Aid to the canon of information on Irish wildlife

Initiatives like the Irish Examiner ICMSA farming poll give hope for nature in Ireland. 

A flock of starlings perform their traditional dance before landing to sleep during the sunset in the northern Israeli Negev desert.

As Noel Baker reported in this paper on September 22, while the poll shows that one in three farmers do not think (mistakenly, in my view) that farming impacts negatively on climate change, 61%, especially younger farmers, have taken measures to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

A new edition of Irish Wild Mammals: a guide to the literature compiled by Pat Smiddy and Paddy Sleeman, senior researchers in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork also gives hope.

It presents a listing of more than 3,000 theses, books, monograms, papers and notes on Irish mammals, with an index of the entry numbers under which each mammal is listed. It is an invaluable contribution to the canon of information on Irish wildlife.

In his watershed 1984 An Irish Beast Book, Prof James Fairley of UCG wrote: ‘Unless research is published, it might just as well never have been undertaken in the vast majority of cases.’ In their publication, Smiddy and Sleeman have ensured that research is now extensively catalogued. Those who require it will know where it is available. Although primarily a catalogue, it offers interesting reading for the amateur.

The first paragraph states: ‘Ireland is an island at the edge of a foggy archipelago. It has weather that is elsewhere associated with mountain tops, wet, windy and with little sun. There are few terrestrial wild animal species, but an abundance of, very inaccessible, marine species.’ Marine research items are listed in the book. However, ‘... one of our largest mammals, the Sei Whale, has only recently been confirmed to occur in Irish coastal waters.’

And: ‘We still have hazy ideas of how many of each species of wild animals are on the island ... if we do not know how many animals there are, how can we detect a decline, or identify what prompted it?’.... ‘The terrestrial ecosystem is much threatened by invasive species . . . feral Pigs, Ferrets, Minks and Grey Squirrels and more recently a large South American rodent, the Coypu, has been seen in Cork.’

Priced at €35, copies be obtained from Phillips Book shop in Mallow or http://shop.birdwatchireland.ie/birdwatchireland/

As I wrote last week, Belfast residents can enjoy a nightly ‘murmuration’ of starlings; here at home in west Cork, we have a nightly ‘raucous’ of rooks. There’s no ‘murmuring’ with rooks; they make a clatter, and there’s no peace on the earth beneath until they go to bed.

As far as starlings ‘murmuring’, a starling flock overhead (flocks can number three million) can, in my experience, resemble a loud whisper or a sudden gust of wind across a reed bed. It passes in a rush, and no other sound can be heard. Just afterwards, there’s a deep silence and, next, as the flock turns for another fly-past, there’s a sound like a whisper approaching, a rain shower sweeping across a pond, a storm in the trees.

The collective noun for starlings originated in the Latin verb ‘murmurare’, to murmur or gossip. An entire glossary of avian collective nouns was coined by a medieval nun and recorded in the Book of St Albans (1486). Amongst them are ‘a murder of crows’, ‘an unkindness of ravens’, and ‘a parliament of rooks’.

The names were often fanciful. A few that reflect an outstanding characteristic of a species have become part of everyday language, amongst them the very apt ‘pride of lions’ — lions looks majestic, pose majestically — and ‘a parliament of rooks’, because rooks, like parliamentarians, gather and squabble. Also, some onomatopoeic collectives have become commonplace. ‘A gaggle of geese’ echoes the racket they strike up when en masse. When required, ‘a chatter of choughs’ would neatly describe a flock of these crows in garrulous flight. How about ‘a hoot of owls’? That’s my own offering: readers are free to use it if ever they encounter owls in a flock.

Meanwhile, some of the collectives are, truly, over-imaginative — who’s ever heard of fish in a ‘school’ or bullfinches ‘bellowing’? Others are nonsensical — ‘a business’ of flies, ‘a herd’ of curlews, ‘an army’ of frogs.

The word ‘murmuration’, besides starling references, is also used to describe the low mutterings of a crowd quietly awaiting a speech or a blessing, and also the sound of communal prayer as, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer spoken concurrently by hundreds or thousands.

Medieval monastics would have known all about cold churches filled with the murmurations of prayer. Tibetan monks had, perhaps, a more practical way of praying; spinning their prayer wheels would keep them warm and exercised, while our religious moved only their jaws.


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