Excuse me, but are we boring? This is the accusation made against British birds by scientists from the University of Sheffield, who have found that our avians are less vibrant than those of the tropical rainforest. Well, knock me down with a feather. The claim is about as remarkable as saying that the average British male of a certain age performs less spectacularly on the dance floor than the residents of Buenos Aires. We – if I may speak on behalf of British males of a certain age – are in some respects quite monochrome. But British birds, at least, aren’t boring.
Wrens, the littlest of all our brown jobs, huddle together for warmth. As many as 63 have been found together in a single nesting box. Swifts feed their young with food balls packed with the insects they have caught in flight, 300 to 1,000 in each one. Starlings, which still wheel about the evening sky in huge murmurations, are fantastic mimics, imitating telephones and car alarms as well as curlews and other birds. We even have some lovely colours: Kingfishers, green woodpeckers, goldfinches, blue tits and yellowhammers are all native to this country. The red kite, a gigantic bird which has been successfully reintroduced, got its name for a reason: the rust-coloured underside of its enormous wings. Seeing one never ceases to fill me with awe.
Although, admittedly, this is special pleading. In hue the majority of native birds are undistinguished, because they are indistinguishable from their habitat. You can look for a long time before seeing a reed warbler, which is both little and brown and expertly camouflaged for life among the rushes that are its home. Nightingales are equally shy. But goodness, you can hear both when they sing. One of the most insignificant of birds to look at is the skylark, which pours its “full heart / In profuse strains of unpremeditated art”, according to Shelley.
By contrast, many gaudy birds like the jay, with its electric blue wing feathers, tend to shriek. Magpies can be strikingly handsome, if, according to legend, somewhat sinister; but their call is a staccato chatter. The male pheasant, parading in one of the most splendid of nature’s uniforms, makes a loud, unattractive sound, although not perhaps as bad as the parakeets that are colonising the South East. They make a terrible noise, resembling a child’s squash toy – as alien to the soundscape of the British countryside as their Dayglo green wings are to the colour palette that we are used to.
Brown birds get a bad press, associated with drab things like brown furniture. For years, auction houses have turned their noses up at our grandparents’ treasured possessions because mahogany dining tables won’t sell. But surely the colour brown is at least as interesting, in all its possible variety of shades, from cinnamon to brogue, as prevailing fashionable colours, such as grey. And anyway, don’t we feel an affinity with the birdlife we have got?
We are a supposedly undemonstrative people, not known for being flashy dressers, embarrassed when we draw attention to ourselves. I have a drawer full of tropical shirts mistakenly bought while on holiday. The children would never forgive me if I wore them. They’d much rather I looked like a blackbird than a bird of paradise. There is a reason we British hold the humble house sparrow – now, alas, becoming rare – so dearly in our hearts.