There are two important events to mention this week - the RSPBs annual bird count to be run this weekend and of course celebrations of the birth of Robert Burns, also tomorrow.
I cannot help but feel that Burns would have keen a keen contributor to the bird count for his poetry is full of all sorts of birds and animals he observed and of course included in his poetry. Burns clearly had an eye for such things but then he lived in an age when people in general were closer to the land than we are today. Indeed, there are times when I think that these days, we live in a world in which we are in many ways isolated from the harsh reality of life, especially on January days.
When Burns bent his back walking behind the horse-drawn plough, he was much more closely connected with the environment compared with today’s ploughmen who sit in their all singing, all dancing modern tractor cabs, in reality, far removed from the environment in which they are working. Not that I’m advocating that a return to tramping behind a horse-pulled plough is the way it should be done now, it’s just worth remembering what being a ploughman once meant.
Some might suggest that Burns spent too much of his time observing things natural which is why he failed as a farmer. It was hard graft in those far-off days and as we all know Burns’ health suffered for it not even reaching his fortieth birthday! Yet in his relatively short life he produced absolutely reams of truly epic poetry. What is apparent in our technical age today is that most of us are insulated from the reality of our countryside, whether we work in it or not. Not only are our modern ploughmen able to ride in their high tech tractors with heating and piped music available at the touch of a button, most of us now live in centrally heated homes with double glazing and all mod cons and, perhaps like the ploughmen, to some degree isolated from the reality as Burns and his contemporaries knew it.
Perhaps too, when Burns was writing about his linties, his mavis, his laverocks and merles, there would have been no need to count the birds for there were probably enough of them to cause little concern about their numbers. Then our landscape would still have had enough wildness about it to satisfy most species of birds. Burns, I’m sure, would have been horrified to think that the likes of curlews and lapwings – his whaups and peewits – would have declined in the way they have in our chemical filled modern landscape.
Now, such activities as the count are necessary because of the serious declines in farmland birds. My own observations might indicate that the summer of 2019 was a pretty good year for many of our birds with good conditions prevailing throughout the breeding season. Now we’ll find out if my observations are born out! Some might ask why are such things important? They are important because if conditions are threatening the existence of our birds, could they also eventually be threatening us? An environment bereft of birds could be an environment in which perhaps we are the next to suffer!
For example, who would have thought that house sparrows would be one of the birds which today are in really serious decline? My own garden is full of these once very commonplace birds and there doesn’t appear to be any decline here! In fact, it is in the environment which over the years has suited them – our towns and cities – where the decline is most marked. Similarly, the ubiquitous starling which is another urbanized bird that is in serious trouble. Apparently, there is also real concern for the greenfinch, one of those birds with which I became familiar as a lad but now these colourful characters are declining alarmingly. Here, we used to be almost overwhelmed by them but in recent years they have become as rare as hen’s teeth. Thankfully, some of these have returned but only in small numbers.
And where have our yellowhammers gone? There was a time when you couldn’t walk one of our local lanes on a summer’s day and fail to hear the famous ‘little bit of bread but no cheese’ ditty – the anthem of that little yellow headed bird. Now those lanes are silent, utterly bereft of that cheery little song. Every winter, I would be visited by a handful of these attractive wee birds but I haven’t seen one now for at least two winters. Yellowhammers feed extensively upon the seeds of weeds which these days have a chemical war waged upon them and a dearth of such food has caused the species to decline alarmingly. In Burns’ day, there would have been no shortage of weeds and one imagines therefore, no shortage of yellowhammers.
The poor old yellowhammer has been abused down the years. Time was when young boys would be encouraged to harry them, find their nests and destroy their eggs. It was known in various parts of Scotland as the yellow yite or the yellow yorling though I doubt if Burns ever used either name in his poetry, However, I am not sufficiently familiar with the immense folio of work produced by the Ayrshire man.
According to the old legend, the yellowhammer drinks a drop of the devil’s blood every May morning as stated in the following verse:- ‘The brock and the toad and the yellow yorling, Tak a drop of the devil’s blood ilka May morning.’ The fact that the yellowhammer’s eggs are covered with scrawl-like markings resulted in the bird being given the pseudonym of ‘scribbling lark’ or ‘writing lark’. Indeed, it was also believed that the name of a future lover could be deduced from such scribbles!
I wonder how Burns would have reacted to the mass feeding of birds that is a characteristic of twenty-first century Britain. As I watch the birds flock to my bird-table, I see robins, wrens, chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches, sparrows, starlings, great spotted woodpeckers, dunnocks, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, collared doves, blackbirds, magpies, crows and sparrowhawks all, bar the latter, eager to take advantage of the seeds, nuts and fat I supply on an almost daily basis. Of these, Burns would not have known of collared doves which didn’t arrive in Britain until the twentieth century.
Recording the birds in your garden will help them in the long run because it is necessary for us to know what the trends in populations are. Only then can we take remedial action to try and redress the balance. It is a very much worthwhile exercise and I’m sure Burns would have approved. So, pencils at the ready