Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Redstart by John Buxton

While waiting in the line-up for one of the events at the Vancouver Writers Fest, I chatted a bit with author Helen Humphreys. She told me about John Buxton, a British officer who studied birds while being held in a German prison camp during WWII. I was intrigued, so via interlibrary loan, I tracked down a copy of a book Buxton wrote about the common redstart, which was published in 1950.

The Redstart has supplied me with extensive information about a species I had never even heard of beforehand. There are some photos and drawings in the monograph, but it is Buxton's words that have given me the clearest picture of this bird:

"The first glimpse of a redstart usually leaves an impression of an active little bird with a red tail which it shivers in a strange way that at once catches the eye." 
"The displaying male, with his bright tail fanned and pressed down on to the branch, his rosy body flattened, his black face and white cap thrust towards the hen, with his wings held straight up to show their shimmering pink undersides as he waves in his plumes the various light; his wild, darting flight after the act, accompanied by a sweet warbling song as he flies -- all combine to make one of the most striking lovely scenes I have ever watched in the lives of birds. It is all the more surprising that no one else seems ever to have noticed it."

Buxton often quotes from classic literature, such as the line above from Andrew Marvell's poem 'Thoughts in a Garden.' Each chapter opens with a poetic epigraph, and there are no translations for those that are in their original language. Readers are clearly expected to have studied Greek, Latin and modern European languages; my education seems paltry in comparison.

I love books that contain rare or specialized words because encounters with vocabulary give me great pleasure. The Redstart contains seldom-used words like dilatoriness (tending to postpone), ferruginous (rust-coloured) and perforce (by force of circumstance). Of course it also has plenty of ornithological terms as well, like cock-feathering ("adult hen common redstarts have often been noted with plumage more or less resembling that of the cock, which is normally so strikingly different"); gape (used to describe the mouth line on a closed beak); and tail-coverts (feathers at the base of the tail).

What touched me most are the small clues that Buxton's careful bird-watching is taking place within the context of a prison. His observations are made from within a camp parade ground that was a daily place of exercise for 2000 men, and he could only do so when they were allowed to be outside. Via correspondence, German ornithologists gave him assistance, as did several of his fellow inmates.

Buxton kept meticulous journals while imprisoned and was grateful to regain possession of them after the war. He counted song repetitions, the minimal number of visits required for a redstart hen to build a nest (600), the number of minutes a hen would leave her eggs (an agitated 27, when a prisoner sheltering from rain too close to her nest prevented her from returning), and the rate of alarm calls per minute (84-59). "On 1 May 1941 at Laufen a sparrow-hawk flew low through the trees near one of the redstarts at 9:37 a.m. The cock flew up into a willow at the north end of his territory, and called the alarm twee twee continuously until 10:15, by which time I was exceedingly bored."

The final few pages (139-142) are the very best, where Buxton expresses his gratitude to "these strange creatures that, merrily busking about the trees which shaded us, or perching on the wire that kept us close, delighted us, [..] by the very incomprehensibility of their lives. They lightened (if only for a little while)  the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world simply by their unconcern in our affairs, and by the beauty and pathos and vivacity of their lives."

I'm now interested in learning more about Buxton so, at some time in the future, I'll probably read Birds in a Cage: The Remarkable Story of How Four Prisoners of War Survived Captivity by Derek Niemann.

Readalikes: Moonbird (Phillip Hoose); The Big Year (Mark Obmascik).

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