Tuesday, 3 March 2015

the liver birds

And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds - 
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For cormorant or shag -
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near'd, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.

later the same day . . .
As I walked out on this fine Spring morning, I turned towards the sea to take a walk. A lukewarm sun was trying to poke its head out from amongst the translucent clouds scudding across it and I wandered down the slight incline some two hundred yards to take in the view. What sun was managing to get through was reflected on the surface of a placid sea. A flock of gulls were gently bobbing up and down presumably having an early break after shrieking their early morning chorus to send the merry workers on their way. Being semi-retired I get up later on Tuesdays.

As I wandered down to the beach my first thought was to wonder if I'd see a cormorant. And, sure enough, just beyond the gulls being brought closer to the shore, a familiar dark, reptilian, short-winged, long-necked shape flapped awkwardly into view. It was almost as if I'd conjured it up in the two minutes it took to walk from my front door to the beach. As usual, the dear chap was flying in a straight line parallel to the shoreline. He flopped down onto the sea to take a rest whilst keeping a beady eye out for lunch.

As a child I was aware of cormorants - we were too innocent in those days to snigger at the name of its close cousin, the shag - but I never saw one until my first visit to Cornwall. The holiday mentioned in my last post was exciting for several reasons and I'll never forget seeing my first cormorant in the harbour at Padstein Padstow. Yes, they even held their short wings out in that cruciform way just to show off and look just like the picture in my Brooke Bond P.G. Tips picture card book Wild Birds of Britain (1965, illustrated and described by C.F. Tunnicliffe R.A.). Yes, I've still got it and I collected all 50 cards from the Waxwing to the Guillemot. You had to make your own fun in the sixties and we obviously drank a lot of tea*.  I was also aware of them in Wilfred Gibson's wonderfully atmospheric and mysterious poem Flannan Isle (quoted above).

Since those far off days I have seen many cormorants and shags as well as many other pelagic birds such as pelicans in their natural habitats. In fact, in Mexico a few years ago, a pelican flew so close just above my head I could have probably touched it! Since moving down to the relative calm of the east coast from the urban squalor of downtown Stevenage, I have noticed the numbers increasing exponentially. The first time I saw one here was about twenty years ago when a guest pointed it out. I was aware of a colony in Essex just down the coast and was excited to start to see them a few hundred yards from my house. Only a year or so back one flew overhead as we walked along the Suffolk-Essex borderlands. Cormorants are essentially sea birds but Winter and breed by freshwater too. They've begun to nest more and more inland so they are not as uncommon now as they obviously were back in the mid-sixties. After all, they are opportunistic birds and these new wetland habitats must have seemed like the sudden upsurge in supermarkets we noticed. Cormorant figures in Britain reached their nadir in the 1960s but through the introduction of new wetland habitats since the sixties has led to a growth in numbers. I guess the stocking of these habitats and the rise in trout farms et al is particularly relevant here. I blame all those stinking rich rock stars like Roger Daltrey and Ian Anderson. From 151 known pairs at one nesting site in 1986, they grew to 1334 pairs at 35 sites across the land between 1999 - 2002. The birds are now so successful that there are probably some 9000 pairs in Britain.

The problem with cormorants - and they've had a bad press since mediaeval times - is that they eat fish. An adult needs to eat about a pound of fish a day. I'm no mathematician but that's a lot of fish. Anglers and the fisheries industry constantly call for the birds to be 'managed' (read = culled) and basically, it's another war with nature that humans continue to wage. Anglers moan about cormorants damaging and scarring fish when they're unsuccessful in catching them but don't most anglers throw the fish they've damaged with hooks back into the water? I never was a fisherman. I mean, fish are my favourite form of food so I'm glad these guys are out there catching them, I just wish we could accept that the world is a finite resource and mankind's habit of catching more than they need and leaving the seas full of collateral damage no doubt pisses off the cormorants and other bird and marine life that rely on fish as a food source.

Anyway, I don't know what it is about weird looking birds like herons, egrets, cormorants, pelicans and flamingos but they're the ones I get really excited about seeing. By the way, cormorants are the "Liver Birds" of Liverpool. For some reason I didn't know that. Maybe it's because I've never been to Liverpool. I did perform a little search on poems and songs about cormorants but surprisingly, there aren't many.

Perhaps I'd better write one.

*They do say of the sixties, of course, that if you can remember it you weren't there. I went from being about 4 to 13 that decade and I can remember it all very well. It was called childhood. It was great fun but the tea was always sweet. I started the next decade by refusing to take sugar in my tea or milk or sugar in my coffee. 


Mike C. said...

Found this in the Oxford Anthology of Birdwatching Verse:

The Bold Twitcher to his Mistress

As Black Corm'rants with their wings describe
A ragged shape designed t'entice the Finny Tribe
So I to Thee, madam, present this hopeful Stance:
No chance today of a Shag, perchance?


Mike C. said...

Typo: "No Prospect today..."

Dave Leeke said...

Excellent, thanks for that Mike!

I looked up how long the term has been used and it goes back to at least 1788 as a euphemism. I don't really remember where I first heard the term but I'm sure I wasn't aware of it at school.

Mike C. said...

According to OED, first recorded usage of the verb in that sense is 1770 (in Thomas Jefferson!):

1770 T. Jefferson Memorandum Bks. 27 Dec. (1997) I. 200 He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

but the noun's first recorded usage is 1937, though that is in Partridge (no, not him) so is obviously of long standing (so to speak):

1937 E. Partridge Dict. Slang 748/2 Shag, a copulation; also, copulation generically.

I like the first record of "shagging":

1772 R. Cosway Let. 24 Feb. (British Museum, Townley Archive, TY 7/2028) With respect to shagging—it is much the same as when you left us (your part omitted)—but as to myself I stick as close to Radicati's Arse as a Bum Bailif to Lord Deloraine's.

So, at the very least, it seems sexual intercourse did *not* begin in 1963.


Dave Leeke said...

Er, "bum bailiff"?

"Shag" is actually an unpleasant sounding word - "bonk" is funnier and easier on the ear (so to speak).

Mike C. said...

True. I actually own a shag's skull, which I bought at a local fossil & rock fair some years ago. Unfortunately, the previous owner has written "SHAG" in indelible ink on the cranium, which looks kinda ridiculous.


Dave Leeke said...

Sounds like something from Kathleen Jamie's "Findings" - or maybe a parody of it! I'd love to see it - you should post it on your blog.

Mike C. said...

I'll dig it out -- the beak is a thing of wonder. I still regret forgetting to bring home the badger skull we found in Wales -- it had the most amazing teeth, and a big ridge on the top of the cranium, like a helmet, presumably for jaw muscles.

Zouk Delors said...

No shag songs, but didn't The Velvet Undergrond do Heron?

Dave Leeke said...

Great to hear from you, Zouk. However, I think it'll take a better (and far more intelligent) man than me to make a joke about the missing "I" in that.

Martyn Cornell said...

Surely e haven't all forgotten Christopher Isherwood's fantastic poem:

The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

We get cormorants on the Thames here in Teddington/Twickenham: also grebes, one of my favourite birds.

Dave Leeke said...

Blimey, it's getting like Poetry Top Trumps around here. How about:

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv'd . . .

I guess Milton knew a thing or two.

The Great Crested Grebe is, along with the Jay, one of the most beautiful British birds. Gorgeous things. They get a bit silly about sex, though.

Brendini said...

'Allo darlin'! Fancy a bit o' pondweed?
(Great Crested Grebe chat up line)

Dave Leeke said...

But do you fancy a shag?

Brendini said...

You are, of course, refering to pipe tobacco.

Dave Leeke said...

Well, actually . . .

Dave Leeke said...

. . . I was trying to bring it back to the theme of the post.