Conference for the Birds, 2019

Cherryburn, Northumberland

Conference for the Birds celebrates the lives of the birds Thomas Bewick depicted in his wood engravings. His book ‘A History of British Birds’ first published in 1797 was a comprehensive guide to both the appearance and behaviour of birds. In the birthplace of Bewick, in one of the two rooms his family inhabited along with his seven siblings, we are surrounded by seven large bird heads, 3 dimensional renderings of his prints. We hear these seven different bird species discussing their lives with each other. The birds, played by wildlife experts, discuss topics from migration to predation, with each species speaking about the challenges they face day to day. By exploring the lives of the birds that Bewick studied and depicted, this artwork attempts to reveal how we, when speaking from the position of another animal like a bird, rely on subjective experience to relate across to this alien perspective.

Camera, field recording and video edit by Leah Millar

The birds and their players are:

Cuckoo - Helen Macdonald. The female cuckoo has a fascinating approach to rearing young, It is well know that she lays her egg in another bird’s nest like a reed warbler or dunnock however, it is still a mystery how the young cuckoo finds its way back to Africa alone. Helen talks about her migration and her childhood, confused about the other bird’s distrust of her. Helen MacDonald who is writer, naturalist, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She is best known as the author of H is for Hawk.

Great black-backed gull - Sally Reay. This is the largest of the gulls in UK; it preys on other gulls and sea birds as well as stealing fish from them. Sally is a young gull and speaks about the act of killing and her life as a predator. Sally Reay is a zoology graduate, she has been working on the Isle of May NNR where she monitors the bird life, doing population counts and bird ringing.

Roseate tern - Tom Cadwallender. This is a species of tern that has been on the brink of extinction in the UK. It survives in a small breeding colony on Coquet Island in Northumberland. (Tom has been instrumental in protecting this colony and developing strategies for its survival) Tom speaks about his relationship as a tern to the sea and the huge distances he migrates each year. Tom Cadwallender is the British Trust for Ornithology Regional Representative for Northumberland, he is an author writing and contributing to guides on birds and coastal environments.

Tree sparrow - Muriel Cadwallender. This is a social bird, living in small groups. The tree sparrow’s population in the UK has fallen dramatically in recent years. Muriel speaks about her observations and concerns regarding this. Muriel Cadwallender is the British Trust for Ornithology Regional Development Officer for Northumberland and co-editor of the Northumbria Bird Atlas, a survey of bird populations across the region.

Blackbird - Geoff Sample. The only bird in the group that has a true song, much of the discussion with Geoff is about the culture of song, understanding its purpose, musicality and regional differences. Geoff Sample is the author/producer of a series of audio guides published by HarperCollins, including the best-selling Collins Bird Songs and Calls. He also regularly leads workshops and gives talks and performs at festivals and conferences.

Dotterel - Marcus Coates. Unusually for birds, the female dotterel is more colourful than the male. Marcus speaks about his roles as a male dotterel, in incubating the eggs and rearing the chicks, the female having gone off to find another male and lay another clutch of eggs.

Heron - Ceri Levy. Herons are solitary birds when not breeding. Ceri speaks about his world as a bird alone, his hunting strategies and the benefits of a waiting game. Ceri Levy is a film-maker, writer, wildlife activist and conservationist. Recent film projects include Bananaz, about the band Gorillaz and he is currently working on The Bird Effect. With artist, Ralph Steadman, he has written the Gonzovation trilogy, about the threat of extinction.

Recorded and Edited by David de la Haye, Culture Lab, Newcastle University. Commissioned for Thomas Bewick’s birthplace - Cherryburn NT by National Trust and Mapping Art in the Heritage Experience (MCAHE) Newcastle University.