Love, death and Christmas: the meaning behind Britain's birds

A new natural history, published next year, promises to do for British birds what 'Flora Britannica' did for British flowers. Michael McCarthy talks to its author and looks at six birds which have particular cultural significance
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Why do some birds mean so much more to us than just feathers and wings? Why does the raven symbolise death, and the robin, Christmas? Why do eagles mean power and doves mean peace? Why, for that matter, is the red kite now a cherished icon of wildness in Britain, when once it was associated with rubbish and filth?

Why do some birds mean so much more to us than just feathers and wings? Why does the raven symbolise death, and the robin, Christmas? Why do eagles mean power and doves mean peace? Why, for that matter, is the red kite now a cherished icon of wildness in Britain, when once it was associated with rubbish and filth?

Answers to most of these questions are intriguing: they are not one-liners and they would not fit into an ornithological version of Trivial Pursuit. When looked into closely, they often turn out to involve the most profound human fears and hopes, sometimes dating back to the Stone Age; they reach into cultural and social history as much as ornithology itself. But a forthcoming book is attempting to answer them all.

When Birds Britannica appears in 2005, it will be building on the most remarkable event in natural history publishing in recent years. Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica was a completely new type of wild flower guide: it went beyond standard descriptions of Britain's wild plants to record comprehensively the folklore surrounding them, their ancient names, their forgotten uses, their medicinal and even magical properties.

But there was more. Mabey's most original idea was to invite ordinary people to contribute, and because legions of them did, he was able to go beyond the official botanical literature and tap into a vast resource of still-existing wild flower folk memory: the individual stories associated with the individual flower species constitute much of Flora Britannica's charm. The book touched a special chord with the public, and though it was as chunky as a flagstone and cost £35, since its publication in 1996 it has sold more than 100,000 copies.

Mabey, now widely regarded as Britain's most distinguished writer on the natural world, conceived the idea of doing for birds what he had done for flowers: to bring together in one volume all the ways in which the birds found in Britain impinge on our lives. But other commitments meant he had to hand the project over to another author: and now, four years on, the manuscript of Birds Britannica has just been completed by his chosen successor, Mark Cocker.

When published next year it will aim to be the ultimate book on British birds: its 270,000 words and nearly 500 pages will deal at length with all the 225 or so species known to have bred in Britain, and with 364 species in total out of the 570 which have occurred here at one time or another (all those not dealt with are rare vagrants from other countries which have been seen only a handful of times). There will be 350 original pictures, mainly by one of Britain's best-known bird photographers, Chris Gomersall.

And just as Flora Britannica went beyond botany, so its bird follow-up goes beyond mere ornithology - although it is there in abundance - into folklore, superstition, social history, poetry, art, gastronomy, linguistics, and all the ways in which feathered beings have touched our lives.

As with the earlier book, hundreds of ordinary bird lovers have contributed (they are all acknowledged) and their stories and observations have been woven by Cocker, using his own encyclopaedic knowledge of birds, into essays on each species, some of them of considerable length.

Creating the ne plus ultra of British bird lore has been a Herculean task. "Yes, it's a big tome," Cocker said. "It's the biggest thing I've ever written and probably ever shall. It took me three years and by the end I virtually couldn't write. I was exhausted."

He seems a very appropriate author to succeed Richard Mabey, having a life divided equally between birding and writing. A series of books have built him a growing literary reputation, including Richard Meinhertzhagen, Soldier, Scientist and Spy, a biography of the adventurer and fraudster who was a friend and companion-in-arms of Lawrence of Arabia (1989); an investigation of the English travel-writing tradition, Loneliness and Time (1992); and a study of the impact of European colonisation on native cultures, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998).

But Cocker is first and foremost a lifelong bird enthusiast, and it is his most recent work - a bird book with a difference - that has brought him widespread recognition. Birders: Tales of a Tribe (2001) is the first successful attempt to get under the skin of the obsessive, sometimes manic, British birdwatching community, convincingly conveying just what it is that makes grown men drop everything and rush hundreds of miles to Shetland or the Isles of Scilly to see a red-footed falcon or an olive-backed pipit. It has sold more than 20,000 copies in hardback.

Now 44, married with two daughters and living in the Norfolk Broads, where barn owls and marsh harriers float over his house and a kingfisher zips through the garden, Cocker began his birding on the moors near his childhood home in the Peak District, and has travelled in search of birds all over the world. Completing Birds Britannica may have been a labour, but it was a labour of love, and he speaks about it with real excitement.

"What we have done is pull together an entire panoramic vision of the human relationship with birds in this country," he said. "We've looked at the point of encounter; we've looked at every bird that has a 'cultural profile' and an interface with us. It's the Domesday account."


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 <</b>

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 <</b>

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<</b>

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.


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.


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.