We get used to change, over the years. When I was growing up, a brontosaurus was a dinosaur (or rather, had been a dinosaur – I’m not quite that old). Now it’s just a Victorian palaeontologist’s error, an apatosaurus with the wrong skull glued on. When I was growing up, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were countries, with flags and football teams and postage stamps. Now they’re historical concepts. And when I was growing up, the Bull’s Head was the Winning Post and the Green Dragon was the Red Lion. The world changes – this is a part of life.
But birds – birds don’t change much, surely. There’ll always be a Blue Tit on the peanuts and a Sparrow in the guttering, a Mallard on the canal and a Kestrel by the motorway. Yes, populations rise and fall, species come and go with the seasons, but fundamentally, at bottom, the birds we grew up watching are the same birds we’ll blink at shortsightedly through the windows of our nursing-homes. Surely.
The other day, I came across the bird-book I grew up with: John Gooders’ Field Guide To The Birds of Britain and Ireland. It didn’t look particularly musty or moth-eaten; it wasn’t obviously antique. It was published in 1986, when I was eight. It’s twenty-eight years old. Leafing through it was like looking through a portal into another world.
It was strange to see how much British birds have changed since I was a kid. I’d been aware of ecological change over that time, of course; but I’d never quite shaken off the deep-seated feeling that real transformation is something that only happens in between lifetimes – the question was always, ‘What sort of world are we leaving for our children?’, and never ‘What sort of world are we leaving for me, when I’m thirty-five, or forty, or fifty?’.
I cross-referenced the Gooders book with my newest field-guide, the RSPB Handbook Of British Birds. The most startling thing was how positive many of the changes were. Cranes? Night herons? Common rosefinches? I felt like an old-school fan of a veteran rock group, appalled by johnny-come-lately additions to the original lineup. These exotic birds seem like interlopers, non-canonical somehow, not proper British birds – but still, I grudgingly have to admit, they don’t half improve the show.
Then there are the maps, the outlines of Britain with reassuring splotches of green (residents), yellow (breeding birds), blue (winter visitors) and shifty grey (vagrants). Sometimes, hearteningly, the splotches have got bigger: just look what’s happened to the Red Kite’s mid-Wales speck of green since 1986. For other birds – the Cirl Bunting, say – the colour has shrunk to almost nothing.
Others have stayed pretty much the same. I’m faintly reassured to find that the complete absence of the Tawny Owl in Ireland is real and was not, as I had long suspected, due to an error at the printer’s when my 1986 guide was going to press.
Again, I know that the simplified maps mask the reality of species decline among British birds. ‘Widespread’ can mean ‘thinly spread’ – and, in a distressingly large number of cases, that’s exactly what it does mean.
Hardly any species have vanished altogether (though whither Lady Amherst’s Pheasant?). But it struck me quite forcibly that even my newest book is a few years old now – and that the field guides published in 2014 will find no place for one of the species that got me excited about birds in the first place. The Ruddy Duck – a pair of which were resident at my local patch throughout my childhood – has now pretty much been exterminated by conservationists.
These changes in UK ecology didn’t discombobulate me as much as they might have.
I’m a northerner; I’m used to existing in a sort of birding parallel universe. Birds considered fundamental to and emblematic of the British countryside – Cuckoo, Nightingale, Turtle Dove – have always been in short supply in my corner of Britain.
(and nor does industrial West Yorkshire have any near equivalent to Scotland’s iconic Crested Tit, Capercaillie or Scottish Crossbill).
I know exactly how a young Irish birder might feel to be told that owls go ‘to-whit, to-whoo’.
The things that really threw me in cross-referencing the field guides were not the real-world changes but the stuff that only a true birdbook geek, the type who, as Charles Waterton put it in the 19th century, ‘spends more time in books than in bogs’, might notice.
First, the (pecking) order was all out of whack. Every birdbook I grew up with started with Divers (Gaviidae). I never knew why this was, but was sure that there was a perfectly good reason for it, and understood that this was The Way Of Things. On seeing that the Divers are no longer Britain’s first family – usurped by the Swans in my latest guide – I was, frankly, shaken. I’m sure there are perfectly good reasons for putting the Swans first. That doesn’t make it right. And the natural order has been shuffled elsewhere, too: no longer do the game-birds lie down with the raptors, as they always did, but instead are separated by a buffer zone of grebes and herons. Comfortingly, though, the homely buntings still bring up the rear.
Second, the names have changed. The birds now have international names; they have all become ‘European’ or – how perfectly ghastly! – ‘common’. The Puffin is Atlantic and the Kittiwake is black-legged. The Knot has turned red. What was once Slavonian has become horned and what was Ring-necked has become rose-ringed. I can see the sense of it all, of course – I can even, if I squint my eyes, see that it’s an improvement – but a world I grew up with has been re-drawn, re-mapped, and I can’t help feeling a little lost.
At least there’s the Latin. There’s always the Latin. Latin never changes – except that, oh look, it all has. Well, not all of it; in fact, only a small part of it, but enough to show me that another thing I thought unalterable has been altered. The Blue Tit is no more – or, rather, Parus caeruleus is dead, long live Cyanistes caeruleus. Its relations – once a neat set of Paruses that I could recite like a litany, cristatus, montanus, palustris, ater – are splintered into a confusing mess of Lopphophaneses and Periparuses and Poeciles. It’s a sensible move, I’m sure. Taxonomists know best.
It’s healthy to be reminded that nothing – not ecology, not language, not even Latin – stands still. It’s good to get a little perspective. And when you’ve got a little perspective, there’s only one thing to do: get more perspective. I dug out some books that are even older than I am.
My 1952 field guide starts with the Divers, as is right and proper – but then everything gets a bit unexpected. The Crane is there – as is the Lesser Kestrel and the Gyrfalcon, the Upland Sandpiper and the White-rumped Sandpiper, the Rustic Bunting and the Little Bunting. Oh, and the Flamingo.
My 1910 field guide starts with the Mistle Thrush. Wagtails come in a bewildering array of flavours (the book treats as species what we would now consider races). The Buzzard is vulgaris instead of buteo. There are Great Snipes and Pratincoles. There is no Collared Dove, Mandarin or Ruddy Duck.
The point here isn’t solely about ecological change. Species do come and go, but I realise that the Great Snipe, say, was a rarity even in 1910, and I’m not under the impression that the Flamingo was an everyday sight along Britain’s canals in 1952. What changes is the way in which birds are seen, recorded, written about, even thought about. What’s a ‘British’ bird? It’s a subjective question, however you look at it. Taxonomy isn’t an exact science. Each of us lives in our own world of birds, built up from where we live, when we live, what we care about – and, in a strange way, even what field-guide we refer to.
Not that the Blue Tit on the peanuts gives a damn whether it’s called Parus or Cyanistes, any more than the Flamingo cares whether I think it’s British or not or the Great Northern Diver loses sleep over where it’s listed in a field-guide. Birds just go on being birds.