For the Birds Radio Program: Birds of Ireland

Original Air Date: March 17, 2003

On St. Patrick’s Day, Laura is thinking about the birds of Ireland. There are just about the same number of species there as in Minnesota or Wisconsin, but they’re quite different.

Duration: 4′12″


Birds of Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day is the day when we like to think about the birds of Ireland. Ireland has a lot in common with Minnesota, having 424 species on its official list, compared to just one fewer, 423, in Minnesota, and ten less, or 414, in Wisconsin. Of course, Ireland has a great deal of coastline—they have an albatross, shearwaters, storm-petrels, a tropicbird, and a puffin on their official list. Most of the birds on the Irish list are coastal and European species, like hoopoes, turtle-doves, jackdaws; choughs, and the Common Cuckoo—the species that sounds just like a cuckoo clock. Nightingales and larks are both found there, so Romeo and Juliet could have been hiding out in Ireland the night they were married, when they argued about whether a lark or a nightingale was singing outside their window. The European Blackbird, which is closely related to our robin, is found there—that’s the species four and twenty of which were baked in a pie. When English settlers came to America, they switched to the American delicacy of robin pie instead. In either case, the birds eat enough fruit that they themselves apparently have a pleasant flavor.

But the prevailing westerlies being what they are, there are quite a few North American birds that have been found in Ireland, too, birds that got lost out over the Atlantic Ocean and either hopped a ship or just flew and flew and managed to stay alive all the way. Ireland’s list includes both North American cuckoos, Philadelphia and Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanager, and eight species of warblers. The exchange didn’t go both ways—virtually all the European birds that made it to America came via Siberia. Even some American birds reached Europe on that narrow land bridge. The only wren found in Ireland is the Winter Wren. Wrens are a genuinely New World family, and the Winter Wren, being the only wren hardy enough to breed in Alaska, is the only one that crossed over to Siberia. Once there, it spread throughout Asia and Europe. All the European stories about Jenny Wren are about the same bird that will be arriving here soon to fill the north woods with its lovely silver-threaded song—the one about which Gloucester, in King Lear, said, “Die for adultery? No! The wren goes to it.”

Oddly, the one British species that has genuinely green colors, the Green Woodpecker, virtually never shows up in Ireland. This common backyard species of England, nicknamed the yaffle, is found on the checklist for the birds of Ireland, but is apparently extremely rare there. Green Woodpeckers feed on the ground as our flickers do, so perhaps they simply blend right in on the Emerald Isle and hardly anyone notices them. American Irish people put on green on St. Patrick’s Day so everyone will notice where they come from. Irish birds don’t have to change their plumage for a day since they all come from Ireland, and they don’t have parades or dye any rivers green or have a little too much to drink celebrating their Irish heritage.

I’ve never been across the Atlantic, though you’d think if several American warblers weighing only a third of an ounce could make the trip to Ireland during their brief lifespan, I certainly should have by now. Being Irish, I’ll spend my day singing “Oh, Danny Bird” and “When Irish Eyes Are Birding” and “Toora Loora Sora” and dreaming of a green island where no birds are green but all of them sing with an Irish brogue.