Eugene Daly continues his series on various aspects of Irish folklore and customs
I was sad this summer to see a decline in the number of swallows-in my part of west Cork at any rate.
Just a handful, where in years past there were dozens soaring, gliding, swerving, making arcs and loops. I miss their effortless grace of movement, each wing-stroke a pleasure to watch. Their delightful twittering song is suggestive of running water and equally soothing. The swallows haven’t disappeared but this amateur bird-watcher has noticed a definite decline.
Also in decline is the cuckoo; I haven’t heard his happy song for five or six years. Unlike Wordsworth, I can’t rejoice at his song: ‘O blithe new-comer I have heard/, I hear thee and rejoice/. O cuckoo! Shall I call thee bird/, Or but a wandering voice?’
Changes in farming methods is probably the main cause for the disappearance of the corncrake pictured).
In my childhood, it filled the summer evenings with its craking sound and often disturbed our sleep, with several of them going ‘crake crake’, repeated hundreds of times from early evening to late at night. The Scottish poet, Norman McCaig mourns the corncrake in his poem: ‘A Voice of Summer’; ‘In this one of all the fields I know the best/, All day and night, hoarse and melodious sounded/, A creeping corncrake, coloured like the ground.’ The last verse is sad: ‘Summer now is diminished, is less by him/. Something that it could say cannot be spoken/,As though the language of a subtle folk/ Had lost a word that had no synonym’.
The corncrake, of course, still holds on in the north-west of the country and along the Shannon, but is long gone here in the south-west. So, the corncrake gone and the cuckoo and swallow diminished in number. Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there.
BirdWatch Ireland has a Red List of birds whose population or range has declined by more than half in the last twenty-five years. These include the Barn Owl, Black-necked Grebe, Chough, Corn Bunting, Curlew, Lapwing, Nightjar, Quail, Yellowhammer and some others. It saddens me to learn this, especially those that were familiar to me in childhood. Of the above list I was very familiar with the waders, the curlew and lapwing, and the lovely yellow bunting, the yellowhammer.
Rachel Carson, in her book, And No Birds Sings, images a world without birds. What an awful thought!
Yellowhammers were plentiful in the rough farmland of Turkhead when I was young. The poet John Clare describes them well in his poem, ‘The Yellowhammer’. ‘In early Spring when winds blow chilly cold/The yellowhammer trailing grass will come/To fix a place and choose an early home/With yellow breast and head of solid gold’.
Lonely bird of the bogs and the seashore, the curlew is a beautiful bird, with a haunting call. Norman McCaig describes his voice: ‘trailing bubbles of music over the squelchy hillside’. He describes the curlew’s song thus: ‘Music as desolate, as beautiful as your loved places, mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats by the stealthy sea’.
The draining of our bogs is given as the main reason for their rapid decline. It is in the bogs they nest, though it is on the shore that most people see them.
Lapwings, those beautiful green plovers, known for their acrobatic flying and ‘peewit’ call, were plentiful in our fields and on the shore when I was young especially in cold wintry weather.
Exotic birds with radiant green plumage above, snow white below and its unique turned- up crest, they have alternative names – Peewit, Green Plover, Pie-wipe, etc. One small bird, the Corn Bunting, cousin of the Yellowhammer, is almost definitely extinct in Ireland. The Corn Bunting was once one of the classic birds of open farmland. It depended almost entirely on human agriculture. The switch from hay to silage and the absence of winter stubbles has made it extinct in all of Ireland and most of Britain. It still survives in the Orkneys. A little brown bird with streaks of gold, it is not as handsome as the yellowhammer.
Donnchadh Ó Drisceoil, the late Cape Clear writer, in one of his essays published in The Irish Times, mourns the disappearance of the ‘gearra-goirt’ (small bird of the field) which is one of its names. It has (had) many alternative names – Barley Bunting, Briar Bunting and the delightful Corn Dumpling was used in Ulster. In Irish it is Gealóg Bhuacair, which translates as ‘bright cow-dung bird’; it is also known as Gealbhán Coirce (oat’s sparrow).
The intensive removal of agricultural ‘weeds’ and the global drop in insect numbers has contributed to its decline. Another little bird, the Twite, a member of the finch family, has almost disappeared. They are found only in the far west and north-west in mountainy areas. The word ‘twite’ describes their call. In Irish they have a wonderful name Gleoiseach Sléibhe (mountain linnet). In summer they have a beautiful pink flash at the base of the tail. They are also known as Heatherlings, Heather-Grey, Twitty, etc.