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Away with the Birds: eds. Simon Fletcher, Kuli Kohli, Offa's Press

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Britain’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which takes place each year at the end of January, with many thousands taking part, is said to be the world’s largest garden wildlife survey. Even if we don’t agree on much else, this must reflect a certain ornithological enthusiasm among Britons.

This appealing anthology from Offa’s Press taps into this enduring interest and warmth of feeling. It was derived from 10 poetry workshops around the West Midlands, and is divided into five sections: Gardens, Parks & Urban Spaces; Water & Coastal Birds; Farmland Birds; Woods, Heath & Common, Moorland & Hill Country; and Exotics.

A number of poems reflect concern about declining bird populations. An uplifting poem by Paul Francis, ‘With flying colours’, is the story of a retired man, who “wasn’t good at school” and who’s “not sure what’s ahead”, making it his job to construct nesting boxes for swifts:


     He’s counted up: that’s thirty thousand now.

     In thirteen years his dream has come alive –

     he’s passed his test. This is what he can do

     to make a difference, help the swifts survive. 


Another poem by Francis, ‘Albatross’, is a classic sonnet, with a turn in mood after the eighth line. Because of climate change the legendary seabird may be doomed to search for a mate, instead of cementing a “partnership that lasts for life, / happy to hang around each other’s necks”. 

A similar sense of foreboding concludes Steve Harrison’s ‘The last Puffin in Yorkshire’, even though it is also suffused with nostalgia for childhood summer holidays. The poet fears that at Bempton cliffs, “the puffins, like Uncle Jack / complaining he couldn’t get local haddock / in his favourite chip shop, / may not come back.”

In ‘Swallows’ Steve Pottinger makes a political point, imagining our most popular migrants questioned by suspicious, “hatchet-faced clerks”. Then there are the loathsome participants in ‘The Shooting Party’ by Paul Harvey:


     Businessmen driving Chelsea tractors.

     Trophy wives size eight, high cheeked,

     long legged, long haired, pout for selfies.

     Wait for Instagram followers to “Like”.  


But it’s not all dark clouds, not at all. Jenna Plewes and John Morris extol the barn owl, Jane Salmons glories in red kites above the M40, and dippers, bitterns, nightjars, chiffchaffs, and even the humble dunnock all get a mention.  

Jane Seabourne turns the tables in ‘Big Garden Birdwatch January 2007’, and imagines the birds counting us:


     11 cyclists in yellow lycra, blue helmets, looking like a flock of mobile great tits

     A gaggle of Wolves supporters (in winter plumage)

     5 common humans flocking round a car for sale, cooing


And there is the evergreen appeal of Emma Purshouse’s wonderful ‘Flamingos in Dudley Zoo’, about youthful ambition doomed to disappointment, with its final two lines: “I shut my beak. I keep it zipped. / He doh know our wings am clipped.”

Britain’s birds give many of us so much joy. Away with the Birds succeeds admirably in reflecting that pleasure and love, as well as concern for the future. 


Away with the Birds, edited by Simon Fletcher & Kuli Kohli, Offa’s Press, £9.95





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