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A Black-Listed Species

The avian community is glad
He’s dying out, the mad oölogist.
With every species on the British list
He always wanted more eggs than he had,
And on his checklist those he had to add
Were those his greedy eyes could not resist.
So sad, this would-be ornithologist,
So sad he was and just a trifle mad.

In spring the conscientious eggers thieve
The eggs of godwit, pratincole and stilt
That nest on shoreline rocks with ruff and reeve,
On mudflats and littoral sand and silt.
They should be galvanised, the whole bang lot
With fifty thousand gigawatts or shot.

.

.

The Trials of the Oölogist 

Surmounting cliffs to squalid ravens’ nest,
Or scaling sixty feet of beech to “thieve”
The eggs of rook and heron? Cuckoos leave
Their own in pipits’ nests, less of a pest,
The latest figures in research suggest.
Subvert their lives, though, and all birds will grieve.
To slay a latent being won’t relieve
Its bearer of the feeling dispossessed.

For you can see it in the eyes of those
That having lost their charges don’t know where
To turn but hop from branch to branch, disclose
Their loss, disconsolation and despair.
Their bird brains cannot suffer mental pain?
Just open up your eyes and think again.

.

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The Oölogist

His eggs lie in their birds’ eye maple drawers
With mapping pen and Chinese ink inscribed,
His records falsified, officials bribed.
Trephined with microtome and keyhole saws,
His eggs all blown with fine pipettes and gauze
Infused with ethanol, details transcribed
In lusty learned tomes, such works imbibed
By ornithologists and crashing bores.

Their shells could not preserve the living bird
So why preserve with ink in written word
Their genus, species, race and common name?
To immortality they have no claim:
No seas of ink nor time spent in display
Could recreate the lives he took away.

.

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Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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33 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    It’s a pleasure to read these three sonnets, and I have always wondered why there was this craze for collecting the eggs of birds. It seems to have been a major obsession in the early 20th century, and the oologist did indeed use illegal and underhanded methods to obtain the eggs he wanted. On large English country estates, the gamekeeper was often tasked with preventing the eggs of prized birds from being stolen by oologists. It often comes up in the stories of H.H. Munro (Saki).

    It’s not like collecting postage stamps or rock samples. I mean, apart from size and color, how the hell much appreciable difference could there be in bird eggs?

    Reply
  2. Peter Hartley

    Joe S – Thank you for your comment, bearing in mind the excitement seems to be mostly generated elsewhere at the moment, and you are right: the first half of the twentieth century was indeed the hey-day of the egg-collector, in the U.K. at least, up to the passing of the Wild Birds act in 1954. An earnest gentleman called Charles St John was almost singlehandedly responsible for the complete disappearance of the osprey from Britain in the nineteenth century, proudly bragging of his various exploits in a book of 1893 with edifying chapter-headings like “Ptarmigan Shooting” and “Shooting Wild Geese”. And as you say there is little difference between the appearance of many birds’ eggs anyway. If you wanted to buy (illegally of course) the egg of a ptarmigan it is virtually identical to that of the extremely common European red grouse. With liberal blotches of protoporphyrin a Canada goose egg may be transformed into that of a Golden Eagle – their eggs are the same size – a great prize for any budding oölogist but he must needs accept the provenance supplied by the vendor, and who is going to give credence either to his or the thieving egg collector’s say-so?

    Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        It has been reintroduced in the U.K. where it nests in increasing numbers in Scotland. The site at Loch Garten has been occupied for many many years and it, among one or two other sites, has a viewing platform from which I saw a nesting pair in the seventies at a time when they were extremely scarce. They nest in England too, now, in the Cheviot Hills, and are showing an interest in many other areas as prospective nest sites, their locations being kept under wraps, I think, for obvious reasons.

  3. Sally Cook

    Dear Peter –
    Thank you for writing so knowledgeably and with such care on the fate of so many bird species. I am reminded of fetuses I saw displayed in jars of chemicals at a museum in Cleveland, Ohio as a teen-aged girl. I have never forgotten them.
    . Why must we worchip death? Birds are meant to live out a normal life span as free-wheeling creatures.
    In a way they are like poems; they start out in a random way but you soon find they have structure, and rules.
    Thanks again for expressing your concern in such a graceful way..

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Sally – wet specimens soused in formaldehyde always look repulsive don’t they? And they seem, in and of themselves, to point out the hideous in nature. The likes of Hirst, who delights in the shock-value of his art, seem to glory in this when, until recently art was all about creating beauty – not necessarily beauty in the accepted sense but the beauty in the brushwork of Rembrandt in a depiction of an anatomist performing post-mortem brain surgery, the beauty in the piety that speaks to us from the portrayal of Christ’s suffering in a Cranach or a Grünewald. This is art, this is beauty, and it is diametrically opposed to the vapid, senseless ugliness in much of what purports to be art today. Labrador retrievers are clothed with fur, birds with plumage. That is how God meant them to be seen, and at another level we can find beauty in the minute articulations of a spider, the furriness of a bumble bee. Beauty is all around us and we don’t need the dross of Emin or Hirst to remind us that there is ugliness in the world too.

      Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Peter, your animal poems are always full of feeling, but I think the sheer elegance of your writing on the subject is growing. This trio has many fine expressive phrases and lines, while avoiding the pitfall of sentimentalism that’s often present in writing on such topics. Masterful!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Margaret – thank you so much for your kind and rigorously astute remarks and, as always, for your perceptive comments which I regard very highly. I said quite recently that I wanted to take subjects like the death of a beloved animal, (through writing as well as I can) out of the realms of mawkishness, slushiness and over-sentimentality. An animal that has shared its life with our own for perhaps fifteen years is surely entitled to some of our grief at its extinction.

      Reply
  5. Jeff Eardley

    Peter, these three are just so good. As usual, you had me grabbing my Oxford English Dictionary for “oologist” but it is not listed. However, on the opposite page, I alighted on “onanism” which certainly is, and applies perfectly to the people who practice this vile egg-snatching business. 50k gigawatts is nowhere near enough voltage.
    Could I use this opportunity to say how much I am enjoying your recent compilation which should grace the bookshelves of all on SCP.
    Thanks also for your interest in the demise of the Toad. I can only hope that his remains were scraped from the highway and into the belly of something with wings.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Jeff – first of all, an oölogist is somebody who collects birds’ eggs. He needs a diaeresis in order to prevent his being mispronounced with only three syllables. In dedicating another little poem to you and your contretemps with a toad please refer to page 174 of THE BOOK to find my own enlightened attitude to this much-maligned creature. A morkin, by the way, is “road-kill,” which fairly describes your poor toad, as distinct from the “merkin” of the same poem which is a pubic wig.

      Reply
      • Jeff Eardley

        Thanks Peter, just read it. I have a life-long horror of being anywhere near a frog or toad. To pick one up would bleach my skin white and send me into catatonic shock. I am sure there is a word for this most irrational affliction.

      • Mike Bryant

        Jeff, perhaps you should establish the Batrachophobia Society. I would definitely support your nomination to the presidency.

      • Peter Hartley

        Jeff- answering the question posed below, batrachophobia is really an irrational fear so it depends on how rational you feel about your fears, but an unarmed toad is not much of a match for a well-placed hob-nailed boot. Now I have always promised myself never to go to New Guinea where the toads are as big as a house and can engulf you in venomous dribble at fifty yards. Now THAT’s a phobia.

  6. BRIAN YAPKO

    Peter, all three of these are marvelous, skillful poems which have actually left me upset. You’ve succeeded in educating me (and others, I suspect) on a subject I, for one, knew nothing about. When a poem both pleases and instructs it is a rare thing indeed. You have accomplished both with an elegance which does not mince words. Well done.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Brian – many thanks indeed for your exceedingly kind remarks above, and I am genuinely quite surprised that those three poems should have been so well received. In submitting them for Evan’s approval I very much relied upon his judgment to know whether or not they would be right for SCP, and was prepared for rejection simply because of the obscurity of the subject matter. But it does appear that some people liked them. I am very gratified, dare I say it, to hear that they upset you because appealing to the emotions is, above all, what we are trying to do isn’t it? And any poem that doesn’t do that has failed, in some degree, in its mission

      Reply
  7. Mike Bryant

    Peter, you definitely have a way with words and poetry. I don’t think that egg collecting has ever been a problem here in Texas, but you have definitely opened my eyes to the past (I hope) problems. We eat plenty of chicken eggs here, which will absolutely guarantee that chickens will never become extinct… at least until after we do.
    Beautifully done.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Mike – I don’t think egg-collecting is much of a problem on this side of the pond either now. It was mainly from the days when gentlemen kept their little collections of curios like Roman coins, shrunken heads, Masai spears, bits of mummies, ostrich eggs and elephants’ feet (they made serviceable umbrella stands) until, as Joe S remarks above, round about the 1950s.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        Peter, I suppose Texas has made a bargain with the chickens… we get some of their eggs and they get protection from the coyotes, raccoons and snakes. Of course, they really don’t have much say in the matter.

  8. Peter Hartley

    Mike – And I expect if it knew it would have its neck wrung at the end of its egg-laying career the chickenwould consider it had the worst side of the bargain. The only kindly dispensation of nature is that the chicken is the last to know what’s coming.

    Reply
    • Mike Bryant

      Please don’t tell them… I don’t want to have a hensurrection on my hands…

      Reply
  9. Jeff Eardley

    Thank you guys for educating me on that wonderful word, “batrachophobia.” What a great crossword clue with so many potential anagrams. This has set me thinking on the fear of bats? Must be another word there???

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Chiropterophobia, from two Greek words meaning hand wing and phobia

      Reply
      • Jeff Eardley

        Thanks Peter, this has now got me thinking on the fear of Chiropractors???

    • Peter Hartley

      Jeff – to answer the question below I’m afraid I have to draw a blank, but kicking yourself into a house via a window is autoadfenestration, if that’s any help. At least it’s got a toad in it.

      Reply
  10. Paul Freeman

    Egg-cellent!

    Thank you for bringing the often murky world of egg collectors to light.

    And thanks for three fine reads.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Paul, and it is commenters like you who make the writing worthwhile, and for whose kind words I am eggstremely grateful.

      Reply
  11. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter, all three poems are thought-provoking and beautifully and admirably crafted. My favourite is ‘The Trials of the Oölogist’. The second stanza says everything, and the closing couplet; ‘Their bird brains cannot suffer mental pain?/Just open up your eyes and think again’ reminds me of the time our cat, George Lionel, killed a baby cardinal. The parents were screaming from the branches of our backyard tree for hours. They were agitated and their calls sounded desperate to the point of heartbroken. I know to this day there was something much more than instinct that prompted their calls… their hearts hurt and I heard it. I will not be persuaded otherwise… it’s a wonder our murderous cat is still alive… but, we love him.

    Thank you for these wonderful poems. I adore birds and your depiction of these avian marvels speaks to me.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – thank you again for your kind words about my poetry. While it is obvious that those birds were suffering as a result of your cat’s depredations we can’t really know exactly what it is they DO suffer can we? They don’t, for instance, know what death is, and nor can they possibly know it is final. They can’t feel guilt because they have somehowfailed in their parental responsibilities. They aren’t capable of making that connection. Do they suffer loss as we do? Bereavement? Can they grieve? Elephants apparently do. I think all we can know about your cardinals is that they were sorely distressed by the subversion of a routine that is proper to those birds and is a part of their selfhood.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Astute observations, Peter, on a subject ethologists have pondered endlessly.

  12. Peter Hartley

    CBA – Thank you for your comment. It is often difficult, isn’t it, to distinguish between anthropomorphism and what we can detect is learned behaviour from other animals or from ourselves. We had a black family dog who, I could almost swear, went red with embarrassment every time he fell in our local canal.

    Reply
  13. David Watt

    Peter, your sonnets admirably reflect your love of avian life, and the animal kingdom in general. I never could understand the attraction of collecting eggs, only to have them sit in a drawer, never to reach their feathered potential.

    Reply
  14. Peter Hartley

    David – Thank you for your comment above. And yes, it does seem almost perverse to blow the contents of, say a Golden Eagle’s egg, in other words to blow an embryonic Eagle down the plug-hole, and then to label an empty shell with the name of the bird that used to be in it???

    Reply

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