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Open Mic: Mark Cocker on Birds and People

At the Mic: Mark Cocker

Have you heard of that Purple Martin tower at Lake Charles in Louisiana? When it was erected to commemorate the serving Vietnam vets it had accommodation for 2,640 pairs of birds. Imagine it for a moment – all those flashes of purple-glossed royal blue all chortling and swooping back and forth into that labyrinth of holes. I’d love to see it. It’s probably the largest manmade bird residence in the world.

But have you ever thought why we do it? In fact why do so many of us put out artificial nests for birds? I know someone will point out that purple martins can eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day and that having these birds around is the best form of insecticide you could imagine.

Yet is that really why it happens? Reflect a little further about the American habit of housing Purple Martins. Now virtually the whole species – 6 million birds in about a million colonies – is a rent-free tenant of the American people. Why is that?

The thing that makes me think it’s very little to do with mosquitoes and everything to do with a love of swallows is that the American behaviour is replicated worldwide. Across the whole of Europe people have a special relationship with their own hirundine species, the Barn Swallow. That’s not only because it is the continent’s classic symbol of spring and summer, but also because Europeans love to have these birds nesting in or around their houses.

I know because I asked people. In Estonia it’s the national bird. In Bulgaria I was told by a local that ‘people believe that swallows bring happiness and good luck’. In Croatia there’s a saying that ‘a swallows nest makes a house into a home.’ In Britain I was told a story by a family that their granny’s favorite bird was a swallow, and before she died she said she’d like to be reincarnated as a swallow. Every spring at that farm the lucky person who spots the first swallow of the year sends a text to all the other family members. It says simply: ‘Granny’s back.’

The thing that makes me think that the American purple martin habit is truly something deep-seated in all of us is that the same kinds of stories recur in Africa. In Tanzania for instance the presence of breeding swallows near the house is a sign that there will not only be little swallow chicks on the way, but human chicks will follow indoors. And then finally I’ll tell you a story I got from Argentina. These tough young workmen refused to finish the work on an outdoor porch until the Southern Martins nesting near the lights had finished breeding.

The truth seems to be that we all love swallows. In fact it’s so universal and deep-rooted in humankind it starts to look like something hardwired into our nervous systems.

These stories were gathered as apart of a seven-year project called Birds and People. It was an attempt to map all the various ways that these two kinds of organism interact with one another. It took 2,276 days to ask the world what it thought about birds and to collect all the stories we were told. In the end 650 people in 81 countries gave us their experience and testimony. It then took the photographer David Tipling eight years and 39 countries to assemble a breathtaking collection of images illustrating such bird-human interactions. And finally it took me 430,000 words to assemble a worldwide account of our relationship with birds. The book Birds and People (Random House) has been recently released in the US.

What we found is that birds affect and influence all societies and they have impact through the full 360 degrees of human experience. The chicken, for example, is the single biggest source of protein for al humanity. Every year we eat around 90 million tones of chicken meat and 57 million tones of eggs. Every hour in America people eat more than a million birds. Most of them pass their short lives on a space equivalent to an A4 sheet of paper.

Some species are practical and functional and are part of the very bedrock of the human diet and of the world economy. Yet others are simply decorative and beautiful like the purple martin or the barn swallow. Yet in these seemingly lesser roles we should recall an aphorism of the great French novelist Victor Hugo: ‘The beautiful is just as useful as the useful.’

Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) at dawn Bosque del Apache New Mexico USA winter

The extraordinary colors of birds and the enveloping soundtrack of their songs sustain and nourish us in ways that we cannot easily articulate or measure. They reinforce our feelings of well being, they inspire creativity, they give shape to our sense of the seasons, they inform our notions of place. Very often birds serve as key ambassadors in our entire relationship with the whole of nature.

People somehow find it easy to accord social and economic value to a physical monument, such as a cathedral or a great painting. Governments invariably assume that these human artefacts must be preserved at all cost. However we find it much more challenging to view the living world as equally precious and irreplaceable. Yet, in truth, the biosphere – the breathing skin that cloaks the Earth and of which birds are such a singularly beautiful and integral part – is our real wealth.

The book is not in any strict sense an environmental book but it does attempt to assert that biological loss carries with it an implicit cultural shrinkage that we invariably discount and overlook. Yet when birds are gone we lose all that they mean and all that they allow us to express. When they go we lose the very stuff that informs the human heart. Species extinction, the silent crisis so dwarfed now by our endless concern for carbon and climate change, is not just a process that affects other creatures in their environments. Species loss is our loss. It strips away what makes us human.

Rufous-tailed and Booted-racquettail Hummingbirds around feeder Ecuador

Bird and People comments obliquely upon a fault line that is opening now in human experience. One could call it the ‘ipod effect’: that closing down of the human senses as people engage more and more with their treasured electronica – televisions, tablets, computers, smart phones etc.  Birds and People asserts the centrality of the living and of lived experience over their digitized simulacra.

It asks that we recall, when the astro-physicists bid us spend billions on space programs reaching for the stars, that the planet they’re all really looking for is just like the one beneath our feet. And the kryptonite they all seek is actually all around us. It’s called life – that miraculous light-loving fabric that clothes us in all its astonishing diversity. I can think of few better symbols for all that living glory with which we share this planet than a bird in flight. A bird, say, like the Purple Martin.

–=====–

Mark Cocker is the author of the acclaimed book, Birds & People (Random House UK), which expertly explores humankinds relationship to birds. With stunning photographs by David Tipling, the book includes contributions from more than 650 bird enthusiasts worldwide. Mark has previously written nine other books, including works of biography, history, literary criticism and memoir. He is also a naturalist and environmental activist who regularly writes on nature and wildlife for The Guardian and a variety of other media. Birds & People is available at bookstores nationwide, at www.ipgbook.com, and online wherever books are sold.

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]