My friend Ian ‘Gubbins’ Williams is a keen ornithologist, who would rather be standing in a muddy field enjoying his solitude and a lively tree pippit, than jostling with a cluster of competing twitchers all comparing their binoculars and tripods to see who’s got the biggest.
When we are out on a walk together, it’s hard to share his passion for studying the aerial antics of a sparrowhawk, especially when he’s in possession of the only pair of ‘nocs. However, it still delights me to spot a sudden flit of a wren in the garden, or the clumsy hoppings of a blackbird, and despite a loathing of anthropomorphism, the birds in the garden all sort of have “character”.
I used to like jays, partly for their plumage, and their less frequent appearances as they passed through, but also because my sister and I were called “the J’s”. Then I was very fond of robins, firstly because of their ubiquitous appearance on greetings cards, but later in memory of father who was Robin. Next up were puffins, a singular and memorable bird, but immortalised for me by Jill McDonald who supplied the Puffin book club with endless illustrations. I enjoyed watching the noisy squabblings of the sleek starlings, and the feeding acrobatics of blue tits, but my other avian fav is the blackbird, what I call the “archetypal bird”. One of life’s more exquisite pleasures is to listen to the improvisations of a blackbird as the sun nears the zenith on a perfect Spring or Summer’s day, and looking up to see it perched on high, almost as if it where holding forth in rhapsody. This will always give me an ache of the infinite.
I learned at school, whether true or not, that if you lay down ill out in the woods, you risked having your eyes pecked out by birds. Maybe Alfred Hitchcock also picked up this rural myth in his childhood, fuelling his paean to the frightening wildness of birdkind “The Birds”. I read how John Dolittle MD ran a Post Office in Africa with the help of the world’s bird population, and how Rupert the Bear is taken to the Bird Kingdom to explain why he has possession of a large brown egg (his rugger ball). And it all started off with six and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. Mmmm, blackbirds.
Now, as a music-listening adult, I have discovered that the French composer Olivier Messiaen went out recording birdsong, and then transcribing it, first for piano, and then for orchestra. His music is infused with a joy of life, which for him was very religious. My desert island Messiaen would be his Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed when in prison camp during WWII. An astonishingly life-affirming work, for the motley forces available in his prison: piano, violin, cello and clarinet. (Not so much bird in that one.) Finnish composer Rautavaara inserted actual bird recordings into his Sinfonia Antartica, all of which works very well. It’s a haunting piece that I never tire of hearing. And there’s a fabulous 2004 piece for string quartet by Edward Cowie “Birdsong Bagatelles” that paints 24 different portraits of birds in their environs.
To end, Frank Key has a word on the ‘Ignorant Ornithologist’ in The Dabbler, as well as the many feathery, fictual and factitious references that abound in his Hooting Yard writings. Ian Williams is certainly a notch or two above the Ignorant status, but it feels like I have come full circle, because he has a similar love of wry wordage, and relishes a bird name with absurdist potential.