For the Birds Radio Program: Birds of Ireland

Original Air Date: March 17, 1989

On St. Patrick’s Day, what else could Laura talk about?

Audio missing


(Recording of a Common Loon)

Top o’ the mornin’ to you. In honor of St. Patrick’s day, I thought I’d talk about the birds of Ireland. Because of the island effect, Ireland has a warm, wet climate, averaging 40 degrees in winter and 60 degrees in summer, even though the Emerald Isle is actually quite a bit further north than the northland—the southernmost tip of the island is further north than Winnipeg, and the center is about even with Saskatoon. The landscape of most of Ireland is peat bogs, gently rolling pastures, and farmlands. Peat is burned for fuel and electricity, and in order to harvest it, much of the bogland has been drained, destroying habitat for many wetland species. The central lowlands are bordered by mountains which rise near the coast.

A lot of the birds we take for granted in Minnesota are not present in Ireland, or anywhere in Europe for that matter. There are no relatives of our thrashers, catbirds, warblers, blackbirds, cowbirds, bobolinks, or orioles. Thomas Jefferson tried to prove the superiority of American birds over European species using the mockingbird as evidence. Jefferson proclaimed the mocker’s song to be greater than anything heard in Europe. Ireland, like the rest of Europe, Asia, and Africa, also completely lacks hummingbirds. Apparently St. Patrick drove away more than snakes. Because Ireland is separated from the European mainland, it also lacks some of the land birds found elsewhere in Europe, like spoonbills and shrikes. Storks, which were once a common European species, are not found at all in Ireland. This may partly explain why the Irish human population is less than half of what it was in 1845.

What they call a Sand Martin in Ireland and England is the same as our own Rough-winged Swallow. Their nightjar is closely related to our Whip-poor-will. Minnesota’s state bird is called the Great Northern Diver on the British Isles. Their Great Tit looks like an exotic Black-capped Chickadee with yellowish-buff sides and bluish wings. Irishmen see creepers, nuthatches, and robins, though what they call a robin is related to our kinglets, and their blackbird is related to our robin. The only waxwing found in Ireland, England, or Europe is our Bohemian Waxwing—Cedar Waxwings are strictly American. The only Irish wren, or Jenny Wren, is the species we call the winter wren. They get mallards over there, and have introduced Canada Geese, though the geese over there have lost their instinct to migrate.

Some birds found in Ireland cannot be found anywhere in the New World. The Alpine Accentor, a brownish gray, medium-sized songbird, is found in the mountainous regions near the coast, and a dull little bird called the Dunnock is found throughout much of the island. Our raven is found there, but instead of crows, they get rooks and jackdaws. Nightingales and skylarks are common. They also share plenty of common birds with us. IRA car bombs have probably killed hundreds of pigeons, House Sparrows, and Starlings, as well as human beings.

My great-grandparents came to America from Ireland. They passed down a few tales about the potato famine and the troubles, and many stories about the incredible beauty of the Emerald Isle, which I confused with the Emerald City of Oz when I was little. But they didn’t pass down one word about the birds of Ireland. To get more than a cursory overview of Ireland’s avian treasures, I’ll have to go there myself some day.

(Recording of a Common Loon)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”