For the love of birds

Mike McCarthy, writing in the Independent about his career as an environmental journalist, asked why birds ‘excite such feeling’ amongst Britons? The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more members than political parties, for example.

[…] the love of birds seems more widespread, more generalised and more intense than our feelings for any other parts of nature, in Britain at least. It has been commented that, while most mammals exist in a world of dark and smell, we are an exception in that we exist in a world of light and sound, as do birds – and so our sympathies for them are instinctive and immediate.

That’s true as far as it goes, but maybe birds do something more. Perhaps they tap into one of the deepest longings of the human psyche – the longing in us to be free spirits.

Freedom is a notion that in recent years has almost entirely dropped out of the public discourse. When did you last hear it discussed? It doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda in political terms, perhaps because political freedom, in Britain at any rate, is regarded as established. But in personal terms, the question of freedom is enduring. Our personal freedom is circumscribed in millions of ways, from the routines of work and the demands of family to the very process of ageing, and we rail against them. It sometimes feels as though birds, however, transcend these human limits: they are the fastest of all organisms, they defy gravity, they can travel on a whim from one end of the Earth to the other (the arctic tern does exactly that). WB Yeats, looking as he grew old at the wild swans at Coole Park in County Galway, seemed to think enviously of them as eternally free.

“Passion or conquest,” he wrote, “wander where they will, attend upon them still” – this at a time when passion or conquest no longer attended upon him.

Freedom, in fact, seems almost to be the defining characteristic of wild birds, so much so that when it is taken away, we instinctively feel the situation to be unnatural.

A century before Yeats, another poet, William Blake, captured this perfectly in a couplet whose power is not lessened by what we may now feel is an initial edge of sentimentality : “A robin redbreast in a cage,” Blake wrote, puts all heaven in a rage.”

The freedom birds have means that they are harder to see, and so more valued when we see them; their beauty, often tremendous, is more fleeting and so more cherished. But most of all we respond to birds because of our feeling that they are fellow creatures, in the same world of light and sound as we inhabit, which can however in some way break free from that world’s constrictions – the constrictions that for us begin with the first school timetable and end with the wooden box we will finally lie in.

It’s an illusion, of course; but it’s no less a longing for that.

(An aside – I trust the British affinity for birds is wholly unrelated to our love of flying. Brits’ aviation emissions, per capita, top the world – so I wonder what cultural explanations for this there might be? Suggestions please.)

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3 Responses to “For the love of birds”

  1. archana raghuram Says:

    Wow, so well written. “A robin redbreast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage” exquisite.

    Dr.Frank – Did you see the announcement that Al Gore has been awarded the Noble Prize for peace. I remembered you when I heard that. I thought it was a triumph for all the people who fight for the environment.

  2. drfrank Says:

    Thank you, Archana. I’m touched to be remembered in the context of the Nobel Peace Prize! Yes, it seems the Nobel organisation is recognising environmentalists more and more; the 2004 winner was the Kenyan, Wangari Maathai – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wangari_Maathai – the first African woman to win the prize.

  3. archana raghuram Says:

    Good to know that. I think Nobel Prize is one of those rare institutions that endured so well, long after the death of its founder and still stays true to its founding principles.

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