after an absence of 50 years, but numbers remained low and as recently as 1997 there were only 11 booming males. Thanks to hard conservation work, 46 males have been estimated calling on the Avalon Marshes this spring in Somerset alone, the densest population anywhere in the country. Our names and myths recall how elemental bitterns are to this habitat, as much as reed and peat and water. It is joyously encouraging that a bird so intimately rooted in these special places is not lost.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A quick browse through any field guide to birds reveals that the standard ornithological method for conveying bird vocalisations is still transliteration – a careful substitution of complex avian sound patterns into a phonetic sequence that is broadly understandable in another system – a human language. You’ll come across some striking examples, including some that are just ludicrous, or seemingly untranslatable into human spoken utterances. There are the well-known classics: from the Collins Guide, ‘goo-ko’ (cuckoo), and ‘kewick … hoooouh’ (tawny owl; better known, of course, as ‘tu-whit, tu-who’). But then what about a willow warbler: ‘sisisi-vüy-vüy-vüy svi-svi-vi tuuy tuuy si-si-sviiy-sü’? Or maybe a greenfinch: ‘jüpp-jüpp-jüpp jürrrrrrrr tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy juit chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp dürdürdürdür jürrrrrrrr …’?
These modern examples of ornithologists’ mimicry, though, are in fact no different to much earlier efforts to translate animal and human sounds – they merely continue a long and rich legacy (see here for a fuller discussion of this topic in an earlier post). I have been prompted to think again about the lines of transmission between medieval and modern approaches birds because I am currently working with three manuscripts from important monastic centres of the late Anglo-Saxon age containing a copy each of a little birdsong poem titled ‘De cantibus avium’ (On the songs of birds), which is, largely, a catalogue of phonetically-rendered, onomatopoeic bird calls. The three versions are all the same, and suggest a lost, earlier source. What seems pretty clear is that this poem, wherever or whenever the original was composed, was designed to teach the typical Latin translations of particular animal and bird sounds. The poem appears in manuscripts that all deal with grammar subjects, and in two cases, it actually appears directly after a standard prose list of nonhuman sounds – what is known as the voces animantium ‘voices of animals’ genre (see here for one of the manuscript examples). The formula, developed from classical models, goes a little like this:
apes ambizant vel bombizant, aquilae clangunt, anseres crinciunt vel trinsiunt, aves minuriunt vel vernant vel vernicant, accipitres pipant vel plipiant, anates teritisant …
[bees buzz or buzz, eagles sound, geese hiss or honk, birds chirp or make noise or twitter, hawks screech or cry, ducks quack …]
Much of the ‘De cantibus’ poem reads almost word for word like these lists, but it also draws attention to the great and enduring fascination of birdsong – its supreme variety and diversity. However hard we might try, it is beyond our capabilities to record, catalogue and know all bird songs:
Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat? Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille. Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.
[Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? A thousand are sung of birds, a thousand differences of voice. Nor do I myself claim to discern such voices.]
Many of these medieval examples might sound ridiculous to us. But they probably did to medieval writers as well: many of the invented onomatopoeic verbs in the sound lists are such nonsense that they basically mean nothing more than ‘cranes make a crane noise’, or ‘blackbirds make a blackbird noise’, as though the writer draws attention to his own complete inadequacy in trying to replicate birdsong. Perhaps this translation tradition highlights a serious point about all translation though: even though these efforts aim to bring us closer to another being or mode of communication, they ultimately reminds us of essential difference – when you try to turn birdsong, or any nonhuman utterance, into human language, the result doesn’t quite manage to do the job. Crucially, though, this difference does not make birdsong irrational goobledygook (a word, in fact, that was coined to mean nonsense precisely because it sounds like turkey gibberish). It is simply that their voices are not our voices.
When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.
This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.
The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).
I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.
There are some birds that are early fixed in the imagination, and hold their allure for a lifetime. These are not childhood memories of actual encounters, but of something more mythic – birds that made claims on my experiences long before I ever set eyes upon them. I knew them only from illustrations (John Gooders’ Kingfisher Guide to Birds in Britain and Europe; a scrappy pocket Collins), or experienced them vicariously in my uncle’s scrawling field notes. I loved their rarity, made them live – the impossible colours of bee-eaters, rollers, waxwings; the wildness of eagles – in my assiduously copied sketches from a hand-me-down set of Ladybirds. I dreamed of discovering these birds myself, desired them as much as those accumulating notebooks in my uncle’s study – dinky and black, with an elastic band that made a firm snap when you pulled it into place.
In an attempt to conjure one of these exotic species, I once invented reports to my mother, hoping that the fantasised chase across the South Downs would turn up a real life counterpart to the impressive sunset vision depicted in that Ladybird plate. It was years before I finally saw a great grey shrike – a strange songbird from the north with a grisly habit and a dapper bandit mask to suit. I’ve seen several since, but I am still compelled to see these birds when small numbers make their winter homes here each year from Scandinavia.
This morning was ideal out on the brooks, the first properly cold weather of the season and everything reduced to a shrike’s wintry colours: the stone-hard whites of frost, the bare blackness of trees, and low mists tracing every degree of grey-silver. As shrikes do, the bird I was after appeared quite suddenly, there atop a nearby birch. It was gone as quickly, in the second I glanced away, but there it was again, at some distance, silent and sentinel on another tree top. Shrikes establish large territories and can go unseen for long stretches of time, though they will be present all winter, remaining faithful to particular sites year after year.
Despite its scarcity, the bird has a long-lived gruesome legacy in British folklore, which pertains to the red-backed shrike, too, once a breeding species in these isles (unlike the great grey). Its various names speak of its macabre reputation, derived from its family propensity for impaling prey on thorns, recalling a butcher’s meat store, or the huge iron hooks from which his carcasses hang. The great grey’s scientific name reminds us of this habit – Lanius derives from Latin for butcher or executioner. A meat-hacker: the butcher-bird.
Its infamy goes back much further, however, as indicated by the strikingly similar cluster of names across northern European countries. Its late medieval English name was the waryangle which existed in various dialect forms for centuries, all of which, like Germanic werkangel or warkangel, mean something like ‘suffocating angel’ (compare Modern German, würger and würgengel). The name is not attested in Anglo-Saxon records, but may well extend back this far; waryangle, may, in fact, derive from Old English wearg (criminal) and incel (diminutive suffix): ‘little-villain’. Certainly by the fourteenth century the name was invoked as an abusive term. In Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, the summoner is denounced by way of comparison, ‘as ful of jangles [tricks] / As ful of venym been thise waryangles’ [as shrikes are full of venom] (a shrike’s butchering thorns were thought to be forever after poisonous).
Remarkably, in an age without binoculars, and which is traditionally dismissed for its unscientific indifference to ornithological precision, the earliest illustration we have of the species actually comes from a medieval English missal (1400) produced in Sherborne, Dorset. It very clearly and accurately depicts a grey shrike labelled waryghanger, one of many British species depicted in this remarkable manuscript. For this illuminator, at least, the shrike held a place in the native imagination, as it always has in mine. Its flight from thorn to thorn points on to shrikes I have not yet seen, that exist in those books and pocket notes that occupy me still.