By Roy and Lesley Adkins (Little Brown £25, 488 pp)

Our relationships with birds, which are the only direct descendants from the dinosaurs, has always been complicated. George Harding, a gentleman from England, was delighted to see a few rare bee-eaters in a suburb of Bristol. He captured the moment with great excitement. He then captured four of them.

Roy and Lesley Adkins are a husband and wives team of social historians who have turned attention to birdlife and human interaction over the centuries.

We have bred them, bought and sold them, prized them, trained them and even blinded them. Chaffinches kept in cages are believed to sing sweeter if they are pierced with a hot wire.

Roy and Lesley Adkins have penned a book about human interaction with birds throughout the centuries. Pictured: A goldfinch

Roy and Lesley Adkins wrote a book on human interaction with birds over the centuries. Pictured: A goldfinch

We have, of course driven some to extinction. The title “When There Were Birds” is deliberately ominous. It is a warning about the damage we have done and where we are going.

There are jaw-dropping accounts of extremely rare birds appearing in England at various times — like those bee-eaters — or else the last of their kind being spotted in remote country, and promptly being shot, stuffed and mounted to grace a farmer’s parlour or a gentleman’s library.

And in 1843 a farmer shot the last Great Bustard in Cornwall, in a field, ‘where it had been observed for several days’. Nevertheless, such random shootings had far less effect on bird populations than the advent of modern industrial farming, relentless population growth and, as the Adkins’s observe, the catastrophic effects of the ‘maximum agricultural production at any cost’ philosophy of the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy.

The first chapter of the book is called Abundance. This term is used by naturalists to highlight what we have lost and how it happened.

It isn’t just the species in Britain, and the world, that have vanished for ever, like the passenger pigeon or the great auk. It’s also the numbers of our most common species that have fallen precipitously.

London was home to thousands upon thousands of sparrows, starlings, and this was before our time. We now see very few.

In 1912, the Pall Mall Gazette viewed the starlings of Trafalgar Square as quintessentially English little chaps, for the starling ‘so fully typifies the qualities on which we English pride ourselves — adaptability, pluck, and perseverance, cheerfulness under hard conditions, adventurous spirit . . .’

In 1912, the Pall Mall Gazette viewed the starlings of Trafalgar Square as quintessentially English little chaps. Pictured: Murmurations of starlings in Brighton

The Pall Mall Gazette in 1912 regarded Trafalgar Square’s starlings as English little chaps. Pictured: Murmurations of starlings in Brighton 

Today, Trafalgar Square is home to a few feral pigeons that are quite unhealthy and wandering about looking for junk food. Oh dear.

Many records from Victorian travellers and Georgian parsons are available. In 1798, a visitor to Anglesey reckoned he saw some 50,000 puffins: ‘Upwards of 50 acres of land were literally covered’ in them. Today, there are 300 puffins remaining.

W.H. was a great naturalist, and self-described tramp. Hudson described a single ploughed field in Hampshire in the early 20th century, filled with an absolute ‘army’ of peewits, pipits, pied and grey wagtails, finches, buntings and larks ‘in thousands and thousands’ — all in one field.

A teacher in Hull in 1890 recorded 33 different species in his ‘small garden’, including a nightjar and a heron.

William Cobbett reckoned he saw, ‘I do believe . . . a flock of ten thousand’ goldfinches feeding on their favourite food, thistle-heads, along a lane in Gloucestershire. Today, people spray thistles to death as ‘weeds’, then wonder why goldfinches are so much rarer. This has been a common trait in humans for centuries.

A Victorian curate ridiculed the slaughter of sparrows, which would have more than earned their keep by eating all the slugs and snails on the crops: ‘The grubs must have laughed from the furrow in the faces of their ploughmen; and the wireworms must have sung merrily as they bored into the very hearts of their turnips.’

Goldfinches (pictured), skylarks, linnets, thrushes and nightingales were once among the most common caged birds

Goldfinches (pictured), nightingales, skylarks, linnets or thrushes were once the most common caged birds. 

The sheer plethora of birds everywhere meant people’s lives were full of them. They were eaten or kept as pets.

Boys as young as nine were paid as bird scarers in the fields, working 12 hours a day in 1835, ‘and for this I received fourpence a day’, recorded one old countryman. People caught birds by netting or liming them, or by grabbing them from the branches while they slept at night.

Today, budgies aside, the practice of keeping all kinds of songbirds inside cages is almost forgotten. There are large royal enclosures that were located along the road to Buckingham Palace. This is still known as Birdcage Walk. The most common caged birds were bullfinches (and goldfinches), skylarks, linnets as well as thrushes, nightingales, and linnets.

His caged nightingales, wrote a vicar in Barnstaple, ‘would begin to sing just at the early dawn of a summer’s morning’, while in winter, ‘they were brought into the dining room for the sake of the warmth of the fire, and when the lamps were lighted they often commenced to sing, and would provide us with a concert during dinner’.



The most clever use of a bird inside a cage was probably taking a canary into a coal mine: an idea that was discovered in the 1890s.

Odourless carbon monoxide, ‘white damp’, was undetectable and lethal. John Haldane, a brilliant physiologist, discovered that canaries were particularly sensitive to the gas. They would teter and then fall from their perch in its presence long before a man would succumb. This gave them time to escape.

Once freed from the toxic fumes, the canary would then be able to perk up and recover within a few minutes.

They were used, amazingly, until as recently as 1987 and the phrase ‘canary in a coal mine’ remains proverbial, warning us, as the authors say, of ‘looming disaster, as well as a reminder of how people’s lives owe so much to birds’.

Some of the most powerful observations come from World War I. A correspondent writing in 1917, before the Battle of Messines on the Ypres Salient and the colossal howitzer bombardments, described a lovely dawn chorus of ‘blackbird and thrush, lark and blackcap and willow warbler’.

Even after the battle started, ‘in the intervals of the shattering noise of the guns, their notes pealed up…’

A soldier from the Cameron Highlanders, sheltering in the trenches, said: ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be.’

When There Were Birds, a fascinating slice of social history, is a portrait about our ever-conflicting relationship with the natural environment which we so abuse but which we cannot live apart from; a book that strikes a beautiful balance between wonder and warning.