Tuesday 22 October 2019

A Sparrow’s Life as Sweet as Ours: Paying puffinage and a flock of feathery facts

Wildlife: A Sparrow's Life as Sweet as Ours

Carry Akroyd and John McEwen

Bloomsbury, hardback, 144 pages, €28

A Sparrow's Life as Sweet as Ours by Carry Akroyd and John McEwen
A Sparrow's Life as Sweet as Ours by Carry Akroyd and John McEwen

Puffins can live for more than 30 years, and nest in warrens, which they sometimes share with rabbits. The hatched puffling is fed in the warren for six weeks, then abandoned. Driven by hunger, it walks down to the sea by night, and does not return for two years. Lundy Island, 15 miles from the north Devon coast, named for lunde, the bird's Norse name, runs the world's oldest private postal service, for which puffinage is charged. In September 1984, a puffin was found wandering in Sloane Square, London.

These are among the many diverting facts in John McEwen's delightful new book, a collection of his 'Bird of the Month' columns in The Oldie magazine, vividly and beautifully illustrated by the wildlife artist Carry Akroyd. Swifts sleep on the wing, we learn, as high as two-and-a half-miles above the Earth, and may be entirely airborne until they begin to breed at the age of four; they can live more than 20 years, flying in a lifetime more than 3.5 million miles, at up to 106mph.

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McEwen's enthusiasm makes the spirits soar. "Is there anything more joyful in nature," he asks, "than the heckle and clack of jackdaws, breaking across the sky with the sound of 15 struck snooker balls?" And he has a magpie's appetite for trivia, such as that in 1949 a flock of starlings paused one of Big Ben's 15.5-stone minute hands.

He does not disdain the world of celebrity, informing us that "Tom Cruise, Victoria Beckham et al apparently swear by anti-ageing facials of Japanese nightingale droppings". But he is more inclined to literature, offering, for instance, a masterly analysis of Macbeth's lines, "Light thickens, and the crow/ Makes wing to th'rooky wood": "Macbeth, in crow-like isolation through his crow-like misdeeds, must nonetheless follow his ambition to be king in the gregarious rookery of the world, and thus complete his tragedy."

Charles Dickens kept two pet ravens, one of which "tore up and swallowed the greater part of a wooden staircase". His favourite became the model for "brave Grip", Barnaby's companion in Barnaby Rudge, and inspired Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven'. The ravens at the Tower of London, by the way, have military ID cards and may be dismissed for bad conduct: "In 1986, Raven George was posted to the Welsh Mountain Zoo for destroying TV aerials."

I had dimly realised that "hoodwink", "haggard" and "mews" derive from falconry, but not that it gave us "fed up", "bated breath", "cadge" and "boozer"; nor that the camouflage of the snipe gave the name "sniper" to a hidden marksman, or that "snipe" was a nickname for lawyers, for the length of their bills. Winston Churchill liked a brace of snipe "cold for breakfast, with a pint of port", while fellow British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home contented himself with just the one, "cold, with a poached egg, and tea".

Scholarly and charming, A Sparrow's Life's as Sweet as Ours serves up a feast of anecdotes, quite a few of them featuring Douglas-Home's brothers. Tawny owls can become moribund in extreme cold, and during the war, Henry "The Birdman" Douglas-Home secretly looked after a revived one in Edinburgh's New Club. Eventually he absent-mindedly left his bedroom door ajar, the bird escaped, and "felled a startled colonel in the darkened passage".

Douglas-Home once had one of his BBC outside broadcasts interfered with by his brother William, playwright and practical joker, who hooted into one of his woodland microphones: "The result was considered a masterpiece of bird recording, and thereafter whenever Juliet appeared to Romeo at her window, she did so to the accompaniment of William's hooting."

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