Caught by the River

Adventures Among Birds

31st July 2012

by Ceri Levy

In 1913 W.H.Hudson wrote Adventures Among Birds and as we near the centenary of its initial appearance this long lost, out of print book has been re-released as part of Collins Nature Library. Hudson wrote several books on birds and nature but this is probably the most well known. It is a collection of writings and vignettes of encounters that he had within the bird world, experiences shared by a man besotted by birds who was equally as enthralled by the song of a blackbird as the sighting of a rare species. It is a passionate self-portrait of Hudson the bird lover and throughout this tome he makes a good companion to go birding with. There are many tales of wonderment as he watches and is captivated by birds but it is his desire to protect birds that makes me realise that many of the issues that concern me today have been prevalent for a long time.

Hudson, a founder of the RSPB held a deep hatred for the hunting of birds in the name of sport and this rings a particular resonance with me. Hudson’s words on the loss of birds hit home as he berates the treatment of the Passenger Pigeon, and its extirpation “in very recent times without an effort having been made to save it,” seem senseless to him. Perhaps we make more of an effort now to save species from extinction but is it really enough? Man has been both friend and torturer to birds and Hudson highlights the importance of speaking up and speaking out against the outrages committed against nature.

One chapter entitled ‘The Sacred Bird’ talks about the pheasant, which was introduced by the Romans as a food source and is bred to this day for hunters to shoot, kill and perhaps even eat. Hudson paints a dreadful portrait of wild woods being cleared by gamekeepers of all the resident birds in case they cause damage to the pheasant, its food and its habitat.

“Unhappily for England the fashion or craze for this bird became common among landowners in recent times – the desire to make it artificially abundant so that an estate which yielded a dozen or twenty bird a year to the sportsman would be made to yield a thousand. This necessitated the destruction of all the wild life supposed in any way and in any degree to be inimical to the protected species. Worse still, men to police the woods, armed with guns, traps, and poison, were required. Consider what this means – men who are hired to provide a big head of game, privileged to carry a gun day and night all the year round, to shoot just what they please! For who is to look after them on their own ground to see that they do not destroy scheduled species? They must be always shooting something; that is simply a reflex effect of the liberty they have and of the gun in hand. Killing becomes a pleasure to them, and with or without reason or excuse they are always doing it – always adding to the list of creatures to be extirpated, and when these fail adding others.”

Sound familiar? Pheasants may be bred in even higher numbers now. It is big business supporting this luckless creature. Not only is it shot continually, it is also disliked by many nature lovers because it has become a symbol of the bird hunting community and it is the protection of it over everything else that damages so much of our wildlife. I feel sorry for the pheasant.

Recently I have been working with Ghosts of Gone Birds campaigning in Malta against the illegal hunting of migratory species that continues there every spring and autumn. How I would have loved to have taken Hudson with us and have had this advocate for the protection of birds standing by our side as we made our protest known amongst the Maltese hunting community. Hunting today is still a global issue, contributing to dwindling numbers of species, and Malta is merely the tip of an iceberg.

I fear that if Hudson were alive today he would be as agitated for the future of birds as he was in 1913 and possibly more so. It is up to us, the present day generation of bird lovers and conservationists, to fight for our wildlife and continue the work passed on to us by people like Hudson. In this book, his love of birds crackles down the lines of time, and we connect with the lost voice of a champion for birds and he is deservedly heard once more. It is time to remember him and his message. Enjoy the birds but for God’s sake look after them.

Adventures Among Birds is available in the Caught by the River shop for £15.