When There Were Birds
Authors Roy and Lesley Adkins have given several library talks at Wokingham, and they are looking forward to a time when in-person events get back to normal. Meanwhile, they are pleased to share some details about their latest book.
When There were Birds: The forgotten history of our connections was published on Armistice Day, a fitting date because birds have played such a key role in many aspects of warfare, from flight feathers on medieval arrows to pigeons carrying messages in both world wars. The soldiers took great solace in seeing and hearing birds, and in the First World War one soldier wrote in a letter: “If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be.”
We were working on this book when the pandemic struck, and it was a huge comfort to immerse ourselves in the research and writing. We were constantly astonished at the incredible stories we unearthed and pieced together, highlighting the role played by birds throughout the history of Britain and further afield. We are historians and archaeologists, and while ornithologists and birders will hopefully find the book fascinating, it is aimed at a much broader readership, with no bird knowledge required! There is obviously much detail about birds and the changing landscape, but it is primarily a forgotten story that shines a light on numerous topics including literature, language, religion, superstition, folklore, witchcraft, medicine, cookery, falconry, cockfighting, shooting, pets, agriculture, the feather industry, the railways, weather forecasts, warfare and so much more.
To our surprise, we found that there is hardly any aspect of life that has not been touched by birds at some point in our history. The individual stories are from far and wide, and one small incident at Windsor in the early years of the 19th century was the shooting of two whooper swans. These large white swans would have been winter visitors from Iceland, though killing them is now illegal. One was made into soup, but had perhaps been kept a little too long before cooking, because most of those who consumed the soup were afflicted by food poisoning.
Superstitions relating to birds played a large part in everyone’s lives, and magpies were particularly feared as harbingers of death and disaster. In 1815 in Northumberland, a single magpie kept flying across the path of some quarrymen who were walking to work. When the hat of one man was nearly knocked off, his anxious colleagues urged him to go home, but he refused and was killed by a falling rock later that morning. Right across the country, a fortune-telling rhyme relating to magpies was common, which usually began as “one for sorrow, two for mirth”, though it varied from district to district. Half a century later, two gentlemen were walking along a quiet road a few miles north-west of Wokingham. Ahead of them, a lone country fellow, probably an agricultural labourer, suddenly pulled off his hat and made a bow. One gentleman was puzzled, but his companion explained that a single magpie had just flown in front of the labourer, who had shown respect to the bird in this way to avert a possible disaster.
We are thrilled to have received excellent reviews, such as the Daily Mail book of the week (“a marvellously original slice of social history”), the Sunday Times (“The facts and folklore of birdlife … are dissected in admirable detail”), The Spectator (“descriptions of a British landscape so vivid you feel you almost remember it”), and BBC Countryfile Magazine (“a beautiful, yet original portrait of the integral role played by birds throughout history”). That particular review very kindly added: “Readers, flock to this tome”.
When There Were Birds: The forgotten history of our connections is published by Little, Brown in hardback, as an e-book and (in March) as an audiobook. More information is available on http://www.adkinshistory.com
Magpies (left) and rooks (right) from J.E. Harting The ornithology of Shakespeare (1871)