We have starved, captured and eaten our bird population into decline

Lament for our lost birds: A century ago it was common to see thousands in one field and dozens of species in a small garden. But since then we have starved, captured and eaten our bird population into shocking decline

  • Roy and Lesley Adkins have penned a book about human interaction with birds
  • Social historians share accounts of extremely rare birds appearing in England
  • Also observe effects of the ‘maximum agricultural production at any cost’



By Roy and Lesley Adkins (Little Brown £25, 488 pp)

Our relations with birds, the only direct descendants of the dinosaurs, have always been complex. In 1866, a gentleman called George Harding was thrilled to spot a number of extremely rare bee-eaters visiting a suburb of Bristol, and recorded the moment with great excitement. He then shot four of them.

Roy and Lesley Adkins are a husband-and-wife team of social historians who have turned their attention to our birdlife and human interaction with them over the centuries.

We have variously prized them, trained them, trapped them, bought them, sold them, bred them and even deliberately blinded them: chaffinches kept in cages were believed to sing more sweetly if you burnt out their eyes with a red-hot wire.

Roy and Lesley Adkins have penned a book about human interaction with birds throughout the centuries. Pictured: A goldfinch

We have also, of course, driven some to extinction. The title, When There Were Birds, is deliberately ominous, a warning of the damage we have already done, and where we are heading at speed.

There are jaw-dropping accounts of extremely rare birds appearing in England at various times — like those bee-eaters — or else the last of their kind being spotted in remote country, and promptly being shot, stuffed and mounted to grace a farmer’s parlour or a gentleman’s library.

And in 1843 a farmer shot the last Great Bustard in Cornwall, in a field, ‘where it had been observed for several days’. Nevertheless, such random shootings had far less effect on bird populations than the advent of modern industrial farming, relentless population growth and, as the Adkins’s observe, the catastrophic effects of the ‘maximum agricultural production at any cost’ philosophy of the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy.

The first chapter is called Abundance, a term favoured by naturalists today to emphasise what we have lost, and how recently.

It isn’t just the species in Britain, and the world, that have vanished for ever, like the passenger pigeon or the great auk. It’s also the numbers of our most common species that have fallen precipitously.

Within living memory, London was filled with tens of thousands of sparrows and starlings. Now we see very few.

In 1912, the Pall Mall Gazette viewed the starlings of Trafalgar Square as quintessentially English little chaps, for the starling ‘so fully typifies the qualities on which we English pride ourselves — adaptability, pluck, and perseverance, cheerfulness under hard conditions, adventurous spirit . . .’

In 1912, the Pall Mall Gazette viewed the starlings of Trafalgar Square as quintessentially English little chaps. Pictured: Murmurations of starlings in Brighton 

Today, all you see in Trafalgar Square are rather unhealthy-looking feral pigeons, waddling about in search of discarded junk food. Oh dear.

There are many observant records by Georgian parsons and Victorian travellers. In 1798, a visitor to Anglesey reckoned he saw some 50,000 puffins: ‘Upwards of 50 acres of land were literally covered’ in them. Today, there are about 300 puffins left.

The great naturalist and self-described tramp W.H. Hudson described a single ploughed field in Hampshire in the early 20th century, filled with an absolute ‘army’ of peewits, pipits, pied and grey wagtails, finches, buntings and larks ‘in thousands and thousands’ — all in one field.

A teacher in Hull in 1890 recorded 33 different species in his ‘small garden’, including a nightjar and a heron.

William Cobbett reckoned he saw, ‘I do believe . . . a flock of ten thousand’ goldfinches feeding on their favourite food, thistle-heads, along a lane in Gloucestershire. Today, people spray thistles to death as ‘weeds’, then wonder why goldfinches are so much rarer. But people have always been this stupid.

A Victorian curate ridiculed the slaughter of sparrows, which would have more than earned their keep by eating all the slugs and snails on the crops: ‘The grubs must have laughed from the furrow in the faces of their ploughmen; and the wireworms must have sung merrily as they bored into the very hearts of their turnips.’

Goldfinches (pictured), skylarks, linnets, thrushes and nightingales were once among the most common caged birds 

The sheer plethora of birds everywhere meant people’s lives were full of them. People ate them, or kept them as pets.

Boys as young as nine were paid as bird scarers in the fields, working 12 hours a day in 1835, ‘and for this I received fourpence a day’, recorded one old countryman. People caught birds by liming or netting, or grabbing them off the branches as they slept at night.

Almost forgotten today, except for budgies, is the practice of keeping all sorts of songbirds in cages, including vast royal enclosures along the road near Buckingham Palace still known as Birdcage Walk. The most common caged birds were bullfinches and goldfinches, skylarks, linnets, thrushes and nightingales.

His caged nightingales, wrote a vicar in Barnstaple, ‘would begin to sing just at the early dawn of a summer’s morning’, while in winter, ‘they were brought into the dining room for the sake of the warmth of the fire, and when the lamps were lighted they often commenced to sing, and would provide us with a concert during dinner’.


Surely the cleverest use of a bird in a cage was taking a canary down a coal mine: a trick discovered quite late on, in the 1890s.

Odourless carbon monoxide, ‘white damp’, was undetectable and lethal. But a brilliant physiologist called John Haldane worked out that canaries were especially sensitive to the gas: they would totter, then fall off their perch in its presence, long before a man would succumb, giving him time to escape.

Once away from the deadly fumes the canary would then perk up and revive within a minute or two, to be of assistance again.

They were used, amazingly, until as recently as 1987 and the phrase ‘canary in a coal mine’ remains proverbial, warning us, as the authors say, of ‘looming disaster, as well as a reminder of how people’s lives owe so much to birds’.

Some of the most moving observations come from World War I. A correspondent writing in 1917, before the Battle of Messines on the Ypres Salient and the colossal howitzer bombardments, described a lovely dawn chorus of ‘blackbird and thrush, lark and blackcap and willow warbler’.

Even after the battle started, ‘in the intervals of the shattering noise of the guns, their notes pealed up…’

A soldier from the Cameron Highlanders, sheltering in the trenches, said: ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be.’

When There Were Birds is a marvellously original slice of social history, a portrait of our ever-conflicted relationship with the natural world which we so abuse and which we cannot live without; a book beautifully balanced between wonder and warning.

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