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On a wing and a prayer

The thrush is a very shy bird. He is a great singer and he comes near to houses to pick up tunes from the radio and the television. He is badly equipped for survival in a long cold spell. When the thaw comes, you will never find a dead blackbird, but along by the hedges you will find many thrushes. And yet, happily, the species survives. It is possible that they hatch out more eggs than they would in fine weather. This is nature's way of compensating.

The dipper is seldom seen. He isn't a shy bird but unless you are in the habit of looking over bridges (people in cars are not) you will rarely see him. He likes the concrete floors that are put down to save bridges from erosion. There the water is shallow and he is at home. Where there is no concrete floor he perches on rocks in midstream and dives down for so long that you think he will not return but he always does. He is a great underwater swimmer, amazing for a small bird. He is only a little bigger than a sparrow. His plumage is brown with some white in the front. He sings occasionally when he is talking to his partner. They usually hunt in pairs.

The hedge sparrow is no relation to the common sparrow. He is a much bigger bird, about the size of a blackbird. He is a rare creature in his habits, possibly unique. In the mating season he doesn't chase away rivals. Indeed he allows some of them to mate with his partner. When the time comes and he is ready himself, he chases them all away. And then he cleans out his partner's body so that he is certain that he will be the father of the new clutch.

The common sparrow is a bird we all love. Whenever you arrive in a city away from home, he is there in numbers to greet you. He is the universal citizen. And he has great powers of survival. I saw this for myself one day in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Sitting on a park bench in the square, I was surrounded immediately by a flock of sparrows. When they had finished the crumbs brought to them by me, they didn't go away.

I soon knew why. In the almost invisible interstices between the tiles the sparrows were digging down and bringing up creatures no bigger than threads.

The pigeon is a bird that most people love. This wasn't true of Paris about 1950. The people who liked wearing good clothes going to work were annoyed by their penchant for aerial bombardment and they begged the City Council to do something about it. And so one Monday the City Council spread sleeping powder in their feeding places.

Next day they gathered up the drowsy birds and sent them in unmarked vans to the French Alps. Back in Paris the middle classes were very happy. They had four days of freedom from the menace in the air. Then one Friday evening the skies darkened over the Upper Seine and Montmartre and the Rue Garnier and other parts of Paris. The pigeons were back. It was a victory for nature.

There was a time when the grouse was part of our landscape or at least of our bogscape. They were banished so that landlords had more room for their sheep. We hardly ever hear or see a grouse now but pheasants are as common as ever. They increase and decrease according to the amount of tillage. Some years ago a gun club in the Irish midlands had a brilliant idea: they introduced pheasant eggs from Mexico. The eggs hatched out but the scheme didn't work: the new birds wouldn't fly -- they took to the ground and so there was no shooting. Worse was to come -- the new birds were aggressive and they frightened people. And so the brilliant idea turned out a total failure.

Of all the birds that come here from bad weather in Scandinavia, the redwing thrush is the most welcome -- his colouring brightens our landscape. The other visitors we hardly notice. And when they come we know that the weather is very bitter in Scandinavia and for some months will be cold here too.


The bird that we call the crow is not a crow -- he is a rook. There are hardly any crows in this part of Ireland but there are plenty of rooks. They are great survivors. It is believed that they can count: if five men go into a shed and only four come out the rooks will know that there is still a man to come out and when he comes out, they will go back about their business.

We had a dog one time whose bread was stolen in the bog while he slept and ever after he had an obsession about rooks. He would attack them at every field that we passed by going to the bog but he never got near any one of them. They used to laugh at him and fly away.

The wren is a great survivor and, because he is so small, he can nest in tiny nooks and crannies and thus avoid the cold. The wren chickens are the smallest bird you ever saw. They are often as many as 10 in a clutch and they will be with us forever.

The corncrake is now only a memory. Since silage came, there is hardly any meadowing. He doesn't keep us awake in summer nights.

In Ireland we have a wonderful variety of birdlife and we should appreciate it.

Fogra: Ireland's display against Italy delighted me. Fogra eile: My very best wishes go to Feidhlim Kelly and all the thousands preparing for the Dublin City Marathon