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Up close and personal: when Len Howard lived with birds

Michael Guida

Michael is a cultural historian with a particular interest in the place of nature in British modernity. Research associate and tutor in Media & Cultural Studies, University of Sussex, UK

Fig. 1 Len Howard feeding a great tit at Bird Cottage, Sussex

Source: David Moore, 1957. © Lisa, Michael, Matthew and Joshua Moore

 

For many years about forty great tits, twenty blue tits, blackbirds, thrushes and other species have been in and out of my cottage all day, some of the tits also roosting indoors. The interior of the cottage has been arranged to suit them and my life has become more or less regulated by theirs.


Len Howard, Living With Birds (1956)



In the 1950s, many people were intrigued by birds and wanted to get as close as they could to them. More birdwatchers than ever were out and about with illustrated field guides and binoculars which were now more affordable. [1] The war had cultivated new habits of observation and the identification of winged things in the sky. At home, on many a windowsill, was the Observers’ Book of British Birds and feeding the birds was something of a national pastime. [2]


The way to get really close to a bird was to buy one and keep it in a cage by the window. [3] Many did – canaries and budgies were common family pets in homes across the social spectrum. They made good companions, their colourfulness, song and chatter lending liveliness to the domestic scene. Concerns about the cruelty of captivity rarely bothered owners at this time. A youngish David Attenborough, one of a new breed of conservation-minded naturalists, kept six hanging parakeets from Borneo in a large cage in the dining room of his Richmond house, among many other creatures brought back from his Zoo Quest television expeditions. [4] If a caged bird brought enchantment through proximity it was at the same time denied movement, flight and social interaction with others. How much of a bird’s life could be experienced and understood behind bars?


Len Howard (1893-1973) believed that birds were made miserable and showed little of their natural behaviour in captivity. [5] She wanted to be close to birds but in a different way. In 1938, Howard had given up her London life, where she played the viola in Malcolm Sargent’s orchestra, to move to a small, quiet, village in Sussex. Here she found a way to live permanently among the wild birds of her garden – by opening up her home and keeping the windows and doors ajar all year round. Howard connected the outdoors with the indoors and soon great tits, blackbirds and others were sufficiently tame that they flew in and out of her cottage for food, play and sometimes to roost. She spent much of the day in the garden watching the ways of these birds. This exchange of territory and habitat, the merging of the wild and the domestic, connected Howard to the birds and vice versa. The mutuality of the interchange came out in the name Howard gave her home: Bird Cottage. [6]


Through these unusual living arrangements Howard was able get to know these common species better than almost anyone else in the 1940s and 50s. What she wanted was the intimate emotional and tactile rewards of proximity and, from this, she came to know individual birds, their personalities and even their facial expressions. The great tits were her favourites and she named all of them. Over time, Howard became completely devoted to ‘her birds’ believing that she played a significant part in their lives. She did, though the part they played in her life was the greater. The birds were self-sufficient but Howard loved to give them cheese and nuts from her hand, nurse them in illness, help feed the young, keep cats away and let them make mischief in her cottage (where newspaper covered the furniture). They shredded the telephone directory, pulled at her hair, played counting games and there was, too, a kind of reciprocal vocal communication. Howard never went on holiday and could only work at night when the birds were asleep. But the set up suited her – she preferred the company of birds, and a hand painted sign warned off visitors to Bird Cottage:


NO VISITORS

NESTING BIRDS

MUST KEEP COTTAGE QUIET

NO CALLERS


After a decade of living like this, Howard wrote up her observations in great detail. She argued that wild birds living in the absence of fear behaved naturally, and that she had created the conditions in which behaviours could be seen that others had missed. ‘By living with birds I gain their complete trust so that they can reveal the extent of their intelligence and individuality’, she wrote. Birds as Individuals was published by Collins in 1952 and was received with interest by the press, bird journals and naturalists. Encouraged, Howard published a second book in 1956 called Living with Birds which concentrated on what she called ‘bird biographies’. These were finely grained accounts of the lives of individual birds and their young (Star, Beauty, Presto, Cobbler, Drummer, Naomi and others). Howard wanted to highlight the surprising complexity of bird behaviour and dispel ideas that it was chiefly unthinking and automatic. This was not what she saw.


Getting close to wild birds, emotionally and physically, brought Howard the reward of powerful and sustained relationships with the species around her, yet it was also the method by which she was able to make new observations and knowledge about them. Her work attracted the interest and approval of a host of senior scientists: Julian Huxley, James Fisher, Roger Tory Peterson and Niko Tinbergen. A reviewer in the Daily Telegraph called her home and garden a ‘national laboratory’. After the publication of Howard’s second book, Richard Fitter compared her contribution to Konrad Lorenz’s influential descriptive ethology which had only recently been translated into English and was unknown to Howard. [7] Howard did not claim to be a scientist, but she argued determinedly that bird life was more sophisticated than the current theories and observations gave credit for. Her body-and-soul devotion to close-up living and observation revealed vivid bird behaviour that she felt should be recorded, made public and acknowledged. [8]


Daily encounters with her companions perhaps inevitably drew some sentimental and anthropomorphic reports from Howard. They jarred to her contemporaries but were usually forgiven for the new facts she had discovered (even if her interpretations could be less convincing). Howard’s observations contributed to the understanding that facial expression could be suggestive of a bird’s mood. She noted worry, grimacing, pleading and puzzlement in her great tits. When Curly managed to provoke a playful squeal from Howard during a nipping game did she go too far when writing ‘I saw the light of contentment in her eyes?’. It is interesting to note that John Berger pointed out in Why Look at Animals that in earlier times ‘anthropomorphism was integral to the relation between man and animal and was an expression of their proximity’. [9] Perhaps a certain amount of anthropomorphism could not be avoided for an observer like Howard who lived with birds day and night and was close enough to exchange eye contact with her beloved great tits.



Fig. 2 Great tits with Howard as she typed her book manuscript

Source: Eric Hosking, from Birds as Individuals, 1952


The intimacy Howard constructed sought to remove aerial and terrestrial barriers, connect human and avian micro-geographies, and allow her patterns of everyday life to merge with those of the birds around her. In her books she included a map of the garden showing the position of the bird table, bird bath, nest boxes identified with the owner’s name, small trees, several oaks and an orchard in relation to the house, road and property boundaries. She seemed to define explicitly the territory and features shared with the birds. Of course the birds moved in and out of the zones prescribed by her map but she was concerned with the sensory ‘contact zone’ where relations were played out. [6] She also gave the reader a drawing of the open-plan interior of her bungalow, showing the positions of windows, doors, furniture, the ‘tapping perch’ of a favourite great tit, the piano and bed. Nowhere was off-limits to the birds – this was an entirely shared environment. Howard may have defined a study space in her drawings, yet more essentially it was a social place of pleasure, play and mutual engagement. It was a place where corporeal boundaries of human and bird could be broken down in the actions of touching, pecking, nipping and kissing.


To Howard, the bonds that developed were those of the family. She had inserted herself into the lives of birds, watching them develop, reproduce and die over several generations. In her second book she provided a full page ‘genealogical tree’, a recording of great tit generations from 1940 to 1954, identifying dozens of male and female birds, the longest lived ones reaching 6-10 years. It is clear she saw herself as part of an extended family saga especially in the role of alternative parent to the young. On one occasion, she tells of ‘fifty-six young great tits, including two second broods, demanding my attention from 5am until sunset for their parents had stopped feeding them’. [10]


Fig. 3 A great tit tearing a telephone directory, behaviour that attracted the interest of scientists

Source: Eric Hosking, from Birds as Individuals, 1952


Len Howard’s life and work with birds is much more than a tale of an English rural eccentric. Though little is known of her life before she settled at Bird Cottage, she seems to have left London on doctor’s orders when she was forty-five to have a quiet life in the country, away from society. Instead she forged social and emotional bonds with the birds around her, building long-lasting kinships. The intimate proximity she cultivated with birds provided the foundations for her revelations about intelligence, individuality, personality and display. Her observations, which gained scientific recognition, stemmed from her desire to be close enough to the birds to be able to feel them on her skin and see their faces. Intriguingly, her work with English garden birds seems to have run in parallel with Konrad Lorenz’s in Austria with greylag geese and jackdaws. Both made their discoveries of bird behaviour by socialising daily with wild species. Lorenz however was a zoologist, university professor of psychology and part of European scientific networks, while Howard was a retired musician, working alone and galvanised simply by loving, curious intuition. Her method of being alone and in love with the birds brought to Howard the rich and complex natural behaviours that few had noticed. Her insistence on close up experience brought together emotional rewards and ethological insights.



References


All quotes from Len Howard are taken from Birds as Individuals (London: Collins, 1952) and Living with Birds (London: Colins, 1956), unless cited otherwise.


[1] Stephen Moss, A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching (London: Aurum, 2004); David Elliston Allen, Books and Naturalists (London: Collins, 2010).


[2] See for example, E. L. Turner, Feeding the Birds: Every Garden a Bird Sanctuary (London: H. F. & G. Witherby, 1935).


[3] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Penguin Random House, 2005); Michael Guida, ‘Song Birds in East London Homes, from Henry Mayhew to Charles Booth’ in The Working Class at Home, 1770-1940 (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2022).

[4] David Attenborough, Life on Air (London: BBC Books, 2009): 163.


[5] Many agreed with this point of view, for example Julian Huxley (forward), Konrad Lorenz, King Solomon’s Ring (London: Methuen, 1952): viii; Ludwig Koch, Memoirs of a Birdman (London: Phoenix House, 1955): 23.


[6] Bird Cottage and its garden was to my mind the staging for what Donna Haraway calls a ‘contact zone’ of sensory intimacy between species: Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008): 216.


[7] Richard Fitter, ‘Bird Sanctuary in Danger’, The Observer, Dec 4, 1960. Fitter is referring to Lorenz’s landmark book King Solomon’s Ring which was only translated into English in 1952 and was unknown to Howard when she published her first book.


[8] Howard provoked scientific interest in paper-tearing behaviour and in debate about facial expressions in birds being a sign of different moods.


[9] John Berger, Why Look at Animals? (London: Penguin, 2009/1980): 21.


[10] Len Howard, ‘The Birds in Spring’, The Field, Feb 26, 1959: 350.

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