Tuesday 16 July 2019

Country Matters: A public whipping for bird thieves

THRUSH FAMILY: Fieldfares are springtime visitors. Photo: Birdwatch Ireland
THRUSH FAMILY: Fieldfares are springtime visitors. Photo: Birdwatch Ireland

Joe Kennedy

Trappers of songbirds for thriving markets got a stark warning from a resident magistrate in Co Meath in the 17th Century: anybody caught trying to capture the "famous goldfinches of Dunshaughlin" would be publicly whipped through the village, and some hours in the stocks would have to be considered.

The Rev Noah Webb was speaking from a position of authority. As well as being on the Bench, he was the local vicar and also Dean of Clonfert. I have not found any information about results.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

Instances of capturing wild birds using nets and a substance called bird-lime (a type of glue), have turned up in living memory in the courts, so whipping or public shame was not entirely successful.

Some easy outlets for this trade were bird markets in cities and towns, usually held on Sundays, and much of the business was quite legitimate as most bird fanciers bred from their own stock for a thriving caged-bird pastime. This is now no more, but I remember magazine picture features on the busy, colourful gatherings.

Goldfinches were among the most sought-after birds, along with linnets, canaries and 'mules' (a canary-finch cross). There is now a popular bird-table seed for finches, which I have been leaving out for a friend who is away. The birds do not reward me with song - in fact, I have not seen any of them, but the food is eaten. It is comforting to know they are still around, as are some linnets.

And, elsewhere, skylarks and other birds of spring, favourites of Brigid, saintly woman of Kildare and Faughart (Co Louth) whose time of year this is. The original Brigid was a pagan goddess of Imbolc, the Celtic season of spring and new life, who became Christianised.

Along the western seaboard, another of 'her' birds gathered in flocks of thousands to shelter in tidal inlets until the winter passed. These oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) are now dispersing back to Scotland, Iceland and northern Europe leaving a handful of breeding pairs. In Connemara they are called giolla Brid, or Brigid's Pages, and their leaving is a herald of spring's arrival.

The black-and-white portly seabird has a stout orange-red bill which is like a powerful chisel used to prise mussels from rocks and split open cockles on one hand, and also has a sensitive tip to probe in the mud and sand for invertebrates. Darkness is no deterrent. The oyster name is American.

Springtime visitors include fieldfares (Turdus pilaris), plump members of the thrush family - I watched a handful in parkland but one reader saw a large flock feeding with redwings (Turdus iliacus) in a coastal field. These birds are migrants from Russia, Scandinavia and Finland and will move to gardens to strip remaining berries from shrubs.

I have watched a tree-creeper (Certhia familiaris) and a pair of wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) in a tattered wild rose bush. No linnets or skylarks, but from one reader, an iPhone image of yellowhammers (Emberiza citronella), 40 of them in a stubble field. Forty! What an amazing sight - and what an enlightened farmer to leave a field where birds might find food a-plenty.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life