Birds, or more specifically eggs and dead birds, had a big impact on me during my formative years. There was the occasion in primary school where I innocently removed an egg from a nest in order to show a teacher. She told me I had caused the death of a baby bird and some thirty years later I recollected that moment in a poem, ‘Egg’ published in a pamphlet called ‘Gopagilla’. I also remember finding a dead blackbird while making a den in a hedge at the age of nine or ten. The bird was very recently dead and I can still picture its delicate feet and oily eye. I did notice live birds too- most memorably the house martins in their mud nests under the eves of a white house in the Leicestershire village of Quorn where I lived.
On family walks in Swithland woods my father had two bird calls he could make by shaping his hands and blowing into them. One was the sound made by a cuckoo, the other, that of an owl. I don’t know what kind of owl it was that my dad was impersonating, but I do remember my mother telling him to stop once when his call received an identical response. I think she was concerned that the respondent would be disappointed when no suitor proved forthcoming, and that the interested party would be left bereft and lonely in the otherwise owl-less wood.
My renewed interest in birds coincided with starting to write poems again in my early thirties. I imagine this had to do in part, with spending more time walking and noticing things, whether that be the beautiful plumage of starlings bathing in puddles by a bus stop in a busy Sheffield high street, or a skylark climbing from a field near the South Downs way. I had no idea, until recently, what an impact birds had and have upon my imagination and how often they appear in my poems. A skim through my first book reveals, scattered through the pages, a kestrel, a blackbird, swans, sparrows, a crane and a wren. The typescript of my new book has a similarly high avian count, this time featuring a heron, cormorant, swan, crows, geese, rooks and a disembodied wing. My knowledge has increased a little, but I am hardly even an apprentice bird-spotter. Both the heron and geese in these poems were spotted in the patch of sky revealed by the office window where I sit writing this, and although I am always thrilled to see hedge sparrows, blackbirds and occasional starling or robin in the small garden behind the house, I’ve been keen for some time to learn something of the birds that frequent the country beyond the village and city where I live and work.
For this reason I was delighted to obtain a copy of Matt Merritt’ s book, ‘A Sky Full of Birds’.
As well as being a poet (see an interview here), Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine. I took the book on holiday with me to the Northumberland coast, one of the great areas in which to see seabirds in the British isles, and it proved to be an educational and entertaining choice for such a trip.
While there I was fortunate to see puffins, cormorants and sand martins, among many other birds I was unable to identify (I have since bought a field guide.) I was also lucky enough to visit the grey seal colony’s by boat, and one evening while walking alone on the rocks below Bamburgh Castle, to catch several glimpses of what I believe was a Minke whale. I was too surprised and slow to capture the whale with my camera.
I am unqualified to write in any meaningful way about these sightings, which is why I was so taken with ‘A Sky Full of Birds’, a book that generously shares great expertise and passion for its subjects without ever alienating the inexpert reader.
Early on, the author makes it clear that he knows that birdwatchers are a strange species, and that their dedication, passion and associated behaviors are likely to appear peculiar to those with a more casual interest. While I was absorbed by the writer’s easy , laconic narration, I was learning; absorbing facts about the astonishing and often overlooked bird-life that inhabits every part of the UK. Each chapter ranges freely and smoothly across historical, anthropological and geographical landscapes, weaving in social and autobiographical detail. The humor is gentle and self-effacing, and the text is punctuated by astonishing flights of description that might be described, in the best sense, as wildly romantic. Unlikely as it may sound, these sections sit beside and segue-way easily into scientific fact and research based evidence. Ecological concerns are raised and are placed in the context of humanity’s historical impact, with triumphs, both accidental and otherwise, being highlighted alongside failures to manage and protect environments, as well as tales of the incredible resilience and adaptability of birds. There are a wealth of facts relating to the origins of bird names, and references to the appearance of various birds in literary and musical works. All this may sound too dense and specialized for those with a casual interest in bird-life. It is not. The author accesses a well of deep knowledge in an entertaining way, managing to convey something of the mystery surrounding many of his subjects and fascination this inspires. Both the scarcity of certain birds and the ubiquitous nature of others are frequent themes, and we discover how the shifting location of populations are effected by the unique geography and micro-climates of the British isles. ‘A Sky Full of Birds’ is a great read. Buy a copy for yourself and another for a friend or relative.
Matt Merritt blogs at Polyolbion.