Magazine article The Spectator

Poisoned Spring

Magazine article The Spectator

Poisoned Spring

Article excerpt


by Michael McCarthy

John Murray, £16.99, pp. 256,

ISBN 96781848540637 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655


by Richard Vaughan

Isabelline Books 6, Bellevue, Enys, Penryn TR10 9LB (UK)

Tel. /Fax: (44) (0)1326 373602

e-mail: mikann@beakbook. demon. co. uk £19.95, pp. 228, ISBN 9780955278747

On a May night in 1967, walking home down a Dorset farm track, I counted the song of 13 nightingales. Today in those woods no nightingale is heard. For 40 years I visited a bridge on the Dorset Stour to watch sand martins nesting in the riverbank.

Since 1984 they have vanished. In 2002 I wrote a letter to the Times, headed 'The last cuckoo', to note that for the first time in decades I had not heard the cuckoo arriving on the button (17 April in Dorset, 18 April in Somerset), My letter was not printed.

One of the tragedies of our fast-changing world has been the dramatic decline in the numbers of those migrant birds which since time immemorial have been what Michael McCarthy, in his lovely but heart-tugging book, calls 'the bringers of spring' - the 'great aerial river' of 16 million birds flooding up from Africa between March and May to fill our island with the songs of chiff-chaffs and blackcaps, the aerial displays of swallows and swifts, and that most evocative of all spring sounds, the 'wandering voice' of the cuckoo.

Although Aristotle wrote about migration, as McCarthy deftly recounts it, it is barely a century since we first began to understand the scale and nature of these miraculous wanderings, and since, thanks to the pioneers of ringing, we first grasped how many of the birds we identify with springtime Britain are as much African as British.

McCarthy's theme is twofold: to give us a vivid picture of what we have learned scientifically about the birds themselves, but then beautifully to interweave it with the 'human response', in poetry, in music, in all the devotion given by countless bird-lovers to the sight and sound of these small creatures which add such an extraordinary dimension to our lives.

The book focusses on eight species, each given a delightfully discursive profile, but which he then tracks down with the aid of an expert. Before hearing nightingales in the wilds of Surrey, for instance, he traces what this bird has stood for in European culture right up to Eric Maschwitz's nightingale which never sang in Berkeley Square. He is entranced by the sedge warbler imitating a host of other birds on the Norfolk Broads, conveys how the wood warbler evokes the spirit of those Welsh oak woods which are its last fastness, meets the 'flycatcher gang' who keep a beady eye on every spotted flycatcher sallying across the gardens of a Cotswold village. …

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