The Charm of Birds

Recently there has been a video making its way around the birding listserves. In it, a clip from the movie Downfall (German: Der Untergang) is shown wherein Hitler blasts into a tirade over news he’s lost the war. However, in this particular video, the subtitles have been changed to make it seem as though Der Fuhrer is furious about not finding Colorado’s first-record of Hoary Redpoll. This is just one of thousands of parody videos showing this same clip (see the Wikipedia page on it here), but the first to my knowledge to add a birding slant. The video already has a whopping 2500 views, about as viral as a birding video clip ever gets.

I’m not writing to comment on that video; rather, it has spurred me into starting a series of blog posts I’ve been planning. I’ll be chronicling the people that have been influenced by birds, or ways that birds have shaped our everyday culture, even if indirectly. Some of these are extraordinary people, others are ordinary people that happened to lead extraordinary lives, but either way, birds were an important aspect of their lives. While I wasn’t planning on starting with this particular fellow, I think you’ll soon understand my mental connection with the aforementioned video clip.

On any English major’s bookshelf you’ll find works by Shakespeare, Defoe, Steinbeck, Austen, Bronte, etc., but the common theme behind these books is that they were all written by writers. In contrast, my bookshelves have titles by folks you’ve never heard of, and while they all have some connection to birds, the authors were scientists, politicians, travellers, spies, and other professions. Take, for example, The Charm of Birds. First published in 1927, my yellowing copy is from ten years later. It is a small, unassuming little book. The first seven chapters are dedicated to birds through the seasons (January through December), while the following seven chapters cover bird family life, nests, “joy sounds”, waterfowl, the cuckoo, and other topics. There are few pictures, the mildewed pages are asthma-inducing, and there are no details on identification. Yet, there are a couple things that are noteworthy. The first is the humbled preface. It states:

“This book will have no scientific value. Those who have studied birds will not find in it anything that they do not already know; those who do not care for birds will not be interested in the subject…Personal observation will always make a book valuable. In this book there will be some things here and there that may deserve to be placed in this last category, but they will be slight and not thorough. My opportunity for watching birds have been intermittent. My observations have been made for recreation; in search of pleasure, not of knowledge; and they have been pursued only in so far as they ministered to the pleasure of holidays and home life…[but] even those of us who have nothing new to tell, may have something that is fresh to say.”

The second noteworthy thing is the author himself. It is clear that he found peace in birds, but why has he not had more time for birds in his life? Quite probably because the author of the book is the Viscount Grey of Fallodon. Edward Grey (1862-1933), was a British politician. Elected into the British House of Commons at age 23, he was the youngest MP of his day.  He was also the longest-serving Foreign Secretary (1905-1916), at a time when Europe was under much unrest. Grey was a key player in the crisis of 1914, and events leading to World War I. He was involved in multiple treaties (some of them secret) with allied countries, in an attempt to shore support against the Germans in continental Europe. Perhaps his most famous quote, made from the Foreign Office window as the first great war was beginning, went  “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time”.

Sir Edward Grey, 1914, during his time as Foreign Secretary. Photo by Bassano, Beagles Postcard #542W; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Edward Grey, 1914, during his time as Foreign Secretary. Photo by Bassano, Beagles Postcard #542W; Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is becoming clear why Grey may not have had much time for casual birding. In 1919 Grey became the Ambassador to the United States, followed by his position as the Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords. Obviously not one to spend retirement sitting back twiddling his thumbs, the Viscount then became the Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

This is where we come back to birds. Oxford has one of the most prestigious ornithological institutes in the world, with an equally impressive library. That institute is the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology. Perhaps, somewhere in the library of the institution that bears his name, lies a yellowing copy of the Charm of Birds.

The Charm of Birds by Viscount Grey of Fallodon

The Charm of Birds by Viscount Grey of Fallodon

Chapter X of the Charm of Birds: "Joy Flights and Joy Sounds"

Chapter X of the Charm of Birds: “Joy Flights and Joy Sounds”

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