Words on the wing

How poets write about birds


Image and info at http://cup.columbia.edu/book/bright-wings/9780231150842

Why poets write about birds

‘What is that draws poets to birds? And why have so many turned to them at critical points in their own writing? The collective nouns we all remember from childhood speak of language’s innate fascination with all things avian: a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of fowls. And it’s no coincidence we afford them the most poetic collective nouns: right from the birth of literature birds have been present…’

Read Adam O’Riordan’s article at http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/apr/28/poets-birds-poetry


Portrait of Keats listening to the nightingale by Joseph Severn, c.1845, image at wikipedia.org

A murmuration of starlings


Defining Zugunruhe

From the German ‘zug’, meaning movement or migration and ‘unruhe’, meaning anxiety, unrest; used by German and English speakers to describe ‘migratory restlessness’, especially in birds.

Gathering before the flight from Roebuck Bay, Western Australia

Gathering before the flight from Roebuck Bay, Western Australia

Gathering before the flight from Heathrow

Gathering before the flight from London Heathrow

Photos Ricki Coughlan/Broome Bird Observatory; David Levene/theguardian.com

Describing Zugunruhe

‘…the evening, the night and the morning, [it is] as if they feel in themselves then something I do not know what which obliges them to leave the place where they are…And it is this instinct and inner guide that makes them fly by a favourable wind directly to the place where they want to go.’

from Traité du Rossignol (A Treatise on the Nightingale), Anon, 1707. Quoted in The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, Tim Birkhead, Bloomsbury (2008)

Observing Zugunruhe

Annual migration of red crabs, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean

Annual migration of red crabs, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, Australia

Asylum seekers on board SS Tampa, heading from Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, Austraiia

Asylum seekers on board MV Tampa, heading for Christmas Island, Indian Ocean, Australia 2001

Migrants arriving in Australia 1954

Migrants arriving in Australia 1954

Photos: Allison K Shaw/National Geographic; uncredited/www.abc.net.au; uncredited/Australian National Archives

Articulating Zugunruhe

‘…is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,

and a better life, and complete comprehension

of both at last, and immediately..?’

 from Arrival at Santos by Elizabeth Bishop


FAMILY Scolopacidae:

‘The whimbrels, sea curlews, godwits, sandpipers, turnstones, dowitchers, snipes, knots, stints, phalaropes etc, a large group of small to moderately large shorebirds, mainly breeding in cooler parts of the northern hemisphere and wintering on southern hemisphere coasts, wetlands and grassy plains…’

…definition from the Handbook of Western Australian Birds Volume I, RE Johnstone & GM Storr, WA Museum 1998

Sandpiper/Burung kedidi. From the Farquhar Collection 1803-1818, National Museum of Singapore

Sandpiper/Burung kedidi

An illustration from Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection, Malay Peninsula 1803-1818 (Editions Didier Millet & National Museum of Singapore, 2010)

Sandpiper by Elizabeth Bishop

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

Listen to the poem here (an audio-link should appear but can be a bit erratic):

In for the long-haul:

Annually the red-necked stint (about 35 grams) migrates twice as far as a humpback whale (about 35,000 kilograms),  despite being one millionth of its size…

…noted in Shorebirds 2020 Newsletter, December 2013, http://www.birdlife.org.au/projects/shorebirds-2020

Red-necked stint migration route. Image courtesy Nrg800 via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-necked stint migration route

Red-necked stint. Image courtesy JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-necked stint

Images courtesy Nrg800 and JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

In-flight reading #I

wisdom birds red small

This beautiful book! Especially the story of Peter – the domesticated Dutch red knot – in the chapter ‘Disappearing Fantasies: The Emergence of Migration‘.

Also: The Snow Geese by William Fiennes; Elizabeth Bishop’s collection of poems Questions of Travel; articles about magnetism and (separately, but connected) push/pull factors; Sujata Bhatt’s poem The One Who Goes Away; Birds of Thailand by Craig Robson; the International Women’s Development Agency’s Annual Report 2013 on working with groups of Palaung, Karen and Shan women on the Thai-Burma border.