This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
I’m leaping back in time again to do a post about The Bird-Life of London. The book is really more of a guidebook, more so than some of the other books in this series. But I felt it was worth dipping into because there is such a huge time gap between the book before it, Birds in London by W.H. Hudson (1898) and the book after it, The Murmur of Wings by Leonard Dubkin (1944).
In the introduction to The Bird-Life of London Dixon outlines his motivations for writing the book. He mentions that the study of nature now occupies a prominent place in the educational course of the Council’s elementary schools. However, Dixon feels that many of the text books on this topic are of a low-quality and full of errors. He therefore hopes that his book will encourage further study of London’s birds and that it will help teacher’s teaching Nature-studies in the city’s elementary schools.
Dixon makes some suggestions for the nature curriculum. Firstly, he emphasises that schools should focus their attention on birds that can be found in the school’s district. The reason he gives is that this will demonstrate how certain birds inhabit certain localities; why they do so; how they do so. But Dixon is also championing the local and encouraging teachers to teach their students about the birds they might see whilst playing on the street or walking to school – he is championing a sense of attachment to place and local knowledge.
Dixon also mentions the “school museum”, which he says is all too often a mere cupboard full of odds and ends and rubbish of no use whatever from an educational point of view. This reminds me of an article by Tim Dee published in the New York Times a few years ago. The article is about the now extinct practice of having a nature table in primary school classrooms. It is about how this loss links to the wider losses of wild space and biodiversity that we are now experiencing and our separation and alienation from nature.
Dee details the kinds of items that found their way onto the nature tables of his childhood: …furry catkins in jam jars, bunches of wilting bluebells, smooth chalk pebbles and knuckle-bone flints. But these days such items would be considered dirty, perhaps dangerous, and potentially illegal.
Not only has the nature table been banished from classrooms, but we have banished nature from our language (there was a bit of a furor a few years ago when the OUP published a new edition of their Oxford Junior Dictionary that removed certain nature words and added in more technology oriented words), from our everyday lives, and into protected areas. For Dee these protected areas, as well-intentioned and laudable as they are, are another means of cutting us off from nature, or at least mediating our experience of it through interpretive signs, bird hides and raised walkways.
This mediation and cosseting of nature leads people to believe that nature happens only in nature reserves, in special places where we might be shown its specialness. And it leads people to overlook nature nearby, the gardens and field edges and leftover woodland where Dee got his start as a birdwatcher.
Dixon’s idea of the school museum differs from Dee’s: Each should contain at least stuffed specimens of the common birds of the neighbourhood, together with a set of models of the eggs of the commoner species. It is not a random collection of objects that have grabbed the passing fancy of a child. Personally I think I prefer the nature table that Dee describes from his childhood to Dixon’s collection of dead and stuffed birds, though I know I would have found Dixon’s museum fascinating as a child.
I grew up in the post-nature table era, but I had no less of a penchant for collecting specimens than Dee or his classmates: pebbles, shells, jars of sand, leaves scotch-taped into notebooks, rubbings of tree bark, conkers, pine cones, feathers, sticks, daisy chains, I even had a pet snail for an afternoon before it started oozing green slime. I was fascinated by the collection of old identification books that lived on our bookshelves at home. There were books of birds, butterflies, plants and mushrooms. I took them into school to show my teacher. I got my own bird book and a pair of binoculars as a present and watched the birds in my back garden – magpies mostly. I grew up in the city, but I don’t think of my childhood as one disconnected from nature. True, my family also “visited the countryside” on weekends and holidays, and in that sense I was luckier than most of the other kids on my row of Council houses. But I remember the city as a place sufficient in nature to pique the interest of a young naturalist.
Dixon certainly finds plenty to interest budding birders in his London and he also hopes that his book will encourage more people to observe London’s birds. Indeed, he argues that the study of birds in the city is particularly interesting:
The study of birds within the Metropolis offers a field of research absolutely denied to the ornithologist in more rural surroundings. This is in relation to the ways of birds under more or less abnormal conditions, which illustrate in a wonderful manner their adaptability to novel circumstances.
The bulk of the book is dedicated to profiles of the many birds found within London. Each profile details the birds local names, its status in British avifauna and its radial distribution within fifteen miles of St Paul’s. Each profile also typically contains information about the bird’s breeding habits, feeding habits, a description of the male and female and a description of the bird’s eggs. Scattered throughout the book there are also beautiful illustrations.
As he mentions in the quote above, many birds have adapted their habits since moving into the city. For example, Dixon says that in rural areas the carrion crow is usually an extremely shy and wary bird, but in the city it is gregarious and outgoing. He also remarks on the transformation of the ring dove:
As a dweller in the country I knew the Ring Dove as one of the shyest and wariest of birds; in London I was simply amazed to see it so tame and confiding, walking about the parks, picking up bread scattered by passers-by, and almost remaining to be kicked out of the way.
Meanwhile other birds seem to be perfectly adapted for urban life. The pied wagtail, for example, which I don’t tend to think of as an urban bird, though I’ve spotted its wagging tail many times in the city:
The Pied Wagtail seems to possess a special propensity for paying casual visits to most uncongenial places in towns and cities. Many years ago I used frequently to see this Wagtail in the most central parts of Sheffield, running along the roofs of the factories or daintily tripping by the margin of the filth-stained rivers, an arm’s-length from roaring machinery.
Of course I also have to mention the house sparrow in this context – it seems to be the mascot for this project! Dixon describes the House Sparrow’s distribution in London:
There is scarcely a street, however mean or grimy or crowded, there is scarcely a building, however humble or palatial, that does not afford it a refuge or upon which it may not be seen… London may be described as a huge colony of House Sparrows…
…there is not an open space where its actions many not be observed during all the hours of daylight.
As I’ve mentioned before, House Sparrow numbers have severely declined in the UK, the RSPB website mentions a decline of 71% between 1977 and 2008. The species has now been red listed – something that would have seemed unbelievable to Dixon and W.H. Hudson.
I wonder if we humans have had to adapt ourselves to the city, like the crow and the ring dove, or whether some are born urbanites, like the house sparrow? As I mentioned, I grew up in the city. As a teenager, I dreamed about escaping the city. I wanted to live in a small house in the middle of the countryside, far from human habitations. On certain days I still have that same dream though I have chosen to live in cities and I have dedicated my writing to exploring urban nature. I think I am a house sparrow at heart. But who’s to say the house sparrow doesn’t sometimes long for more rural environs?
Throughout the book, Dixon points to some of the threats facing London’s birds. One threat is the speculative builder. He mentions the transformation of Wembley Park, which was a haven for bird life, into a residential district:
In a belt of glorious shrubbery there the Blackcap could be heard in numbers all the summer through warbling deliciously, the Rooks cawing noisily in the trees overhead. There the Goldcrest bred, Titmouse and Creepers had their haunt, and the Thrush and Blackbird piped the livelong day. All is now laid bare and desolate; in the meadows adjoining, some of the most magnificent timber round London has been felled; everything of beauty is given over to the arch-spoiler the speculative builder!
Habitat destruction and encroachment remains one of the biggest threats to wildlife, including in cities, which expand out into surrounding green spaces, or else remaining green spaces within cities are built over. Sometimes buildings are demolished and the land is left to turn into “wasteland”, but it remains in an uncertain between space. Though some, such as the folks at the Wasteland Twinning project, are fighting to save, or at least catalogue, these wasteland spaces.
Other threats that crop up include the bird-shooter, game-dealer and egg-poacher:
During winter the game-dealers’ shops are a study in themselves, especially Leadenhall Market, where from time to time some of our rarest bird visitors find their way for sale in the Metropolis. A fair collection of rare birds could be obtained in this locality alone by the enterprising naturalist.
Dixon mentions several birds that have been shot at various locations around London, including the Ring-Ouzel in a sewage farm and the Snow Bunting, which Dixon says has been shot often within his 15 mile radius. He also refers to the bird-catchers, who seem to be catching birds to sell as caged pets, birds such as the Wood Lark, the Hawfinch, the Goldfinch, and the Siskin. Dixon won’t even mention the location of the Kingfisher, for fear the information will be used by bird-catchers.
For some birds Dixon seems indifferent to these depredations, but in the case of the Kingfisher, he believes it is such a beautiful ornamental bird that it should be cherished by all of London’s inhabitants. He notes that in some areas, due to the strict enforcement of laws protecting the Kingfisher, its numbers have increased, however, he notes: unless sentiment can be invoked for its protection Acts of Parliament are useless.
This reminds me of another article, this time by George Monbiot, in which Monbiot argues that environmentalists are guilty of a failure of emotional honesty. Whilst terms like sustainable development and ecosystem services are thrown around to persuade others to care for the living world, environmentalists are failing to admit that what motivates them is not economics but love: The reality is that we care because we love. Nature appealed to our hearts, when we were children, long before it appealed to our heads, let alone our pockets. Dixon is making a similar point, Acts of Parliament alone are not enough to ensure the Kingfisher’s protection, though they do go some way if properly enforced. What is needed above all else is sentiment, love. People need to love and appreciate the beauty of the Kingfisher, or any bird, before they will be moved to protect it.
Many of the birds Dixon mentions are not quite as common as they were in 1909 – the corncrake is a stark example of this. On mainland Britain it is only found along a narrow fringe of western Scotland, hundreds of miles from London, which it called home in Dixon’s time. We have banished nature tables from our classrooms and our dictionaries are being stripped of nature words. Still, reading The Bird-Life of London makes me hopeful.
If Dixon visited present day London he would probably be dismayed at the advances of the speculative builder. But if he spoke to a few people on the street he might also notice a change in sentiment. I doubt many ring ouzels are shot in London these days and egg collecting is no longer a common hobby. Part of my motivation for doing this project was to see how attitudes to urban nature have changed. I didn’t expect to be reading books from the early decades of the 20th century, I had thought urban nature writing was a fairly recent phenomenon. So it makes me hopeful to see how far back urban nature writing goes. It also makes me hopeful to see how positive Dixon is towards newcomers. Though he does see some birds, such as crows, as pests, he is mostly open to new arrivals in the city. This egalitarian attitude is, I believe, what we need to sustain nature well into the 21st century. And I hope it is still very much alive in the streets of London.
 According to Wikipedia, Wembley Park once contained a tower called Watkin’s Tower, which was commission by Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway Company. It was intended to rival the Eiffel Tower and to encourage people to use the Metropolitan line that had been extended to Wembley Park. The tower never quite lived up to its promise, became structurally unsound and was demolished in 1904, just eight years after it had opened.
 I’ve recently been reading The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation by Fred Pearce, which looks at alien species, attempts to debunk myths about their role in the destruction of ecosystems (and even questions the notion of ecosystems in the first place) and argues that they may, in fact, be the saviours of nature in the anthropocene. It has definitely confirmed and shaped some of my thinking about “alien” species and which species belong where. Well worth a read!