Simon Armitage and Tim Dee’s top 10 bird poems

From nursery rhyme to Baudelaire, the birdwatcher and the poet spot literature’s finest flights of fancy

A wandering albatross

Listen up … A wandering albatross tests the air on a clifftop near Auckland, New Zealand.

As well as being one of Britain’s most popular and acclaimed poets, Simon Armitage is also a dramatist, novelist, broadcaster and the winner of an Ivor Novello award for his song lyrics to the Channel 4 film Feltham Sings. His nine poetry collections include The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs. Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer based in Bristol. He is the author of The Running Sky, a memoir of his birdwatching life.

The Poetry of Birds is their new – ornithologically ordered – anthology of the best bird poems, newly published by Penguin.

“If we are to continue to live with birds about us we need bird poems as much as the RSPB,” writes Tim Dee. “Birdwatchers don’t necessarily make good poets but the best bird poems are steeped in observation and detail which promote their authors to among the very best watchers of birds. Since the beginnings of English poetry poets have been drawn to birds. The fleeting bewitching quality of birds’ flight and song have been mainstays of poetry ever since. And despite depleted numbers and the loss of house sparrows and cuckoos and many other species, birds continue to populate poetry in a noisy and colourful conversation with the wild. Long may they do so.”

Tim Dee’s choices

The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins. A poem that enacts as well as describes, as if Hopkins were channelling a kestrel hovering 100ft up in the wind; it is mind-blowing no matter how many times you read it.

The Heron by Paul Farley. In which a heron taking flight is compared, decisively and brilliantly, to a grumpy old man getting up to buy a packet of cigarettes; perfect pastoral poetry for today.

The Wren by Norman Nicholson. A beautifully observed poem about a male wren building an unwanted nest; it is ornithologically accurate but also a heartbreaking elegy for Nicholson’s father and the male of the species in general.

Sing a Song of Sixpence.
The “blackbirds” of the nursery rhyme might be rooks, they make very tasty pies; but regardless of the birds or their end, the poem celebrates the deep and continuing entanglement of birds and people at all levels of life.

The Yellowhammer’s Nest by John Clare. A birder’s poem: Clare’s description is pin sharp and indistinguishable from the lofty text of The Handbook of British Birds. He was a consummate nest finder and put his field-notes into poems and described more birds in them than any other poet before or since. Surely the greatest bird poet in the language.

Simon Armitage’s choices

The Albatross by Charles Baudelaire. A grand lofty poem by a grand lofty poet, it has a thumping confidence in its assertion that bird and poet are of the same species.

Leda and the Swan by WB Yeats. A poem of brutality and wild beauty. I’ve always given swans a wide birth since reading this poem at school.

Cock-Crows by Ted Hughes. Hughes is one of the great bird poets. This is an orgiastic firework display of common hens calling to the dawn, as seen from the height of the hill.

The Exposed Nest by Robert Frost. The lines “We saw the risk we took in doing good,/but dared not spare to do the best we could/though harm should come of it” stay with me. It’s about covering up an exposed bird’s nest, but it could be about Iraq, Afghanistan …

Curlew by Gillian Clarke. Wonderfully observed and described. One of those classic bird poems in which the bird appears to offer huge significance to our life and our world (without, presumably, any intention or knowledge of doing so!)


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