Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Birds and History

Anyone not sensible to the enriching presence of birds in our everyday lives is denying themselves a simple but profound pleasure, but what about birds and history - or rather birds in history? Is there anything significant beyond their mere presence in the historical record? Anything of genuine importance in historical terms? Well, I'd argue that the domestication of the original wild chicken was a process (not an event) that has had a considerable impact on the course of human history. The use of homing pigeons in the two world wars is surely worthy of more than just passing comment; and does not the founding of the RSPB in the late nineteenth century by women appalled at the use of grebe and egret feathers in the millinery trade tell us something about political campaigning at that time? I dare say if I looked deeper there would be many other such examples, but the two things I have are not in this league; mere curios in fact, but interesting in themselves I think.

First, a simple coincidence: a recent article in Birdwatch magazine examined the arguments for and against including 'ship-assisted' vagrant birds on the official British list. A subject of warm controversy it would seem, although not one about which I myself have strong feelings. But a few weeks after reading this I was given a copy of The Birds of the British Isles by T. A. Coward (London: Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, 1941), and lo, there on pp. 360-61 is mention of a voyage made by the (ultimately doomed/infamous) Lusitania in August 1913 during which two large curlews (possibly Long-billed Curlews says Mr Coward) were seen flying alongside the vessel as she steamed towards the Irish coast. Mr Coward's correspondent suspected that the two birds rested on the ship at night, but couldn't prove it. So a minor point: a soon-to-be world-(in)famous ship probably providing temporary respite for two exhausted and lost souls a long, long way from home.

Secondly, while ploughing through Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well recently I smiled at the mention of 'choughs' language' (Act IV. I. 19); the reference is to the garbled and unintelligible babbling of foolish people, and anyone who has ever heard choughs soaring and chattering to each other will know just how perfect the comparison is. But look at it this way: the metaphor is so apt that Shakespeare must, surely, have actually heard the birds in the wild at some time (either that or he heard captive birds, the comparison was proverbial, or someone else in the company supplied the relevant speech); and to do so, he would have to have travelled to one of the birds' coastal strongholds. Today, these are on the fringes - Cornwall (a happy recent recolonisation of a historically inhabited range), the Welsh coast, the Isle of Man and Ireland - but in the past the Chough may have nested on the Channel cliffs, as close to London as Dover. Shakespeare's life is notoriously undocumented, and so although my suggestion of him seeing and hearing the birds above the Channel cliffs or even further afield will always remain unproven, I like to think of it happening and of a superb dramatic image forming in his mind as he watched. Well that's my take on it anyway: the Chough as a biographical footnote - possibly illuminating a famously obscure life!

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