Reading through Mary Colwell’s new book on curlews (on which more to follow), it is surprising to find how quickly humans lose touch with species which have disappeared from the landscape.
Travelling across Ireland, Mary met dozens of people who had quietly forgotten about curlews since they declined out of sight. When she plays them recordings of the birds calling, memories come welling up thick and strong, but the pervading sense is that we do not mourn for long. Species which have been lost for more than a single human generation quickly become obscure, and it’s hard to stir enthusiasm for birds which lack a living history. Curlews have declined so dramatically in Ireland over the past forty years that we could soon reach a point when nobody remembers them anymore and the wound will heal itself. You don’t mourn what you never knew.
Curlews are blessed with an evocative call which invites intimacy – it doesn’t take long for people to feel closely bound to the birds and perhaps that will help to stir an interest in their resurrection. Corncrakes are less fortunate, and while their rasping burr can be rich and profoundly moving, they have now been gone for so long that it can feel strange and unfamiliar; tourists often call the sound “irritating” and “noisy” when they hear it on holidays to the Western Isles – nobody says the same of curlews.
I have spent many long days with corncrakes in the Outer Hebrides, working in Harris and visiting Uist and Tiree. Perhaps I am unusually devoted to these unassuming little birds, and I love those scratching calls which ring around the meadows beneath the stars. The rich, burring friction of that sound makes my chest hum and my head swim. But I also loved the sound of hornbills in Tanzania and peacocks in Rajasthan – some birds seem to define their environment and they lend a sparkle of exoticism to strange and unfamiliar places. When you get home, you can listen to recordings of those foreign birds and be transported back to the jungles where you heard them for real.
But corncrakes are different. I hear them on the hebridean machair and feel instantly at home. Then I come back and hear the sound around our yard, ringing noisily in the warm, awkward places which lie between the whitewash and the nettles. The last corncrakes left Galloway when I was too young to know them, so I am confused by the way these birds make me feel. I begin to wonder if I knew them here before I was born; that the crex crex has been stamped on my DNA. It almost feels possible that the constant, repetitive grinding has engraved the sound on me like the drip of water on a stone. Twenty years have passed since corncrakes bred in Galloway, but perhaps there is still an echo of them below the lolling docks.
Sitting out to read at sunset last night, I looked down on a world of growth and prosperity. The fields are thick and green, and the oats shimmered in the breeze with a creamy willow grey. Swallows skimmed the land, and the air was thick with linnets and redpolls. I should have been utterly delighted with things as they were, so why did I strain my ears for a corncrake which has been dead for decades?