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Fåglar i staden Roger Gyllin and Ingvar Svanberg, Fåglar i staden (Birds in the City)

Dialogos förlag,  2017.

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2018:1

Review Section: Non-fiction

This review also covers Tomas Bannerhed (text) and Brutus Östling (photography), I starens tid (The Time of the Starling), Weyler bokförlag, 2015, 171 pages

Fåglar i staden is a brief, though thorough examination of the various bird species that have adapted to and spread into urban areas in Sweden, inviting comparison with cities in other countries,where birds have also become more prevalent, either as a natural process or owing to direct human intervention.Gyllin and Svanberg feel that the birds and mammals in our cities are often not considered a part of biodiversity – although in fact they should be seen as a rare success story in a world increasingly defined by the degradation of its biological heritage. The intention of the work, a painstakingly researched description of the establishment of parks and bird lakes in Sweden from the turn of the last century, is to examine the subject from a cultural-historical and cultural-zoological perspective. One of the figures under the microscope is the nationally well-known ornithologist Erik Rosenberg (1902-1971), who seems to have played a widely acknowledged role in introducing birds into our cities. When Rosenberg moved to Örebro in 1912 from his native Värmland, he was shocked to find that the city was almost empty of birds. He noted a tree creeper in the city park, but apart from that saw only dead birds hanging up at market: chicken, grouse, mallard, and even braces of ruff. But there are also broad references in Fåglar i staden to many other influential figures, such as the ‘experimental’ biologist Bengt Berg, who, with his son Jens in the early 1940s, allegedly planted cormorants’ eggs in heronries on Svartö, south of Kalmar. Sweden now accounts for 25% of Europe’s breeding population of cormorants, for which Berg has apparently been damned by many, fishermen in particular.

The main thrust of Fåglar i staden is how, with the establishment of the stone-built urban environment (at the end of the 19th century in Stockholm, for instance), much of the birdlife that had previously flourished there withdrew to churchyards and then disappeared altogether. Only through the efforts of individuals and park authorities were they brought back. It is surprising to learn that we now readily accept the presence of mallards, swans, cormorants, mandarin ducks, tufted ducks, goldeneye and a host of other species, all of which were wholly unknown in urban or built-up areas a hundred years ago. Overwintering mute swans in Swedish parks in the 1930s would typically be reported on in local newspapers. Similar articles today would have to detail the arrival of rare species such as peregrine falcons, tufted larks, or even eagle owls; all three earn mention, although none of the eagle owls survived, all having died through collisions with high-tension pylons.

Fåglar i staden is a detailed description – almost too detailed at times – of individuals active in the movement to establish park environments and bird ponds in Sweden’s emerging cities in the early and mid-20th century. The authors also report on the waning of this movement, for instance the tendency of lifestyle-obsessed city councils to lop urban trees so that unwelcome colonies of rooks are decimated in the interests of smart pavement cafés.

There is definitely a value in the precise historical chronology of Fåglar i staden – knowledge, after all, always has value – although one might also argue that the more important arguments when looking at biodiversity and birdlife belong in a broader debate about the preservation of our countryside. It would be difficult, however, to frame such an argument as a relevant criticism of this well-researched study of a highly specific subject. Despite such caveats, it is probably fair to say that those more generally interested in nature and birdlife will find more to engage them in I starens tid, a wonderful collection of reflections by Tomas Bannerhed, otherwise better known for his fiction, including the novel Korparna. I starens tid is largely a photographic book – with a lavish selection of images by the outstanding nature photographer Brutus Östling, who manages the difficult feat of depicting birds as individuals – but unusually for an illustrated book it also benefits from a series of intensely personal, wry, and illuminating reflections by Bannerhed, which were first serialised in Expressen’s culture section and later revised for publication. Set out as an intermittent journal based on the calendar year, Bannerhed’s thoughts are sprinkled with seasonal observations, so that on 17 April, for instance, we learn the following: ‘In the pleasure palace of Drottningholm the woodpecker lives next door to the king, no less, has cut a hole for himself and his family and arranged his simple workshop in a straight, dead trunk nearby... His luminous, crimson tail feathers stand out in wild contrast to all the winter paleness around, like a stain of blood on the pelt of a newly shot Swedish white hare.’

I starens tid, though different in tone from Fåglar i staden, does have a shared focus – although one almost has to remind oneself of it, for Bannerhed’s theme is really the poetry of birds and nature. Which is not to say that his text is not full of extraordinary facts, or to downplay the sporadic instances of intersection between the works. For instance, in Bannerhed’s text we learn that farmers in Västra Götaland annually donate some 30 tonnes of grain to feed white-fronted geese, once on the brink of extinction. Farmers would rather keep them in city parks than have them foraging among their sprouting winter wheat. Another interesting snippet in this essayistic work is that Linné, like so many other natural scientists of his time, believed that the cuckoo underwent a yearly autumnal conversion into a hawk, and that swallows hibernated at the bottom of lakes. But we are also more pertinently informed that between 1911 and 2007 some 12 million birds were ring marked in Sweden, of which only 1.3% were reported back, half of them overseas. One of them, a great snipe, was tracked flying without pause from the Swedish Alps to the rainforests of the Congo. Compared to this, Fåglar i staden offers little in the way of wonder. With a stony-faced demeanour it informs us that the mallard was allegedly first introduced to Skansen in 1910 by the superintendent Alerik Behm, whose aim was to establish a population of wild, breeding birds in the area. Bannerhed might have told us the same thing, but he would have done it with more literary panache; after all, he is a wordsmith and he is looking to enchant us. Birds, like anything, can either be a subject for academic study or a launchpad for subjective meditations on life. For instance, as Bannerhed tells us, they can recall the presence of other writers: ‘Without my really being able to clarify the reasons why, the kingfisher has for many years made me think of Göran Tunström. Maybe it is something about India? The saris. The beauty. The colours. The light.’

Other reviews by Henning Koch

Other reviews in SBR 2018:1

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