Writing about birds by Katherine Rundell, Tim Dee, Jon Day, Rebecca Solnit, Jeremy Noel-Tod, R.F. Langley, Kathleen Jamie, Jonathan Barnes, Jane Campbell, James Fletcher, Gaby Wood and Francis Gooding. Several of these pieces have fed into the online events in this week’s Subject/Object festival of birds, which also features James McVinnie, Paul Theroux, Stephanie Burt, Daisy Hildyard, Anita Sethi, Peter Godfrey-Smith and many more artists and writers performing and in conversation. Book tickets here.

Consider the Swift

Katherine Rundell, 15 August 2019

If you see a bird settled on a telegraph wire or a tree, it’s not a swift. No sociable windowsill singers, no Disney-Princess-finger-perchers, they fly wild, and they fly like a stroke of luck incarnate. But they would, like most living things, be far luckier without us.

Diary: Twitching

Tim Dee, 11 March 2010

All birders were birdwatchers once. At eight I was smitten by a yellowhammer in Surrey; by nine I was hardcore. Since then I have had periods of being a birder and periods of retirement from active service. Now I think of myself as somewhere between the two, an inveterate namer (you cannot unlearn the habit) but motivated primarily by the otherness of birds.

It is the remarkable, if poorly understood, ability to home that has made pigeons one of our most exploited companion species. Pigeons flew across the Roman Empire carrying messages from the margins to the capital. Decimus Brutus broke Marc Antony’s siege of Mutina by sending letters to the consuls via pigeon.

A raven used to be an oracular sight, an omen, impressive, noble, wild; now it is bad news, a weed, trouble. This decline is worrying not just in what the birds do but in what they mean. And it turns the creatures from being part of an ecosystem into its destroyer, the birds acting as agents of our own disruptiveness.

A bird that isn’t there: R.F. Langley

Jeremy Noel-Tod, 8 February 2001

Appropriately for a poet fascinated by the ‘soft fuss’ of flocking birds, these poems rediscover ‘the swift, flitting, swallow-like motion of rhyme’. The verse template in the later poems is syllabic – in the example above, twelve syllables to a line – but the thought, and the rhymes, roam fluently over the line-breaks, creating effects which recall the mosaic quality of R.F. Langley’s earlier work.

Poem: ‘To a Nightingale’

R.F. Langley, 18 November 2010

Nothing along the road. Butpetals, maybe. Pink behindand white inside. Nothing butthe coping of a bridge. Muteson the bricks, hard as putty,then, in the sun, as metal.

Diary: Gannets, Whaups, Skuas

Kathleen Jamie, 7 August 2003

A gannet’s skull would be good to have. Or a whaup’s. But bird skulls are rare to find. I daresay most sea-birds die at sea, and their weightless bones are pulverised by the water or the wind. Once, on a flawless sandy beach in Donegal, I found five silver fishes, freshly abandoned by a wave, glittering and bright as knives presented in a canteen.


Jonathan Barnes, 23 January 1986

Only things with wings can fly; no man can have wings: therefore no man can fly. Flying is strictly for the birds.

Diary: The Rarest Bird in the World

Jane Campbell, 5 July 2018

Cahows have a strange wailing mating cry that was once thought by mariners to be the sound of devils. William Strachey writes that the cahows (then called ‘sea owles’), clumsy on land and almost blind by day, would cluster around the sailors in such numbers that hundreds could be clubbed to death for food.

Most people think birds just go pi-pi-pi

James Fletcher, 4 April 1996

The violin does a nightingale, the clarinet a blackbird. The movement does not develop in any way; the isorhythmic sequences continue for a time, the birds chatter and gurgle. Then it stops. It is as if one had been shown a sample of acoustic eternity as one might be shown a sample of cloth: ‘it will be like this, but there will be more of it.’

Diary: How to Draw an Albatross

Gaby Wood, 18 June 2020

You didn’t need to know what it was, or to be reminded of the albatross’s association with luck or guilt or human burden, or even to understand how far this one must have travelled, to see the majesty and melancholy in the creature’s remains. This was Coleridge’s harmless bird ‘that loved the man who shot him’; Baudelaire’s ‘king of the blue’ brought ‘stumbling and ashamed’ into the orbit of men.

Hell Pigs: Before there was Europe

Francis Gooding, 2 January 2020

Sixty-five million years ago, after an asteroid struck the Earth, Europe’s little dinosaurs were obliterated along with all the others – all the others that weren’t birds, anyway – and much besides.

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