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Birds Of Spitalfields

May 2, 2020
by the gentle author

Coming across an early copy of Thomas Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds’ from 1832 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 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, coming eye to eye with it while looking into a tree from a first floor window to discern the source of an unexpected tapping outside.

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

Pied Wagtail – spotted by Ash on the Holland Estate, Petticoat Lane

Rose-ringed Parrakeet – an occasional visitor to Allen GardensHeron – occasionally spotted flying overhead

Buzzard – spotted over Holland Estate, Petticoat Lane

Swift – spotted by Ian Harper around Christ Church

Raven – spotted by Ian Harper & Jim Howett around Christ Church

Kite – spotted by Ian Harper & Jim Howett around Christ Church

Long-tailed Tit – spotted in Wapping

Willow Warbler – spotted by Tony Valsamidis in Whitechapel

If any readers can add to my list with sightings of other birds in Spitalfields, please drop me a line

You may also like to take a look at

Luke Clennell’s London Melodies

29 Responses leave one →
  1. Jak permalink
    May 2, 2020

    Surprised to see the rose ringed parakeet was around then, thought it to be a recent escapee?

  2. Amanda Bush permalink
    May 2, 2020

    Were there parakeets in London as early as the 1800s? I’m surprised by this. What beautiful illustrations.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 2, 2020

    Brilliant engravings – especially the way he has managed to convey all the different textures of the birds’ plumage and feathers. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered too, especially the tree branches and rocks.

    I heard on the radio that birds are benefitting from the lockdown because there should be many more insects around as they are not being killed on car windscreens. I hope this is true, and that their songs can be heard and enjoyed in Spitalfields and beyond.

  4. May 2, 2020

    Lovely to see all these illustrations. I have seen a grey wagtail around Holborn from time to time. We had a family of mistle thrushes last year and I have occasionally seen a kestrel and a dunnock.

  5. May 2, 2020

    Dear GA
    Its very fitting you should post this today. As part of my self isolation I have done a one hour breakfast birdwatch from the same bedroom window in Surrey. The results will be collated into a blog for Mindfully Bertie . A comparison of species nearly two hundred years apart will include the red kite which was common in London in those far off days. Now after successful reintroductions a great success story.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 2, 2020

    A Buzzard was seen over Walthamstow on the 22nd of April ….
    They may be moving in from just outside the M25, where they have been established for about 10 years, now.

  7. Parktown permalink
    May 2, 2020

    Wot No Dunnocks? No Wood Pigeons? I get every one of your Spitalfields birds down in the leafy suburbs of sarf west London. Well not every one. You get more than me. I do not see Buzzards, although I do get a horrid Sparrowhawk. Also I not see Willow Warblers, Kites, nor Ravens ?? Watching a Robin with feather in its mouth now. ?

  8. May 2, 2020

    Given that there is no such thing as coincidence, you may like this!

  9. May 2, 2020

    Lovely ! I see most of the birds listed, also kestrels & cormorants of course. Wonderful blackbird song in the middle of the night (for the past 40 years). Delighted you saw a woodpecker …

  10. Richard Smith permalink
    May 2, 2020

    At a difficult time the simple pleasure to be gained from watching and listening to our feathered friends. Thank you for a timely post GA.

  11. May 2, 2020

    As an urban birder really enjoyed enjoyed today’s post. As well as surprised to see Ring-necked Parakeet illustrated in the early 19th Century also the Collared Dove which I’d been led to believe started colonising the UK in the 1950’s. I saw my first Red Kite in the East End a couple of weeks ago. My 106th East End tick since I started monitoring local birds twenty six years ago.

  12. paul loften permalink
    May 2, 2020

    I occasionally see Herons and Sparrow Hawks in my garden which is quite near Spitalfields. The Wetlands at Walthamstow Reservoir is a nesting ground for the Herons so I am sure they would be a frequent visitor but they are already mentioned and pictured so I cant add to the list. It was a childhood pastime to go with friends to over Hackney Marshes to view the Herons nesting on Heron Island with a pair of binoculars. At that time the Hackney Marshes really had a desolate and uncultivated landscape, although the football pitches were there. It was a superb place for birds of every species and of course, they could be seen in Spitalfields and surrounding areas. Let’s hope that we can add to the list.
    Thank you for the engravings and for showing them to us.

  13. May 2, 2020

    Really enjoyed this. Bewick one of my all time favourites. Thank you.

  14. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 2, 2020

    Oh my, this really has brought back memories as I wrote about Thomas Bewick as part of my thesis on bird illustrators. To appreciate the incredible skill of these engravings you would have to see the originals as the sharpness declines each time a print is run off but I have the highest regard for Thomas Bewick.

    I love to watch the birds in my garden from where I am sitting now as I have a door to my garden beside me, I particularly like watching Mrs Blackbird having a bath in a dish of water as the water flies everywhere because she is so very thorough, and the performance obviously intrigues other birds as she usually has an audience of sparrows, dunnocks, robins, doves and so on. And then there is the magpie which takes pieces of stale bread and dunks them in the water bowl to soften them, followed by Mr Blackbird coming to drink the same water. I never tire of watching them and we get a wide range, from tiny wrens to very fat pigeons, and everything in between, but I have not seen a thrush for years which I find very sad.

  15. May 2, 2020

    Who needs Super Heroes with capes, when we can have……….that Raven?

    What a force of nature, so perfectly conveyed by Bewick.
    This is a wonderful series, especially your intro about the woodpecker and the stories by
    your readers.

    I love coming here everyday.
    Stay safe, all.

  16. May 2, 2020

    I envy you your copy of what is obviously a wonderful book, previously unknown to me. Thomas Bewick as a person is unfamiliar to many ornithologists and birders, I suspect, yet they are familiar with the two birds that still bear his name, Bewick’s Swan and Bewick’s Wren. The illustrations you show are quite stunning, a treat to look at even on a computer monitor.

  17. May 2, 2020

    He turned the whole concept of wood engraving on its head

  18. May 2, 2020

    Lovely to see from an old book-thank you for sharing these. Birds are so beautiful.

  19. Martin Palmer permalink
    May 2, 2020

    Mallards, coots and moorhens in Victoria Park and on the canals! I have heard tawny owls in North London, too, although it was a long time ago. And Saint James’s Park used to be a treasure trove of unusual ducks and geese. Even the black swan. But that was long ago. too. Don’t know about now.

  20. May 3, 2020

    I have a first edition of this Book and whilst it is a great recording on this subject.
    It is not the first or best on Ornithology.. However he did inspire later Artists.

    Jonathan van Halbert.

  21. May 3, 2020

    Thank You for the Lovely Paintings of these Birds.????????

  22. Derek Stride permalink
    May 3, 2020

    In the last few years, I have seen over 23 species in Spitalfields, around my garden. That includes the sparrowhawk who continues to decimate my blue tit and gold finch population. I recently found a pellet on the roof of Christ Church, which I assume came from a sparrowhawk (the last owl I saw locally was 30 years ago, a Tawny owl), full of small bones from its diet. I have a collection of small round, white stones, again from the roof of Christ Church, which I believe are taken up there by crows and magpies, believing them to be eggs of other birds.

  23. Peter Mundy (Zimbabwe) permalink
    May 3, 2020

    Funny, I was reading about Bewick today. A master of wood-engraving to get his prints. Admired by among others Audubon and Charlotte Bronte.
    That pellet surely comes from an owl (a Barn Owl in London?), hawks don’t vomit up pellets.
    I am assuming that the Kite is a Red Kite, now safely back in England.

  24. May 4, 2020

    I am the only one old enough with the knowledge of the Redstarts that were

    once a very common site, nesting in the bombed out ruins of London……?

    Jonathan van Halbert.

  25. May 4, 2020

    Brilliant thst you have spotted all these birds in Spitalfields Interesting to see The Collard Dove, which, according to my guides, did not arrive in the UK till 1958. However, on closer inspection the drawing looks more like a Wood Pigeon, which also has a collar. Perhaps that was a common name for the Wood Pigeon in the C19th?

    (Not sure if my earlier post came through or not.. Please use this one as I added a little more info . Thanks)

  26. May 4, 2020

    Answering Peter in Zimbabwe : yes it was a Red Kite , that was a first in London for me , but I have seen them a few times since then , over Primrose Hill most recently.
    Very good to see these again , Swifts arrived over the St Peter’s Church in De Beauvoir Hackney yesterday.. just up the road from the authors stamping ground ..
    clear skies and low pollution might help this year..

  27. Martin Palmer permalink
    May 6, 2020

    In response to Jonathon: I knew of the Redstarts too! But searching for them in the 60’s, I was never fortunate enough to see one, although there were still plenty of bomb sites at that time.

  28. David Green permalink
    May 6, 2020

    “The Great Tit”…doesn’t look like me at all…

  29. Paul Sillis permalink
    May 17, 2020

    Sorry to hear that the Gentle Author went down with the COVID-19 virus, but glad to hear of your recovery.

    I was also surprised to see the picture of the parrakeet in Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds. I live in the borough of Ealing where there are many parakeets frequenting the parks and gardens. But I have seen various references to the parakeets having escaped from captivity many years later than 1832.

    Does the book indicate that parakeets lived outside captivity in parts of Britain in 1832?


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