The Chough by H.J. Massingham

Chough

 

The Chough is a spectacle for the eye in its iridescent black dress with green and purple reflections, the long scimiter-like coral bill and bright legs to match, flashing about the sombre basalt headlands of Cornwall, striding like a Rook among the surf-fretted rocks or darting along a stretch of level sand almost as quickly as a Sandpiper.

The movements are decidedly Daw-like, but the flight is more buoyant and effortless and the volatile nature of the bird  sends it careering down the precipices with half closed wings into the maw of the fanged rocks below to sweep with a lightening turn into some cave or hollow at the foot of those black towers of Plutonic stone.

Like the rest of the Corvine race, the Chough is temperamentally sportive and enjoys idling about in the air, sailing briskly half-way up the giddy heights with up-curled tips of the primaries and in a Lapwing delirium of joy twisting and curving in a series of fantastic diagrams and then tumbling downwards like a raven.

The rock-face with a pair of Choughs disporting in its shadows relaxes its grimness.

 

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

The Rock-Dove by H.J. Massingham

Rock-Dove

 

The Rock-Dove (or Rock-Pigeon, White-backed Dove, Doo or Rockier)

“The Rock-Dove is another species which is a maritime dweller but whose racial and structural affinities are of the land. But it is not so exclusively littoral as the Rock-Pipit, darting inland on swift and rhythmic wing to feed on grain and seeds about the farm-house or in the pastures. Here it commingles with its domesticated descendants, the wild original of them all.

It has a dreadful influence over these tame pigeons, breeding with them so that their young desert the ways of men and revert, even in colour,  to the wild in their later descendants.  It can infect even adult birds with the poison of liberty, and these throw off their ornamentalisms , break with their acquired habits, swing off to a sea-life and indulge in promiscuous gallantries on the farm-house roof no-more.

They become complete outcasts, shunning the human form and oblivious of the benefits of parasitism which man has showered upon them. They become liable to being struck down by Peregrine Falcons and shot by their former protectors, while they are exposed to the full rigours of the northern winter and to every hazard of a free existence. Yet these birds never return to the human fold.

Consequently, you can never be sure whether the birds you see are renegade  fly-aways or the genuinely primitive ” Blue Rock.”  If you see a male pigeon strutting and cooing before his fair one on a rock-ledge half-way up the perilous cliff up, you think – “The parent of these birds trod the farmyard as the stage for this identical scene.”

As like as not, you will be wrong, for this kind of wooing is an inherited memory of the wild in the tame. When a party of birds springs out from the cliff-head and circles low over the sea, rejoicing in the sun and waves whose strength has entered their buoyant flight, and racing pace, you will deny that such grace and command could ever emerge out of a dovecot. You may err again, for it is astonishing how speedily the rebels slough off their civilization.

The true Rock-Dove is a bird of the north and west, nesting abundantly in the Hebrides, the Orkneys and Shetlands and among the rocky Scottish islands. Except for its plentiful colonies along the Welsh coast on Flamborough Head and in parts of Ireland, it is an uncommon bird, with wide gaps between its breeding stations, many of which are now deserted.

The pairs make a rude nest of twigs, grasses, ling or seaweed usually on the higher ledge of a cavern, for like the shag, the Rock-Dove is a troglodyte. Two pure white glossy eggs are laid and the young are fed in the universal pigeon-fashion.

 

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

 

Canada Goose or Cravat Goose by H.J. Massingham.

Canada Goose

 

“The Canada Goose is native to the American Continent, migrating from Alaska down the Yukon and so to its winter quarters on the Gulf of Mexico. It is possible that a few of the winter Hebridean birds are storm-deflected strays, though it would surely take a tornado rather than a gale to turn a wild goose from its self-appointed course.

But these geese have been  acclimatised to England as a domestic or ornamental bird since the eighteenth century.

Many of these birds have broken from their polite servitude, and these pioneers have formed and maintained so genuinely a free-living race of wild geese that they have positively added a new species to the British list.

The birds are less nocturnal then the Barnacles, and feed on cultivated land. The succulent mere-grass is a favourite diet. The cry is as wild, deep and resonant as the Brents’, and less shrill than the Barnacles’. Wild geese are said to “honk,” but that is what motor-cars do, not geese. “Homg, hong” is a truer onomatopœism, and the Canada Geese I have heard at Holkham, on the North Norfolk coast, honged their way between sand and sky”.

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

 

The White-Tailed Eagle by H.J. Massingham

The White Tailed Eagle

 

“The home of the White-Tailed Eagle is among the more tremendous of natural bastions against the unwearied sea, and on some veteran pinnacle outposted in the surge it loves to survey a boundlessness of sea and air, heraldically opening its mighty wings as the Cormorants  do on rocky islets or, impatient of this ultimate foothold on the earth, with slow and ponderous winnowing it sails vastly into space, climbing sunwards with flight-plumes that let shafts of light between them, their tips upcurled, their motion still. Spirally mounts the lord of the air until to us he dwindles to a little bird.

Not so royal is his land temper, though less furtive and ignoble than the Golden Eagle’s, the White-Tailed Eagle with loud and ludicrous yelps will allow itself to be bundled off the territory  of some puny, arrogant Rock-Dove, while the smaller Gulls can make it sue piteously for respite from their teasings in the air”

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

The Barnacle Goose by H.J. Massingham.

The Barnacle Goose

 

“Why retain this fantastic title for the second member of our Black Goose tribe?

It is derived from the old bestiary legend that geese were hatched of ship-barnacles, a legend fervidly credited by he wise men of old. It is a pity that men have been so slow to recognise the natural wonders of wild animal life that they have frequently invented an insane make-believe about it.

The Barnacle differs from the Brent only in comparative degrees. It is less maritime but even more northerly, It gaggles southwards in autumn down the west coast from the Hebrides to Cornwall rather than the east, but in much poorer numbers upon such celebrated goose-stations as the Dee Estuary and the Solway.

Its habits are more nocturnal than the Brent’s and the flights are probably higher above the earth. This is partly gathered from what happened the year before the War when eighteen Barnacles, winging north to their lonely homes, were struck by lightening over the Solway and shot to earth without having been seen before the gods smote them.

Their Valkyrie cry as they go their airways is not quite so grand and sonorous as that of the Brent, is on higher note and more percussive. It is of the Barnacle the saying goes – “There’s bad luck coming when the hell hounds are on the hunt,” and the mighty din of a gaggle in full cry often suggests an excited yelping”.

 

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

 

 

The Peregrine Falcon by H.J. Massingham.

Peregrine Falcon .

“The Peregrine is justly described as one of the noble reptorial species, partly because of its lightning power of flight, its dauntless courage, and its total lack of the meaner habits of feeding which characterise the Buzzard, the Sparrow-Hawk and even the Golden Eagle.

This bird will never stalk the shrubberies like a conspirator, nor feed on carrion. It takes its prey in full flight and with a swoop like a thunderbolt. In repose, it will perch like a heraldic figure upon the most prominent bluff, investing the whole landscape about it with dignity and unregardful of the so often hapless consequences to itself

It will take a whole valley with a cleave of its wings.”

 

This description is by H.J. Massingham in his book ‘Birds of the Seashore’ . Read more here.

 

The Brent Goose by H.J. Massingham

The Brent Goose

“How unaccountable is the attribute of dull-wittedness we ascribe to the goose! I should call the wild goose the most thinking biped of any shore-bird that exists, with the possible exception of the Raven and the Grey Crow. Even the domestic goose is no moron, though his civilized decadence in comparison with his wild brethren is almost as painful as the caustic caricature of the wild boar in the farmyard pig.

Anthony Collett has described the semi-responsive emotions of these petty officials of the home-pastures when a skein of wild geese passes trumpeting over them. They lift their bristling necks, pose amazed at the articulate sky, flap their wings like the birds in Dürer’s Melancholia, too impotent to lift their earth-born robustness and fall to gobbling the meadow-grass again.

The farmyard goose is the self important Bumble of the steading, with the itch for minor tyranny common to the breed, but he is certainly no fool. But the wild geese, as they drive apocalyptically through the upper darkness, clanging to the wild-eyed stars – they seem the flying angels of noble freedom, a freedom the race of men has lost”.

(You can read more about Massingham’s book Birds of the Seashore here )

 

Birds of the Seashore by H.J. Massingham

Birds of the Seashore by H.j. Massingham

I picked up this book in a Cambridge charity shop years ago.  What I like about the book is Massingham’s  eccentric, but poetic, descriptions of the birds.  For example, this is how he describes the Spoonbill:

“Its companions on the flats are usually Herons, but Gulls will often 

persecute it for,  it appears,  its very mystery and unearthliness, as though offended

like a vulgar mob by the radiance and purity of its shining dress”

…and this passage is included in his description of the the Red-Necked Phalarope:

“…they are so lamentably indifferent to the human prescence and ease

of approach that both they and their cousins, the Grey Phalaropes, are

frequently stoned to death. The cry is a faint pleeping”.

 

Massingham’s adjectives are often avuncular rather that scientific.  It is as though he is describing the quirks of wayward children, rather than birds.  But his descriptions  are also vivid and precise – and when it does spill over into anthropomorphism, it is often charming and often funny. Unfortunately this charm and wit may go hand in hand with some dodgy politics.

H.J. Massingham (1888 – 1952) wrote mainly about rural subjects and agriculture. After being educated at Westminster and Oxford he became a journalist, he knocked about a bit with DH Lawrence, and by the 1930s he was writing extensively and almost exclusively on rural matters.

The ruralist revival of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Massingham was part, was  a reaction to industrialization and the perceived failures of liberal modernity.  It was often mixed up in some of the the more eccentric far right politics of the age – especially in its emotional, and reactionary, belief in ‘the soil’ as the basis of society.  The best known figure who represents this tendency was Henry Williamson, the author of Tarka The Otter, who was a fascist sympathizer and supporter of Mosley. Another key figure in this revival was Rolf Gardiner – a champion of morris dancing, a proselytizer for  organic farming, a fan of  naturalism and someone who had way too much time for Nazi theories on race and soil.

Massingham, even though he was part of that world, wasn’t a fascist – and he objected to the pro German tendencies amongst elements within the rural revival movement. He does seem to have been, however, a tiny bit bonkers – and perhaps his reactionary politics does cast a slight shadow over his often charming and funny anthropomorphic descriptions of birds. However, whilst it may be the case that he was one of those 1930s reactionaries who hated modern society and had a ludicrously romantic love of tradition and nature,  so did Tolkein,  and I don’t have any fundamental problem with him.

Massingham, like a few other reactionaries (and fascist fellow travellers),  went on to play a part in the creation of the Soil Association – where we find the origins of modern organic farming and post war green politics.