Caught by the River

Off-piste: The Birdman of Academia

12th August 2011

by Joe Moran

“Your blinded eyes, worst foes to you / Ne’er see the good which sparrows do.” Until recently, John Clare’s words might have been addressed to me. Growing up in the countryside taught me nothing about birds. In my defence, my native patch of the Peak District is 1000 feet above sea level and thus a fairly depopulated avian landscape – although this would carry more weight if Mark Cocker, one of Britain’s most distinguished birders, had not grown up just a few miles down the road.

Still, better late than never. My office at work overlooks a well-tended lawn, surrounded by trees and shrubbery, which is largely unused by staff or students – perfect for birds who can stretch their wings on the grass and then hide from predators in the scrub. So I have become an office-window birdwatcher, the sort of well-meaning ignoramus that serious birders call a “robin stroker”. In quiet moments, when I should be doing normal work displacement activities like experimenting with fonts on my computer, I have been considering the birds.

Birdwatching is probably the most common form of amateur scholarship. The last few decades have seen a big rise in popular interest in birds in Britain, a growth reflected in the soaring membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, from 10,000 in 1960 to over a million today. In France, the equivalent of the RSPB, the LPO (La Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux) has a measly 38,000 members.

The tribal subcultures of twitchers place a high value on seeking out the unusual and exotic, like heading off on a tip-off to the Isles of Scilly just to see a cream-coloured courser. But thanks partly to TV programmes like Springwatch and Autumnwatch, there is a growing popular interest in the more mundane, familiar aspects of nature. We are now more aware of the importance of the dogged, unlovely patches of scrubland that the nature writer Richard Mabey calls the “unofficial countryside” and which are ecologically valuable precisely because they are so unnoticed and untouched. Bird numbers in Britain have been declining rapidly in recent years for numerous reasons, from today’s over-manicured gardens to the replacement of hedgerowed fields with the monocultural prairies of agribusiness. It is the bogstandard bits of greenery, like the one outside my office window, to which the birds will return.

Many of the writers responsible for the recent resurgence in British nature writing focus on our everyday, parochial relationships with the natural world. Mark Cocker’s widely acclaimed Crow Country, for example, is about a creature overlooked and even reviled throughout history for its commonness and ugliness. As a historian of the quotidian, I’ve long been interested in discovering the exotic in the ordinary, and it can’t be a coincidence that the founder of Mass-Observation and one of the great anthropologists of the everyday, Tom Harrisson, started out as a birdwatcher, organising the first ever nationwide census of the great crested grebe while still at Harrow. “Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life,” writes the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie in her book of nature writing, Findings. “I listen. During a lull in the traffic: oyster-catchers; in the school-playground, sparrows … The birds live at the edge of my life.”

Birds live at the edge of my life too. I like the idea of them co-existing with us humans, slotting into our routines, leading parallel but also autonomous lives – like the hawks who hover above the unpesticided motorway verges looking for rodents, or the collared doves who use TV aerials as convenient perches. (In Germany, this bird is known as the Fernsehtaube or ‘television dove”.) I seem to be the only living thing that notices the birds here, except for the school cat, a black tom hired to catch the mice in the basement who prowls around looking like he wouldn’t mind a few sparrows for afters. I have seen birds flapping about right next to students gossiping on the terrace directly below my office window, and neither species was shaken out of its benign indifference of the other.

In fact, the emigrations and immigrations of these two species – birds and students – mark out the reassuring ebbs and flows of my year. Beginning with the chiffchaffs in mid-March, the half-year birds arrive gradually over a period of about ten weeks. Given that they have exchanged swooping round giraffes in tropical Africa for this little patch of Liverpudlian savanna under a murky sky, they seem surprisingly sanguine about their change of circumstances. Naturalists set their mental and biological clocks by these arrivals. Richard Mabey gets nervous each year until the swifts arrive in May, the last of our summer visitors, and in his book Nature Cure, he writes of how his renewed interest in their arrival signals the end of a long period of depression. “They’ve made it again,” writes Ted Hughes in similar vein in his poem “Swifts”. “Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s / Still waking refreshed, our summer’s / Still all to come – “ I have found something of the same comforting inexorability in the rhythm of academic semesters. In the summer it’s deathly quiet: there’s a breathless hush in the common room, and the sound of tumbleweed in the corridors. And then, just as our avian guests are heading back across the Mediterranean, the students return in a big wave, laughing and hugging each other and screeching like swifts returning from Africa.

I am no good at identifying birds (students I also sometimes have a problem with). Dedicated birders swear they can spot a bird from its “jizz” – a word of uncertain origin, but some think it derives from aircraft recognition techniques in the Second World War and is short for “general impression, size and shape” – which means they can tell you the species even if it’s just a blur flying past them or a silhouette in the dusk. But there are still lots of small, buff-coloured birds that look and sound very alike. Even birders have trouble telling them apart, which is why they dismiss them as LBJs (little brown jobs). There seem to be a lot of LBJs outside my window, but perhaps that is because I have some undiagnosed form of bird dyslexia, which means that the distinguishing marks of plumage, shape and song refuse to stick in my head and even quite different varieties merge into one.

So I notice the obvious ones, the avian A-listers. I now see why robins, wrens and blackbirds feature so prominently in literature, augury and folklore – because they look and sound so indisputably like themselves. The same goes for the overweight magpie here who, looking every inch the school bully, struts around on the lawn, scaring off the smaller birds as if he came straight out of central casting; and the pied wagtails who, living up to their reputation as nature’s freeloaders, trot cheekily about on the terrace in search of stray food and even hang round our underground car park, hopping on to the car radiators to pick off the insects.

In the evenings when I am working late in my office and there is hardly anyone else in the building, there is a bird cacophony, a twilight chorus out of which I can only make out the ear-piercing trill of the wren and the sprechgesang of the chiffchaff. And then autumn brings an eerie silence, apart from the manic laughter of the herring gulls and the prehistoric-sounding caw of the crows. I find in these noises a strangely comforting echo of my own activities. While the birds are out there singing, I am usually in my office making my own more subdued sounds, tapping out words that will be read by just a few people if I am lucky. Whatever reason birds might have to burst into song – territorial demarcation, sexual display or sheer exuberance – we can be fairly sure they are not trying to strike up a conversation. They don’t particularly care what other birds are saying; they just want to make themselves heard. When I am struggling with a piece of writing, I have often wondered if I am just like a little bird warbling away to myself while no one is listening because they are too busy warbling themselves.

In his book Birdscapes, Jeremy Mynott points out that birds have greater “temporal resolution” than humans in discriminating between sounds, allowing them to register time differences of up to two milliseconds, so that if you slow down birdsong to human speed, you hear all kinds of delicate modulations that our tin ears normally miss. But then it no longer sounds remotely attractive or musical. Since I found this out, I have been wondering whether, if you could just tune into the right frequency with the optimum amount of temporal resolution, the strange noises that academics to make each other might sound as beautiful as birdsong. After all, “jargon”, a word often attached pejoratively to academic speech and writing, comes from the French for the inarticulate chattering of birds.

Less speculatively, I have come to see birdwatching as an enviable model of a scholarly community. Birdwatching developed almost entirely separately from academic ornithology and birders, like trainspotters, are still occasionally caricatured as sartorially challenged, solitary males with poor social skills. Yet birdwatching is a world both spontaneously communal and good-naturedly competitive, with no formal hierarchies but a strong emphasis on credibility and peer approval. As Mark Cocker writes in his book Birders: Tales of a Tribe, there is “a nebulous, shifting, collective judgment on our birding abilities, which acts as a type of rank, file and serial number within the tribe”. The “string” – the person who makes up sightings of birds, either through self-delusion or the dishonest reaching after fame – is as swiftly ostracised as the academic plagiarist.

The new managerialist approaches to universities, which emphasise the pursuit of greater productivity and growth aligned to abstract notions of excellence, assume that what drives us are “rational” incentives like the desire for individual preferment, the coveting of higher positions in league tables and other markers of competitive prestige. The self-generating, self-policing scholarly networks of birdwatching suggest otherwise – that what motivates us most of all, apart from curiosity about the world, are these webs of informal mutual support and the desire for the respect and love of the people around us.

As academics we’re encouraged to hive off research, to see it as an entirely distinct activity, so we guard the time we have allotted to it jealously and are urged to apply for grants that will buy us out of the other things we do. Birding is a more holistic endeavour. Most birders are too busy watching birds to write books but when they do – like Richard Mabey’s lovely essay on the nightingale, Whistling in the Dark, or Cocker’s Crow Country – they are like beautiful icebergs: you get the sense that they are simply the exposed tip of something much bigger, a great collective project of which a book is only one articulation.

My interest in birds will never be remotely scholarly, but I can do my bit; I can watch my little patch of earth. Except that I have just heard we are being moved out of our building, which the university is vacating to move to other premises. The blackbirds and magpies on the lawn have not been consulted about the university’s accommodation strategy. Already I am wondering if, in my new office, I will have a window that looks out on to birds.

Still, it’s been fun while it lasts, with the odd moment of revelation. I was even pretty sure, late one afternoon, that I had caught the most famous songbird of all. That wonderfully impromptu delivery, followed by those meaningful silences, seemed unmistakable. Of course I knew this bird is never seen in the frozen north and is hardly even seen in the warm south anymore. Like Judy Campbell strolling through Berkeley Square in the wartime blackout, I must have mistaken it for a virtuoso robin or a blackbird with a stammer. But for the briefest of moments I thought – in fact, I was perfectly willing to swear – that a nightingale sang outside my office window.

Joe Moran is a reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. He blogs at