King of the trees,

you fly too high for me.

I want to ask,

what is the point?

Why wear a golden crown none can see,

except, perhaps, one with a keen marauding eye

whose heart leaps with that glint

and thinks he will be rich,

but dare not make the plunge into the leaves?

Also your song,

if one can call it that,

so thin and shrill

that says

‘look up,

look here’,

has now,

like you,

become too high for me.


Can frogs fly?

In some ways, yes,

in some ways, no.


in that damp gullet

slow to die.

But even if they get a place beneath the wings

(which they will surely do)

will not look out.

Their sleepy eyes

will not admire the view,

the fields passing slow beneath;

there are no windows

and their eyes

do not see pictures,

only speed,

though they had never seen that sure fast strike.

And now the feet descend

the dancing landing gear

the shifting cargo

rocking left and right;

uncertain certainty

of frog-powered flight.

Clay pigeons

For all their navigation skills

pigeons do not seem to understand horizons,

but appear to leap up over any skyline,

be it trees or roof-tops,

for all the world like penguins

that pop out on to ice-floes.

Maybe they are surfing waves invisible to us

and soar until they stall;

until the clay has lost its fire

but rekindles in the fall.



flying low,

at speed,

your wings,

not geared for slow flight,

meet your daily needs;

one or two songbirds

silenced between the trees.

But you might have been wiser

to keep up your quartering in wild

places and not haunt these suburban wastes

where bird tables are often visible through plate

glass and you approaching at break-neck speed.


The colours and flight belong to the green woodpecker, but drumming is more characteristic of the greater spotted woodpecker.

Issac Newton could not have known

a woodpecker drumming on a hollow tree

and presented his law of reaction and action,

but instead invented the whistle with the pea

rattling inside like a bird's brain in its skull.

Also that strange drooping flight,

like an apple at ebb on the lazy tide of a fast stream,

might or might not have helped him discover

the laws of motion.


The male bird of paradise

is an explosion of passion;

a tropical storm,

but who is that passion burning for,

a drab companion,

or the mirror of his soul,

that he can look into

and see himself,

and she can look out

and see him?

Passenger pigeon

Once inhabiting North America and considered to  be the most abundant bird on earth, the passenger pigeon was brought to extinction within less than a century by a massive hunting programme and failure to understand its breeding rituals. The last surviving individual, a female called Martha died in Cincinnati Zoo on the first day of September 1914.

Martha, last of your race,

have you not considered parthenogenesis?

Then becoming an hermaphrodite,

you might,

like Aphrodite, rise,

uncovering man’s shame.

Your flowing locks stream out,

darken the light

and fill the sky with sound

for days on end.

But you might say,

Why bother? You

will only do again

what you have done.

And so decide instead

to die

on the first of September

nineteen fourteen.


The hoopoe is a rare summer visitor to southern Britain. A most distinguished and elegant bird, although the plumage is quite drab and the song unremarkable.

If I had my time over again

I would choose to be born at the northern limit

of the range

of the hoopoe.

This is where the best champagne is made,

and indeed

the hoopoe is to other birds

as champagne to wine,

although its song many be no more exciting

than the popping of a champagne cork.


another thing;

were I ever to celebrate winning at Le Mans,

I would prefer to release a cage or two of hoopoes

than spray a dire waste of champagne

all over the place.

Long-tailed tits

At work in the area now.

They appear near Christmas Eve,

(and other times)


flitting from branch to branch.

Attending to trees

is what they do.

A group of six or more,


and then moving on,

and never a hope to call them back

or a chance to check a job well done,

with a guarantee of swift return,

or ask them where they pay their tax.


The engine of the V1, the Flying Bomb, Doodlebug or Buzz-bomb, often said to be a ramjet, was in fact a pulse jet, but the analogy to the feeding action of the gannet with a ramjet is stronger.

The flight of the V1


to say the least,


buzzing its way out

until the engine


then the tilt

for the silent


Your plunge

no less


your head

a front-mounted


Careless raptor

I had seen buzzards circling overhead,

though never yet descending with intent,

as though they lived on air,

until in early morning mist,

saw one perched upon a post,


Then glided to the grass to lie with wings outstretched,

as though, seeing a friend,

had floated down to whisper secrets in his ear;

now lumbered up,

a corpse between its claws,

an angled body,

broken by a word.


There is nothing,

absolutely nothing,

that you can say about a tree-creeper.

So why bother?

Because it compels me.

But creeping

is not what you might best call

the steps of a small bird

on a brown trunk,

moving up by the whole tones

of a stopped string


reappearing below

with an unseen turn

and starting again,

on a different line,

several times.

A skewed symmetry

like the introduction to Beethoven's seventh symphony.

Then, when at last it reaches a suitable height,

where it might care to rest,

flies away.


Resembling formless tracts of ancient script,

those lifelines written out in summer sky,

each spot a living mote.

What stone is there to spell that soundless speech,

or seek out meaning with its hidden key?

Then concentrating all from start to end,

a word appears;

a screeching swarm of words in endless chase,

gliding and sweeping past those ageless walls,

tempered by evening heat and scented vines.

But unlike other tongues,

whose sense is clear, though not their sounds,

we know the form of this symbolic speech,

what it is based upon

and how pronounced.

Sibling rivalry

Johannes Brahms’ brother Fritz, also a musician, was known in his native Hamburg as’ the wrong Brahms’.

Mistle Thrush,

I hate to say this

and it grieves me to do so,

but you are a wrong ‘un!

Were it not for

your famous brother

no-one would know

you existed.

Were it not for

your famous brother,

everyone would take you

for what you are,

singing your pleading notes

in high places

that no-one would visit,

or even know your name,

were it not for

your famous brother.

Red kite

In past times red kites were abundant in London and other lowland cities. Protected birds, valued as scavengers they were said to swoop down unheard by their victims and remove hats, handkerchiefs and even hairpieces.

So, you have come back then,

most rapacious bird!

One of the worst

and urban too,

an urban thug.


if half of what they said were true.

In the good,

or is it bad,

old days

you lined your nest with underwear

and had a reputation for hat or hairpiece stealing,

scooping from the pate in silent swoop.

How could you do it?

Handkerchiefs in use

snatched while the sneeze matured,

condemning to release in flight

the cluster bomblet spray.

Bless me!

Bless all of us!

And yet, unanchored bungee jumper,

your elasticated sweep does thrill;

it takes the breath away,

and for a bird that dives to perigee beneath the clothesline

making off with ladies so-called smalls


you have done well,

refuse-collector, washday-thief;

indeed you are the best-dressed here.

It suits,

that symmetry of white

clipped to your wings

as old transvestite habits re-emerge.


I saw a heron land,

hold itself,

then gradually advance toward the pool.

The body, streaked with black,

quivered on mincing legs,

but the head, most remarkable,

was absolutely still;

the movement beneath it focused

on this fixed point.

There is no doubt it did advance,

but from its view

the world moved.

Then disturbed,

departed instantly,

but not suddenly,

as though it had been

moving all the time

and the stillness only an illusion,



it was.

The enquiry

Today two swallows came;

one clutched the wall, one perched.

They talked,

a pair whose love was theirs alone.

A higher social class,

(one does not ask)

their word their bond,

but would it be withheld?

We had not advertised,

were not prepared.

I should have liked to say,

‘Here is water;

these old pots

are just about to go;

we don’t keep cats,’

but they arrived too soon,

there was no time.

Robin's pin-cushion

To see this and to know

what will take place,

you have to become land-blind,

as some are.

Then you will find a band of white

that breaks

and merges with the gull's cry.

This is a rasping, sawing sound

like a snail's tongue eating the land away.

But that is not all.

We cannot tell how it will end.

Can the gulls, that float on the wind and turn

facing back, get their will? Does it ever concern them

that, as they fly, the necklace contracts?  Do they care

that behind them,

fenced-in, robins adorn

the land like a pin-cushion

and one whose sharp thorns

draw blood,

because each defends an irregular area

and they are, as I said before, fenced-in and fixed there

like a honey-comb and only some of them will ever know

that land falls into the sea?


Once you were common,

appearing on the face of the farthing.

In those days

four farthings made one penny,

that is, one d,

until two-point-four d became one new p

and that tells us immediately

what you were worth then

and what you are worth now.

They do say that you are,

if anything,

even more common,

but I don’t see how that can be,

because the little children do not know you any more

and you will not stay

still enough

for me to be sure it is you,

now that I do not recognise your song.

Maybe I never did,

even though your sound-to-weight ratio

is thought to be the greatest in the whole bird kingdom.


The hedge sparrow, although very common, is inconspicuous and often described as unassuming. Apparently monogamous, the female seems to encourage illicit attentions of neighbouring males. In Britain it is one of the four major hosts of the cuckoo.

I don’t mean to pry

but I can’t take my eyes from you,

neat and petite in your workaday suit,

because something of what you must be

has begun to get through to me.

Unlike some in the street, you never

come back from abroad with élan.

Your song is not sweet and indeed

your spring cleaning, if that’s what it is,

takes so much of your time

we can’t stop for a word.

Demeanour is all that you have,

but your air of insouciance,

has, as I think you must know,

begun to get through.

Hedging your bets, yes you!

Don’t deny it, that you have been seen

flitting beneath,

or just coming back from goodness knows what,

but leaving me out.

Can you not see, your apparent insouciance

has begun to get through;

but I

am estranged from your game plan.

unlike, for example, the one

who makes such a loud song about

what he has got.

But watch out!

He is sure to discover your ways,

and I fear that he will put one over on you

and then when he does

you will not

even try to explain,

but just get along

with whatever it is

that you take for your lot..


No other bird contrives

to make flying uphill

seem so like the hard work that it must be.

A heavy airplane in its ponderous climb,

or an oarsman rowing upstream,

bright eyes fixed in an empty stare.

And no other bird conveys such tangible relief

when the way

starts to go down.

Le Pie

How well Monet knew that snow, sun and a magpie

formed a rare triple conjunction.

If you have a magpie sitting in a tree, or on a fence,

what you do not have

is any collection of atoms,

but the difference between iron and steel.

Compare it with the family of jackdaws.

They are tame;

they do not fly in straight lines

(goal directed).

They would reply, if asked,

‘Did we say that?

well if we did, I don't think we meant it.’

Looking at it another way; the magpie

prefers to intercept any jackdaw

than fly down

to whatever was thrown to attract its attention.

Monet undoubtedly knew this,

but he also saw that the light of the snow in the sun

would be less vivid without it,

and what we have seen, at least

enables us to discuss the issue

of whether the magpie is white

with the lightness of white on black

or whether the sun's rays, robbed of their steely blue,

are bathing the snow with a pink, delicate fire.

Homing instinct

Almost without warning

a pigeon thumped against the windscreen.


we first feared for ourselves,

but, at the same time,

failed to see why

a creature of air

should solidify so suddenly,


then fall away to die.

After Norman MacCaig /  G. M. Hopkins.

White-collar worker

Oh Norman, how should I presume to question you?

Your ‘diplomat’!

Your ‘frogs’ leap out;

sit silent on the page,

but pigeons, each descending to a slanting ledge, or rooftop,

after days of easy picking,

are these your ‘wobbling gyroscopes’

your hosts of lust?



two birds,

one indolent


‘Oh my Chevalier’

the other

restless, pulling at its beak,


formulaic action,

not a gash to bring forth flame and blood and passion

in which hope could be reborn,

instead a mounting, tired and unenthusiastic,

quickly done, then

no acknowledgement

no ‘thank you ma’am.’

No playboy of the western world,

no labourer,

worthy of his hire.

I fear

we had observed a breed

unknown to you;

suburban wood-pigeon,

tired after an uninspiring day at the office.


The wood pigeon is one of our most successful breeding birds, either despite or because is appears to spend so little effort in designing and building its nest, which appears, from beneath, to be an open unsuitable structure for incubating eggs. It is a strange fact that neither the eggs nor the young are visible from beneath until the ‘squabs’ are almost the size of their parents, when they can be seen feeding by plunging their elongated bills deep into the parent bird’s gullet.

Call that a nest,

that flat untidy platform!

Have millions of years of evolution

taught you nothing!

You can’t fool me though,

with your twig-full

see-through geodesic openness.

Eggs, if they appeared,

would roll away,

but thankfully you haven’t laid them yet,

so, don’t expect me to believe your

white-against-the-sky buffoonery.

I told you,

‘It could neither keep things in nor out’

and I was right;

so now that these two unkempt


almost as big as you,

have just appeared

their one aim

seems to be

taking the very bread

out of your mouth.

Parrot fever

In the Loro Park in Tenerife

Do parrots know despair,

or like some favoured uncle or exotic aunt,

whose duty is to visit us on Christmas Day

or birthday times,

or both, and entertain,

are they always filled with inner radiance,

or pain, even though each movement says,

here humour overflows?

Yet is this is only how they sense their loss,

the light extinguished when they come to Mulla's shore,

that name contrived to match

the unexciting breaking of our seas,

or to convey the sense of something

altogether grand and ancient.

Place of Britain's biggest,

therefore most extinct,


and though

we cannot see its fires now,

yet when they burnt, so also did the sun.

Palms lined the shores

and parrots flew.

Now we have found a place where they still live

chained to each dismal perch,

or caged or flying free,

making us ask,

what lights can burn?

Does parrot fever rage within their skulls

and do they think,

what other birds will fly

and can they see the Southern Cross from here?

Tell me again,

what muted tongues are these?

The Parrot, by Thomas Campbell, is a wonderful poem about  an apparently true event. A parrot from the Caribbean languishes in its cage in Britain (Mulla) until many years later it hears a Spanish voice and, after a paroxysm of excitement, falls dead in its cage.

Birdwatching for the hard-of-hearing

Seven notes of the eight note song of the yellowhammer appear to dominate the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.  In 1823, on a walk with his notoriously unreliable companion, Anton Schindler, Beethoven is reported to have said "Here I have written the scene by the brook and the yellow-hammers over there, the quails, the nightingales and the cuckoos around have helped me to compose."

Yellowhammers spread the tablecloth of summer,

the slowest movement

of a pastoral symphony.

But my German is not very good

and all I hear is

‘little bit of bread and no’

repeated over and over.

Was he deaf,

or am I dreaming,

or hard-of-hearing?

Why no cheese?



1 Goldcrest

2 Storks

3 Clay pigeons

4 Sparrowhawk

5 Woodpecker

6 Reflection

7 Passenger pigeon

8 Hoopoe

9 Long-tailed tits

10 Gannet

11 Careles raptor

12 Introduction

13 Sibling rivalry

14 Red kite

15 Heron

16 The enquiry

17 Wren

18 Dunnock

19 Jackdaws

20 Le pie

21 Homing instinct

22 Hubris

23 Parrot fever

24 Birdwatchg for the hard of hearing


Parrot Fever

(Birdwatching for the hard of hearing