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The Birds Of Spitalfields

June 8, 2014
by the gentle author

Coming across an early copy of Thomas Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’ from 1832 in the Spitalfields Market last week inspired me to publish this ornithological survey with illustrations courtesy of the great engraver.

I have always known these pictures – especially the cuts of the robin and the blackbird – yet they never cease to startle me with their vivid life, each time I return to marvel at the genius of Bewick in capturing the essence of these familiar creatures so superlatively.

The book reminded me of all the birds that once would have inhabited these fields and now are gone, yet it is remarkable how many varieties have persisted in spite of urbanisation. I have seen all of these birds in Spitalfields, even the woodpecker that I once spied from my desk, while looking into a tree from a first floor window.

The Sparrow

The Starling

The Blue Tit

The Great Tit

The Pigeon

The Collared Dove

The Blackbird

The Crow

The Magpie

The Robin

The Thrush

The Wren

The Chaffinch

The Goldfinch

The House Swallow

The Jay

The Woodpecker

If any readers can add to this list, please get in touch and I will add the pictures here.

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Ash permalink
    June 8, 2014

    Hi GA,

    I’ve been living on the Holland Estate since 2010 (and have been a Spitalfields Life fan since the first night) and have seen a fair few feathered anomalies.
    The Pied Wagtails that hop around in the playground are always entertaining, and the Rose Ringed Parakeets that, very occasionally, swing by this neck of the woods are a welcome sight. I love to watch Magpies, they’re the most mischievous creatures going (other than the kids on the estate) largely due to their curiosity and intelligence. Down by the river I often see Peregrines hunting Pigeon, and have at times seen gangly looking Heron fly overhead with surprising grace. I love watching the Martins sweeping over the old dock off Vaughan Way, or the boisterous gangs of Long Tailed Tits that chirrup noisily and swing upside down from the trees there.
    But the best local ‘spot’ I’ve had was springtime last year. I’m from a tiny village in West Suffolk and regularly see Buzzards soaring overhead, and know their shape and form very well, so was surprised and excited to see one circling overhead as I walked onto the estate after a session at the gym. I watched it for a couple of minutes before it headed off over the City. A common bird back home, but a rare visitor here!
    never seen a Sparrow over this way though! I’m sure there are a few…

    Anyways, thanks for writing such an awesome blog 🙂

  2. June 8, 2014

    The Parakeet 🙂

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 8, 2014

    This may be down to name-changes in popular usage over the years, but … currently, tt least:
    The on labelled “the Pigeon” is the London feral pigeon, descended from the stock/rock doves
    And the one labelled “the collared dove” is clearly a Wood Pigeon.
    The Collared dove was vitrually unknown in this country until about 1960, though they are now common.

  4. Libby Hall permalink
    June 8, 2014

    I have no picture, but, for the first time in my 47 years in Clapton (which is of course practically Spitalfields!), there is the thrilling fluting song of Black Caps. I had always thought our Blackbirds and Song Thrushes had the most beautiful of songs, but this new visitor had made the glorious down chorus even more spectacularly beautiful.

  5. June 8, 2014

    So, is it that way in London Town? I have many of these Birdies on my balcony every day! The smaller ones also as the larger, as there are the Jaybird, the Magpie and even Mr Woodpecker is attendant. I love to watch them — and that could take hours!!

    This year I decided to feed them the whole time through!

    Love & Peace

  6. June 8, 2014

    The engravings are fantastic! Valerie

  7. Beryl Happe permalink
    June 8, 2014

    Excellent blog as always, you did forget the old birds of CFGS of course. (tongue in cheek of course, and obviously not printable, but I couldn’t resist it. Kind regards Beryl

  8. David Waugh permalink
    June 8, 2014

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing with us.

  9. Judith Atkinson permalink
    June 8, 2014

    Interesting that the wood pigeon is called collared dove. What we now call collared doves were a later introduction.

  10. June 8, 2014

    Dear Author,
    I have Swifts and huge flocks of Thrush swarming around the Church spire in the past but the most remarkable ‘spot’ was in the Spring from the roof of 3 Fournier st, Jim Howett and I saw two Ravens performing their mating tumbles that you would normally see in Wales by a cliff face –
    The birds fell pell mell from the top of the spire of Christchurch to the garden below in what appears to be ragged disorder only to pull out before hitting the ground and fly up again , each seemed to be daring the other to greater escapades . Perhaps these were abscondees from the Tower but to cap it all the two left off to chase a Red Kite which was passing towards the East.
    Kites you would associate with the M40 and beyond but this unlikely trio were all in Spitalfields..

  11. June 8, 2014

    Thank you for these beautiful birds. May readers have permission to copy them? I would very much like to print them.


  12. the gentle author permalink*
    June 8, 2014

    Thomas says you may

  13. June 8, 2014

    One bird that I was very surprised to see when I lived in Islington was a sparrowhawk, which killed a blackbird on our doorstep and then proceeded to pluck it without any concern for the astonished passersby. It only flew away when the postman arrived! I have subsequently seen them in my garden in East Finchley several times.

    There is still an astonishing array of birdlife in London – partly, I think, because of the relatively high level of green space that we still have in parks, remnant forests and places like the Wetlands Centre at Barnes. Plus, the good folk of the city continue to feed the birds, which gets them through the winter and supports them and their fledglings in the summer.

  14. Annie Martin permalink
    June 8, 2014

    That is a Green Woodpecker. I see those less frequently than Greater Spotted Woodpeckers in my garden – in Finsbury Park.

  15. Pauline Taylor permalink
    June 8, 2014

    More memories for me GA as I wrote my thesis on bird illustrators so, as you can guess, Bewick was high on that list, his engravings are fantastic. Coming from the country as I do I am amazed at how many birds can be found in London, and ravens at Christchurch, how incredible and what a sight that must have been, it is something I too associate with the coastal cliffs of Wales not the East End of London!

  16. Gary Arber permalink
    June 8, 2014

    The House Sparrow !
    This is the modern mystery, it was common then and was everywhere until the unexplained disappearance started in the 1980’s it used to be everywhere until then, they nested in our shop blind box, in an old down pipe and all along the eaves. I have not seen a sparrow in Bow for the last 15 years. They used to nest everywhere at Romford, at least 10 nests on my house. No one can explain why such a common bird disappeared. They are, happily now beginning to make a slow comeback, I have a few at my home in Romford but still none at Bow.

  17. Stephen Barker permalink
    June 9, 2014

    I think my favourite birds are Blackbirds and Magpies.

    Many years ago I visited the Thomas Bewick Museum at Cherryburn the house he grew up in. It is the only museum I have visited where the curator was able to sit by an open fire in what had been the kitchen.

    Much as I admire the bird and animal engravings, I think his best work were the small scale vignettes of rural life he produced.

  18. Pauline Hughes permalink
    June 9, 2014

    Good morning,
    I just want to let you know that we have had Swifts nesting in our roof every summer since we have lived in our house on Queensbridge Rd, Dlaston and they were definitely nesting before we moved there nearly 8 years ago. So perhaps you’d like to add Swifts to your list of birds in Shorditch.

    Kind regards
    Pauline Hughes

  19. Tony Valsamidis permalink
    June 12, 2014

    The goldfinch was a very rare visitor when we lived in Spitalfields 20 years ago. Now in Whitechapel, we get them all the time – and greenfinches. There’s a jay nesting in a neighbouring garden; today a fledgling got into difficulties and ended up on the ground – will its mother save it? We even have an enclave of sparrows nesting behind some cottages in a neighbouring street – very welcome! We occasionally get blackcaps too, and willow warblers passing through. I remember the spring dawn choruses in Spitalfields were something else – something that used to really surprise visitors. A while ago, I went on a ‘barmy army’ walk in Victoria Park and was amazed at the diversity of birds in evidence there.

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