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Fintan O’Toole: We have taken flight from deep link with birds

Birds animate our physical world but so many species in Ireland are rapidly winging it towards extinction

Parents – at least those of my age – don’t like the idea of their children getting tattoos. Perhaps it’s an ego thing: the flesh of our flesh should remain spotless.

My youngest son swerved elegantly around these foolish objections by getting a large image of a handsome bird inked onto his forearm.

It’s a waxwing, a gorgeous winter visitor to Ireland that looks like a pimped-up finch, with a backwards quiff for a crest and two vivid red blobs on its wings like sealing wax applied to an ancient missive from on high.

My son knew that this image would disarm my prejudices because the bird connects him to his father and his grandfather. It is a genetic memory with wings.


The first conscious piece of writing I ever did was a school essay on the topic of birds. I called it Waxwings.

I wrote about how my father took me and my brother on the bus out to Ballsbridge where the rowan trees near the American embassy were alive with dozens of waxwings. I was interested, of course, less in the birds than in my dad’s excitement at seeing them, and the way the sharing of this pleasure with us was a gift of time and love.

After my father died, something of his spirit migrated into that tattoo. It found a new fleshy perch.

It also has an older abode. One of the reasons I was so glad to see reopened at last the Dead Zoo, that strange treasure house of taxidermy that is the Natural History Museum in Dublin, is that there’s another bird in it that connects me to my father.

In the corner of the top shelf of a case of stuffed birds, there is one you would miss if you were not looking for it. It is a pallid swift, a Mediterranean bird first recorded in Ireland in 1993.

Stuffed and mounted

The person who spotted it, on Howth Head, was my father. In those days before mobile phones, he ran down to the village to find a phone box to call his fellow twitchers. As he was making his way back up the head, he found it dead on the path, apparently hit by a hawk.

He did what any normal obsessive would do, which was to lift its body gently and place it tenderly in his bag. He took it home and, over my mother’s appalled objections, put it beside the garden peas in the freezer, so that he could keep it safe until the Dead Zoo opened after the weekend.

The curators there did not tell him to get stuffed, but had the bird stuffed and mounted, albeit in an obscure cranny. His name is on the label.

I often drop in to say hello to it. My father was insistent that he did not want a grave. But a stuffed Apus pallidus serves the purpose much better than a cold stone.

Impaled on a thin wire, with its bladelike wings spread out and its head alertly cocked, it looks both dead and alive – like my father himself and all the dear departed.

I hadn’t seen it for a long time, while the museum was closed for an extensive refurbishment. But, last week, I called in to see if it was still there.

I went with other migratory creatures – my waxwing-stamped son and his own four-year-old son. The boy was not impressed – the sharks and the giant elks are far more interesting.

But that was not the point. Maybe, if we do this every year, he will lay down a little seam of memory: a trace of his great-grandfather in a hidden corner of a slightly fantastical hall of animal curiosities in Dublin.

Between the waxwing on the arm and the pallid swift on the shelf, I couldn’t help thinking about birds as our living clocks and calendars. They mark time, calling the sun up and lulling it down, announcing the seasons with their comings and goings. But they also deepen our sense of time itself.

Because they are unbounded, they connect everything to everything else. They animate the physical world – the trees, the skies, the seashore, the hedges – but also the intangible worlds of memory and belonging.

Museum pieces

But we are breaking this connection, cruelly and carelessly. Much as I loved being back in the Dead Zoo last week, I could not avoid the melancholy realisation that birds that were common in Ireland can now be seen only through the glass of display cases. In the museum of natural history, nature is consigned to history.

The labels on some of the displays are themselves becoming museum pieces, poignant tokens of loss. They claim in the present tense realities that are rapidly fading into the Irish past.

My eye was caught by the label on a case containing stuffed curlews: “The curlew is resident and numerous in Ireland. It breeds in mountains and bogs in all the provinces and is abundant in autumn and winter on the coasts.”

Numerous, abundant – these words must have been written when there were 5,000 or more nesting pairs of curlew in Ireland, when its sharp whistled cry, rising on the second note, was the soundtrack of the island.

Now, there are – or were at the last count – 138 breeding pairs of curlews. On current trends, it will be extinct in Ireland in 10 years.

I grew up on a housing estate three miles from the centre of Dublin. The sound that punctuated our football games in the local park was the loud kerrx-kerrx of the randy corncrake calling for a mate.

There are fewer than 200 calling males left in Ireland now. Almost no one in any built-up area ever hears that fabulously comic song of urgency and yearning.

In all, 54 species of Irish birds are in imminent danger of disappearing, having experienced a decline of over 50 per cent in their numbers over the course of this century so far.

We are systematically de-animating the landscape, sucking the life out of it, making it flat and dull and bleakly lifeless. The texture of sound that every previous generation experienced is being frayed into dead air.

At the national biodiversity conference in February 2019, President Michael D Higgins remarked that: “If we were coal miners, we would be up to our knees in dead canaries.” We might add dead curlews and corncrakes and snipes and kestrels and plovers. Each one is a warning that we have made our island toxic for so many of the species with which we have cohabited for millennia.

And therefore toxic for ourselves. We are not creatures that can live by bread alone. We live on memory and wonder, on the sense of connection to each other and to the natural world. If we allow those things to depart, we are taking flight from ourselves.