Photo: © Shutterstock.com/Petr Simon. Sumpremely aerodynamic: a kingfisher in flight

 

Dave Brown looks at how birds have impacted and shaped our world, from ancient times to the 21st century

 

OF COURSE, as birdkeepers and readers of this magazine, we have already discovered an appreciation – in fact, a joy – in sharing our lives with our birds. However, it was only recently it struck me how much birds, both wild and domestic, have shaped the culture and communities of human society around the world.

The catalyst for this realisation was a visit to an art exhibition staged by some A-level students. While the subject matter was mixed, a noticeable proportion of the exhibits focused on birdlife. One head study of a golden pheasant was almost comparable to a piece of modern art, with the fanciful combination of bright colours it displayed. But, in reality, this was a highly accurate depiction of a species now well established in aviculture. Later the same day, I had the pleasure of viewing some camera shots a friend had taken of a siskin while out walking. It was a nice thought to think of the fulfilment they must have gained from spotting the subject and then capturing the moment on film.

That weekend a trip to the Royal Welsh Show not only provided the spectacle of pedigree pigeons and poultry being exhibited, but a demonstration of the bond between man and falcons which started centuries ago and remains as strong today.

Birds make an impact from an early age and, in the horticultural tent, a junior exhibitor had created a fine peacock from exotic fruit! We all grew up appreciating the pleasures of going to the park to feed the ducks.

While this modern-day appreciation is reassuring, in past times birds were revered in some cultures. Some birds have been regarded as gods from the time of ancient Egypt, where the god Thoth was depicted in the form of a sacred ibis. Today, in India, the peacock is perceived as Mother Earth among some religions and, of course, the dove is a symbol of peace. While in perhaps an opposing stance in heraldry, birds, especially eagles, often appear in coats of arms. Some species of birds have their place in royalty, with the tradition of swan upping still carried out on behalf of the Queen on the Thames today.

We’ve even sung about birds and there are few who haven’t heard of the bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover. Much has been written about the birds that surround us, be it scientific studies, poetry, John Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale or children’s fiction such as Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-Duck.

You could even say that birds made much of our early writing possible, thanks to feathers being used as quill pens. Feathers have also provided warmth in bedding, while meat and eggs have nourished us. Speaking of nourishment, 3,000 British pubs are believed to have a bird referenced in their name, with more than 600 of them being called The Swan.

In modern times, birds have also solved technological problems. In the late 1990s, the famous high-speed bullet trains of Japan were causing disturbance to both sleeping humans and wildlife by generating a loud booming sound as a loud pocket of air built up in front of the train travelling at 186mph (300kph) dissipated. A solution was needed and it was a birdwatching engineer who came up with the answer. He had witnessed a kingfisher diving down through the air, going into the water and creating very little splash.

He set about redesigning the front of the bullet train to imitate that of the kingfisher’s face and beak. A successful result was achieved, with not only the boom being eliminated, but an increase in energy saving as the train proved even more aerodynamic.

Dave Brown keeps zebra and Bengalese finches, north Dutch frill canaries and Malaysian Serama bantams.

 

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