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Beautiful, wild and free - what birds mean to us

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
7 min read
A painting of two peregrine falcons eating a duck carcass.
Two peregrine falcons and their prey, painted by John James Audubon. Credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art.

At the height of the first lockdown, when Belfast’s streets were quieter than I’ve ever known them (quieter than they probably ever will be again), my wife and I walked through one of the city's inner suburbs and spotted two buzzards soaring above us.

Though a common sight above the farms right by Northern Ireland's capital, I’ve never seen them so close to the city centre, before or since. As I reflected on the experience, I thought about how the unpredictable early phases of a global pandemic were unfolding down here on the ground. Whereas up there, two majestic birds were flying free.

Various surveys suggest that thousands of people turned to birdwatching during lockdown. The journalist Nick Richards, writing for the Eastern Daily Press, comments, “I guess when so much of the world has been changed by Covid, investing time in something that doesn't seem bothered by it has its benefits.”

That birds symbolise freedom is a very old idea. The art historian Kenneth Clark, who wrote and presented the classic BBC series Civilisation, was fascinated by medieval painters’ detailed representations of birds.

“If you had asked a fourteenth-century cleric to account for all these birds he would probably have said that they represented souls, because they can fly up to God; but this doesn’t really explain why artists drew them with such an obsessive accuracy, and I think the reason is that they had become symbols of freedom. Under feudalism men and animals were tied to the land: very few people could move about – only artists and birds.”

There’s no question, however, that in many cultures, especially older ones, birds have long been synonymous with spirituality, not just freedom. The archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen discusses this in relation to Bronze Age (3,300 to 1,200 BC) art, in an essay published in 2018:

“Bird masks were frequently worn by rock art human figures, symbolising their connection with the divine […] Birds could travel between this world and the otherworld, as well as between the realms, whether underworld, middle world or heaven/sky.”

This avian spirituality might only have mattered to people at the top of society who controlled those below them with myths and rituals. Everyday folk perhaps always defied this, intuiting that freedom is actually the most important thing signified by birds. Alternatively, the impulse to delight in birds because they represent freedom might be, as Clark hints, a more modern idea.

Either way, no matter where you look, birds’ mobility has long beguiled us, for one reason or another.

Their vocalisations matter, too. The Victorian author Elizabeth Anna Hart writes in her wonderful children’s book Tiny Houses and their Builders that birds are blessed with the gift of flying, which, she speculates, “must be such intense pleasure”. Many also possess the ability to sing. “To fly and to sing,” she writes. “Only just imagine what a life it must be!”

A Japanese print showing two peacocks in a natural scene, with a tree and flowers in the foreground.
Credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art.

I was thinking about birds’ prowess recently when I watched the film Kes. Based on Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel for a Knave, the film tells the story of a British schoolboy called Billy Casper who briefly finds an escape from his troubled life in a run-down area of South Yorkshire. How? A kestrel, which he captures, rears and trains. He gives her the name “Kes”.

Both Kes and Billy are constrained beings but, the film insists, each has wildness in them. And it is the bird’s apparent wildness that most captivates the boy. When he tells his class at school about the first time he got Kes to fly to him from a fence post, he is electrified, remembering the moment:

“She came like a bomb, about a yard off floor, like lightning, head still and you couldn’t hear t’ wings, there weren’t a sound from t’ wings, and straight onto the glove – wham!”

Ironic to emphasise wild vigour here, you might think, given that the action was trained. But wildness in the film is not about being untouched by humanity. It’s about asserting yourself in spite of the boundaries set by humanity.

My favourite scene in Kes is when one of Billy’s teachers, seemingly the only compassionate adult in the entire school, comes to visit the shed where Billy keeps his kestrel. In hushed voices the pair marvel at the piercing gaze of that exquisitely evolved bird of prey. “It’s wild and it’s fierce, and it’s not bothered about anybody,” says Billy, dazzled. “Not bothered about me, right. That’s what makes it great.”

The power and potency of birds has enthralled writers for a very long time. I can’t help but think of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his oft-quoted poem To a Skylark. Above all other aspects of the bird, Shelley praises its seemingly endless capacity for improvisation. Its voice.

“I know not how thy joy we should ever come near,” writes the poet, yearning for the same euphoria that the skylark has, and, simultaneously, for the same ability to mesmerise his audience:

“Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.”

Unintelligible yet brilliant. That’s birdsong for you. A phenomenon that Shelley said was better than anything ever written in a book. Edward Thomas marvelled at birdsong, too, in his poem “Sedge-Warblers”. The small birds warble on, “reiterating endlessly | What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.” Vocalisations we cannot fathom. Wisdom we can only dream of.

A black and white etching of a country scene in which a figure peers towards the sky where a skylark is visible.
A rare sighting of a skylark in flight. Credit: The Cleveland Museum of Art.

All of these interpretations, these meanings and understandings, are fascinating. And they all well up from us, from humans, our culture. Birds intoxicate us. Practically none of these heady ideas have very much at all to do with the biological reality of birdlife, though they are certainly inspired by observations of real birds.

There are those who claim to have pure, unadulterated understandings of birds. They are not allegorical tropes, they are wild things! To be kept at a distance, protected and, at most, studied with scientific indifference.

But even these people well up with emotion when they see a bird they have long sought streak across the sky. Or when they hear the call of a tiny wren dominating the woods. We can’t separate nature from how we are inclined to read it, and that in turn is something dictated by our own culture, our language, our past.

Our thinking about birds does not have to be coldly scientific in order to be beneficial, to either them or us. Misconceptions and superstitions can of course be harmful, and we should watch out for those, but the stories we have told each other about the brilliance of birds? I think they are gold dust.

Anthropomorphise, they might. Embellish, perhaps. But there is a basic truth at the heart of them: birds transfix. And while we will never know what it is really like to be one, we glean something special when we wonder about it.

A blackbird viewed through the small branches of a tree.
Credit: Photo by Jozef Fehér from Pexels.

Seamus Heaney, in “The Blackbird of Glanmore”, declares his love for the panicky, cheeky, ever-present blackbird. He calls it by various coinages that capture the bird’s behaviour: “hedge-hop” and “nervy goldbeak”, for instance. In a poem that contemplates death, and the poet’s own mortality, the vitality of the little blackbird seems paradoxically to represent a thing far bigger than Heaney. Nature itself. The blackbird will be there, Heaney says, both at the opening and closing of the poem, “on the grass when I arrive, | In the ivy when I leave.”

Far from diminishing or misrepresenting birds, our poetry and our stories often elevate them, and rightly. In a time of lockdowns and distress, birds have gone on their way, jumping into our hedgerows and wheeling aloft, above us. Migrating for thousands of miles. Over the quieted cities.

All of this is one reason to treasure and save them (though certainly not the only one). We can change some of the things we do to help them. We can make tough choices in their favour.

Because without birds, we would be so much less.

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First of all, allow me to direct you to this beautiful blog by the nature writer Nicola Chester, which was published earlier this month. It fits well with this edition's theme of bird appreciation. Chester describes how a barn owl and later a pair of kestrels briefly made their homes in a bird box near to her house. She describes the birds and her local landscape beautifully but the blog also expresses her anxiety for these creatures – a concern over whether they will survive, given difficult odds.

Birds reveal us, and who we are, once again.

“Listening to the radio, watching the owl, I thought about loss, about this past eighteen months, and all that I’m grateful for.”

I must mention the news that a campaign group has published a legal definition of ecocide, which they hope will be adopted by the International Criminal Court as a fifth international crime alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. NPR has a helpful write-up explaining the concept of ecocide and its history.

Young people on a climate protest are pictured walking through a city street. They hold signs with slogans such as "climate action now".
Credit: Photo by Saph Photography from Pexels.

Don’t miss Claire Armitstead’s feature in The Guardian about “the new wave of climate fiction” – novels that explore the impending crises we expect to face in a warming world. Upon reading the article it becomes clear that these themes have been building in contemporary fiction for some time but now there is a sense of growing urgency and also mainstream acceptance of the idea that, yes, this is a thing we must address.

Will a sub-wave of fiction examining biodiversity collapse follow, I wonder?

I’ll leave you with this great piece by Jessica J Lee. It’s about seaweed. From her distaste of it as an ingredient in various meals when she was a child to her newfound wonder at its diversity and ecological significance.

Most of all, I enjoyed Lee’s discussion of seaweed’s place in our own culture. “How we imagine seaweed matters,” she insists.

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Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.