Roy Wilkinson on the relationship between bands and birdwatching

Ziggy Stardust looks like a grebe; Guy Garvey spent his Mercury prize money on posh binoculars - Roy Wilkinson takes a look at rock's long-standing love affair with birdwatching

"I've seen sea eagles off the Isle of Mull," says Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, sounding a bit like Rutger Hauer during his attack-ships-off-Orion soliloquy in Blade Runner. "We've also had mistle thrushes nest on our balcony. That isn't common in the middle of Manchester."

It's true, the mistle thrush (or stormcock), a bird of open country, isn't common in Britain's cities. But it is fairly common to find a bird-fixated musician. This summer, Garvey, British Sea Power guitarist Martin Noble and the 6 Music DJ Marc Riley are set to make a birding radio documentary, provisionally titled In Search of the Holy Quail. Over the years, as I've interviewed Garvey, Edwyn Collins, the Beautiful South's Paul Heaton and Bill Drummond of the KLF, all have shown a keen interest in birds. Jimi Goodwin and Fyfe Dangerfield, frontmen of Doves and the Guillemots respectively, are both well-informed ornithologists. The late Billy Fury was also a birdwatcher - a rain-drenched childhood birding trip led to the rheumatic fever that caused him to be racked by illness throughout his career. The French composer Olivier Messiaen drew heavily on birdsong in his work. Such a connection of course makes sense - birds and musicians both deal in sound and music. But are there other reasons why modern rock has gone to the birds?

Since time immemorial, popular song has invoked the natural world. Edwyn Collins, for one, has revisited this tradition. His lyrics have featured both the black-headed gull and blackcap, the latter a warbler of hedgerow and garden. In looking to birds, today's musicians are perhaps swapping the neurotic Twitter of our era for another, older kind of twittering. But is there also something in birds' physical presence that makes them a natural counterpart to rock? Look at the shag, a cormorant species found along our rockier shorelines. With its quiff and lustrous black plumage, the shag is very rock'n'roll. It looks like Gene Vincent about to drag his leather-clad limbs across the stage at Plymouth Majestic in 1963. Both "shag" and "rock'n'roll" are, of course, slang for sex. Until 2006, I managed the rock group British Sea Power. During this time the likes of the shag/rock nexus became a small but much-reported part of the band's activity.

My younger brothers Yan and Hamilton are BSP's co-frontmen. My brethren and BSP drummer Matthew Wood aren't particularly birdmen, so they had to look on with resigned humour as guitarist Martin did his best to squeeze birds into interviews with the NME. Martin was quoted explaining how the ex-Suede guitarist and Duffy producer Bernard Butler looks exactly like a great-crested grebe in profile. It's true - have a look. There was also a big press excursion to the Scilly Isles at the time of BSP's debut LP. The trip had some intrigue value - no one had really played there before - but the trip also allowed Martin and I to visit this birding mecca. Such birding bolt-ons sometimes bore useful fruit. Happy indeed was the time the band's Do You Like Rock Music? album got a rave review in the RSPB magazine. With the RSPB membership exceeding a million, their mag easily out-circulates any UK music title. This year, BSP's Yan and Martin also took part in an RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch blog, as hosted on the Guardian's website.

It's possible to make out further connections between birds and rock. In both instances the male is given to conspicuous display, strutting away with either outrageous plumage or foundation-caked cheekbones. Or both, as in the cases of Roxy Music and the Killers. Look at a Slavonian grebe's eldritch-red eyes and electric-mustard ear tufts and you have something of Ziggy Stardust-period David Bowie. When you suddenly happen on dramatic avian display - such as that of a black grouse, a bewildering mix of purrs and hisses emitted by a robotically prancing mass of feather - you get a blend of sound and vision to match the thrill that comes with seeing an unbelievable band for the first time. Chris Watson, formerly of the avant-garde Sheffield electro-pop group Cabaret Voltaire, is someone who bridges the two realms. He's long since moved away from music to become a successful natural-history sound-recordist, working with David Attenborough, among others.

We live at a time when computers, golf and cooking sausages have all done time as "the new rock'n'roll". With traditional notions of rock rebellion so tainted by association, it's actually more transgressive to sing about the perceived fustiness of willow warblers and waxwings. Such a slant clearly appealed to the heroically contrary Edwyn Collins. With Doves, however, the avian content takes on a more earthy, unselfconscious quality, perhaps because Jimi Goodwin's story is an astonishing, more extreme version of Kes.

Goodwin grew up in Cheshire and started birdwatching as a seven-year-old. Then, more unusual avian experience entered the frame. Miles Baddeley, a friend of his dad, had run a vintage boutique in Manchester - Eleven Miles Out, as celebrated by the Doves B-side of the same name. Then Baddeley left Manchester, going back to nature in Herefordshire's woodland. Goodwin would visit him - surrounded by wildlife, with the household appliances running off car batteries. As if remembering a first push-bike, Goodwin recalls how "Miles gave me my first owl". Baddeley also had a puma called Khan - until it was shot by a local farmer. Inspired, Goodwin erected an aviary in his garden. He kept injured birds before attempting to reintroduce them to the wild - including Benny the tawny owl, a magpie and a herring gull. The pre-teen Goodwin also got to know Pat and Bob Ratcliffe, a Manchester couple whose wildlife-stuffed home was documented in the 1979 book Kestrels in the Kitchen.

"It was unbelievable," says Goodwin. "A cockatoo would start drinking your tea, then a Siamese cat would walk by with a buzzard perched on its back."

Goodwin occasionally goes wildlife watching with his friend Guy Garvey, and talks with some satisfaction about the goldcrests and nuthatches he gets in his garden near Macclesfield. Birds also feature on Doves' forthcoming album, Kingdom of Rust. There are blackbirds on the the title track, while Birds Flew Backwards was inspired by the sight of a crow in a gale. A Doves track, Caught By the River, also provided the name for the fishing/nature/culture website started by the people at their record label, Heavenly.

Goodwin is happy to acknowledge some more fanciful connections between birds and rock. "The shag is definitely rock'n'roll!" he laughs. But his own interest in birds has the pragmatic passion that typifies Doves' music. "Music and nature are both very personal things to me," he says. "Music is nature really. Look at Messiaen, who literally made music from birdsong. Both are about communication on a fundamental level. Our song Birds Flew Backwards isn't some cod-hippy metaphor, it was inspired by things I saw, 'Winter seemed to linger but now the swallows have arrived.' You like to think the swallows will always be there, a sign that time is following its course."

The Guillemots' Dangerfield is another musician with a marked interest in birdlife. His band are named after one of Britain's most emblematic seabirds, while Guillemots records have featured recordings of the robin and red-throated diver. Several different birds have entered their lyrics and song-titles - cockatiels, the redwing, the flycatcher. "If you're interested in music," says Dangerfield, "I don't know how you can hear birdsong and not think it's amazing. It's not like we set out to make a record about birds, but they're such good symbols to use in lyrics."

Birds inspired some of Dangerfield's earliest experiments in sound - as a child he sat with a tape recorder adding his own vocal introductions to an LP of birdsong he'd borrowed from the library. He talks animatedly about recently seeing the rare firecrest near his home in London's Stoke Newington. He also talks about birds from further afield.

"It is amazing," he says. "In music I do aim for that kind of freedom you hear in birdsong. I've been rewatching David Attenborough's Life of Birds documentaries. The footage of the lyre bird is amazing - it starts off imitating other birds, then moves on to a camera shutter and a chainsaw. It sounds like they've dubbed in samples - it's like biological sampling."

Among the tracks on Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid album is the song Starlings. When the album won Elbow the Mercury prize, Garvey knew what he wanted to spend his share of the loot on - some military-grade image-stabilising binoculars. He's now better equipped to observe the birds that surround him in Manchester - peregrine falcons high in the sky; starlings over Piccadilly Gardens. I ask what draws him and his fellow musicians to birdlife.

"Well," he says, "in deciding to be a rock musician, you opt out of things. You opt out of a normal job, and you can end up with a lot of time on your hands. In my case, this led to a lot of long, introspective walks - which led to animals and birds. If you're thinking about new songs then birds are a nice distraction. You can watch them wherever you are and it doesn't cost anything."

The rock/birds juncture may be with us for a while. The Edge, Bert Jansch and Van Morrison have all been ascribed an interest in birdlife. Brian Briggs, frontman with Oxford-based group Stornoway, has a song called Watching Birds. He also completed a PhD based on the adwall and shoveler, two species of duck. Garvey's low-key talk of bird-punctuated walks is in keeping with Elbow's kitchen-sink poeticism. But he also clearly understands how rock and birds share a sensational audio-visual impact. If you doubt it, get up to the Scottish Highlands this spring and take in the loch-skipping, proto-Ziggy courtship dance of the Slavonian grebe. Even Bowie never quite got to walk on water.

On the wings of a Dove: where rock meets ornithology on the web

Caught By the River could be the only website where you'll find both spellbound musings on spilt-cane trout rods and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie writing about Lux Interior, the recently deceased singer of psychobilly pioneers the Cramps. The site and its mainly bucolic content were a surprise, given that the people behind it come from Heavenly Records, famous for its sybaritic attitude to life. Though oriented toward the more gentlemanly end of river fishing, CBTR has also featured apples, Studs Terkel and a mailing-list MP3 compilation of river-themed songs, selected by the music writer Jon Savage. The site blends music-based rapture with the more ancient kind of bliss you'll locate in the woods and on the riverbank. As co-founder and Heavenly artist manager Andrew Walsh says, after years of rock drama, CBTR is "the place where nothing bad ever happens". Indeed, good things are happening in this new Arcadia. June will bring their first book, a self-titled anthology of river writing. Contributors include Irvine Welsh, Jarvis Cocker, Bill Drummond and the late Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog, a meditation on Britain's waterways. "Waterlog was our Dylan-goes-electric moment," says Robin Turner, another of CBTR's founders. The website is a broad church, arrayed around the slogan "an antidote to indifference". And just as some musicians draw inspiration from the skies, the CBTR collective have been re-energised by their new waterworld. "It's not really about fishing," says Heavenly founder Jeff Barrett. "It's about going fishing - a metaphor for going in search of good things. After years of drugs, it's great to mix the music with something new."

Roy Wilkinson

The GuardianTramp

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