Flown forever: Birds under threat

Flown forever

Shirley Clerkin

Long-distance bird migration  is down by nearly a quarter over the last 30 years

‘curlews are the Irish giant panda.  Their population has collapsed by 86% over the last thirty years, with 200 or fewer breeding pairs remainin’

The day is full of birds. Stitched –  moving – into the air, into hedges and woven into the weft of wetlands.   Hanging on to houses, grasping gutters and aerials, balancing on the wire.  Singing. Tweeting. Cooing. Whistling. Swooping. Diving. Gliding.  Ascending. Descending.


The State of the World’s Birds, by the BirdLife International Partnership published in July is shocking reading.  Silent Scenery will be our certain future. The soundscape we have on loan from future generations rubbed out.  Birds are an integral part of our biodiversity, their fate heralds our fate.  The report compiled by 121 organisations finds that the status of the world’s birds is deteriorating, with species slipping ever faster towards extinction. One in eight of all bird species is considered threatened with global extinction. They are in effect dead birds flying.


A woman I know instructed her husband to hose a family of long distance migrant swallows, away from their house at every opportunity to stop them nesting.  They were dirtying her car. Such an ignorance of actions is, I suspect, more commonplace than some of the common birds. A poverty of thinking; knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.     Swallows are without doubt one of my favourite birds. I monitor their return every year, worrying when it gets past their due date that they may not come at all.  When they swoop past my kitchen window on the April morning of their arrival, I feel swept up too. They are back. The swallows are back, I tell everyone.


Prelude, ninety seconds of perfect sound by still-effervescent Kate Bush, from her album Aerial, features wood pigeons cooing and a child in wonder pronouncing:
The day is full of birds
Sounds like they’re saying words

By unravelling birdsong into lower, slower registers we can stroll through their songs, to hear notes so swiftly sung that their complicated compositions only become audible when played at a snail’s pace.  They have no words that we can understand and we, of course, are only half-thinking. But the numbers speak for themselves and are a preface to what is to come.

There are 300 million fewer farmland birds in Europe now than in 1980.


57, out of 148, species of birds have declined across 25 European countries.


Long-distance migrants in Europe declined by 23% on average during these 30 years alone.



BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest conservation charity, recently drew an analogy. Globally threatened, curlews are the Irish giant panda. Confusingly, their numbers are artificially raised in the winter by migrants from other countries, but when these fly away, only a fragmented and threatened Irish population subsists.  This population has collapsed – by 86% over the last thirty years, with 200 or fewer breeding pairs remaining.

Curlews have a melancholic and evocative voice at the best of times, crying across the reeds, wetlands and coasts.   Robbie Burns wrote that he had “never heard the loud solitary whistle of a curlew on a summer noon … without feeling an elevation of soul”.  However, these are now the worst of times.  WB Yeats begging “O Curlew, cry no more in the air” is an unintended prophecy.

BirdWatch Irelandis calling on the government to take a range of actions for the conservation of curlews nesting in Ireland,  They include developing agri-environment measures and removing the species from the hunting list.

Curlew: the word itself hugs your tongue when you say it, has a beak like a cobbler’s needle or crewel which can deeply probe the mud for small invertebrates.  While in Murphy Sheehy fabric shop in Dublin a few weeks ago, I came upon bird material that I just had to buy for my new frock.  The Ornithology Liberty Print was designed from sketches by Edwyn Collins, who is best known for fronting Scottish rock revivalists ‘Orange Juice’ and for his solo hit,  A Girl Like You. In 2005, Collins suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage.  As part of his rehabilitation he drew a bird a day, each of which has been used in the printed fabric. Every drawn bird represents a daily recovery.

I am stitching dunnocks, black-tailed godwits, barn-owls, teals, swallows and lots of other birds into my bird dress. There are no curlews drawn or printed. Maybe Collins experienced a sort of anticipatory illumination like Yeats suggested: “the arts lie dreaming of what is to come”.  If ecosystem potholes are not filled in and conservation measures don’t succeed, curlews will continue their dive to the realm of art and the dead zoo, echoes only, like other ghosts of gone birds.

The days were full of birds.