Illustrations Edwyn Collins Words Lee Gale
In 2005, Edwyn Collins suffered two strokes, the result of brain haemorrhages caused by high blood pressure. To begin his rebuilding process, Edwyn picked up a pencil and pad and began drawing birds.
As a child, Edwyn was a keen twitcher and even reared an abandoned fledgling greenfinch in his Dundee bedroom, feeding it a watery mix of wild-bird food Swoop. The female greenfinch, named Tweety Pie, would start its sweet song at 5am, waking the household up in the process. Tweety Pie later made a nest in the garden and, if Edwyn left his bedroom window open, would call in.
Edwyn’s first bird sketch was a widgeon, a rough undertaking completed with his left hand, as his right was stroke-damaged. From that point on, Edwyn drew a different bird each day, between learning to read, walk, talk, sing and fathoming out what the buttons did in his recording studio. Edwyn’s ornithological compositions are peaceful and settling, but his art also represents triumph over adversity. These six birds, whose habitat is the Snowdonia National Park, were drawn especially for British Ideas Corporation’s Festival No.6 special-edition magazine in 2014. It was Edwyn’s first commission as an illustrator.
Travel one of the railways of mid-Wales and you’ll be unlucky not to see red kites. To a townie, spotting a wake gliding down a valley is awesome (in the traditional, non-surfboarding sense of the word). Following the grotesque Destruction of Crows, Etc Act of 1532 and the Preservation of Grain Act of 1566 (the Vermin Acts), red kites, among with other wildlife such as kingfishers, woodpeckers, shags, hedgehogs and otters, were deemed pests and a legal framework was set up to ensure their demise. Landowners were fined for not meeting their extermination quota. By the late 1700s, Snowdonia was the only place left in the British Isles where red kites could be viewed. In 1903, a group of concerned local landowners started an unofficial protection programme. Without their input, red kites would have disappeared.
The curved bill of the chough is an instant recognition feature of these rare, rook-sized birds, although the beak’s shape means the chough bears more than a passing resemblance to a plague-era doctor. A black plumage indicates membership of the crow family but its bright red bill is a unique characteristic within the corvids. The chough is an agile aviator, swooping and climbing through mountain pastures and coastal crags of Wales and south-west Scotland.
The 007 of waterfowl is an expert diver with a discerning palette, able to cover long distances while submerged in its chase for delicately flavoured trout and salmon. With a serrated sawbill, the goosander is an effective hunter, much to the fist-shaking annoyance of anglers. First bred in Scotland in 1871, there are now 12,000 resident in Scotland, the north-west, Wales and Cornwall. Despite its mallard-like proportions, the goosander’s shyness means it isn’t easy to spot. Upland lakes, reservoirs and babbling streams provide the best opportunities to study these elusive birds.
A summer visitor, the redstart enjoys water views and typically nests along the coast or by reservoirs in Wales and the north-west. On first appearance, a redstart can be mistaken for a robin. Males have a fiery orange-red chest, but differ from robins with a bold white forehead and a black face and neck. Females are dowdy by comparison, with a pale body and slight rust colouration to the tail; you can imagine their partners scoffing, “You want to put a bit of make-up on and brighten yourself up a bit.” Redstarts further cloud identification issues by “bobbing” like robins, but ceaselessly flicker their tails and spend little time on the ground.
A summer visitor to Wales, north-west England and western Scotland, the ring ouzel (the old English name for the common blackbird is “ousel”) is ostensibly an upland bird, to be found along dry-stone walls or among loose rocks and boulders. Ring ouzels are slightly smaller than blackbirds, with a black-brown body, long black tail and a distinctive white band on its breast. Where there is evidence of human activity, ring ouzels will keep a safe distance, and as a result are rare sights.
By the Sixties, gamekeepers, landowners and egg collectors had conspired to such an extent that these large falcons were almost wiped out in Britain, assisted – if any were needed – by agriculture’s overzealous use of harmful pesticides. There are now 1,500 breeding pairs in the UK and can be found in upland and coastal Britain, apart from the Yorkshire dales and coast, where conditions are perhaps too bracing (it’s feasible; in the early Eighties, Sven-Göran Eriksson once described Yorkshire as the coldest place he’d ever visited after observing a Leeds United training session). A fearsome predator, a peregrine will grab a pigeon in mid-flight or seize a duck or wading bird from the ground. Its dive speed is frankly ridiculous. One was clocked at 242mph, making the peregrine the fastest animal on the planet.