Academic journal article Environment and History

Birds in Portuguese Literature

Academic journal article Environment and History

Birds in Portuguese Literature

Article excerpt


Birds are emblematic natural elements of landscapes. Readily noticeable and appreciated due to their songs and flight, they have been thoroughly used as components of literary scenarios. This paper analyses their representations in a broad corpus (144 writings by 67 writers) since the nineteenth century, divided in three time-periods. It aims to understand which wild birds are represented in Portuguese literature, how those representations prevail over time, and what literary texts reveal about distribution and abundance of the birds mentioned, linked to major environmental and landscape changes. Based on common names, 112 taxonomic units are identified, corresponding to either one species, species of the same genera or family or a higher taxon. In addition, historical distribution and abundance are extracted from literary texts and compared with data from biological sources, such as ornithological reports, guides, atlas and red data books. We conclude that bird representations are frequent and diversified in terms of taxonomic units, and this richness tends to prevail over time. The most prolific wild bird representations are linked to the writers' own experiences of the Portuguese countryside during their childhood and youth. It is particularly significant in the writers from the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, with a rural origin, like most of the population. Despite landscape and social changes through time, contemporary literature still reveals a sound knowledge of birds and a proximity and appreciation of nature, which can be explained by the rural ancestry of some current writers, as a kind of countryside nostalgia, and/or the embodiment of an environmental discourse of wildlife preservation.


Ecological history, Portuguese literature, birds


Birding in literature requires similar attention to birding in the field, and generates perhaps a similar fascination and pleasure. Bird literary descriptions combine objective and subjective dimensions (like the writers' field notes and experiences of birding) that can be a valuable testimony of natural and cultural landscape features, as well as a repository of the environmental imagination of a particular time and space. Such descriptions can be used to list species, and analyse how their biological and ecological characteristics are depicted, as well as cultural perceptions. In this regard, descriptions can also be considered a way to think about the tangible and intangible relationships between humans and the more-than-human world throughout time.

Previous studies on this topic include the canonical work Birds in Literature. (1) It explores how attributes that make birds so familiar--their flight and song--are described, and their underlying meanings. Examples come primarily from American and British poetry and prose from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although Greco-Roman writers are also cited.

Years later, John Rowlett analysed the relationship between ornithological knowledge and literary understanding. The author explores the origins of British literary ecocriticism, focusing on the analysis of three poems from the late eighteenth century, where sound ornithological knowledge was applied. For him, although 'the class Aves composes an especially rewarding group of natural creatures to inquire into', it has not yet been the main focus of literary criticism. (2)

Thomas Gannon is the author of an extensive cross-cultural transatlantic study about how poets and nature writers in Britain and Native America have incorporated birds into their writings. (3) Jeremy Mynott, in turn, analyses how birds are represented and experienced, by focusing on their naming and classification, their imaginative and emotional role, and cultural representations (4).

Recently, Sabine Kim sheds light on the poetics of bird watching as a result of an embodied practice. …

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