December 2023

Vol. 51, No. 6`

About Books: Ticks and Tipples

Mark Lynch

Inn Search of Birds: Pubs, People and Places. John Lawton. 2023. Caithness, Scotland, UK: Whittles Publishing LTD.

“I may well be unique among living birders (or if not unique then very unusual) in that I also keep a list of pub birds—birds on pub signs and in pub names—that I started in 2010.” (p. 1)

Some years back I was on one of those long pelagic trips far off our coast. The boat was returning to port after a day that started well before dawn, so we were all dog-tired. As many of you know, there are typically a few hours on such trips when there is not much to look at except a great expanse of rolling waves with the occasional gull. You’re still looking, of course, but there is nothing to look at. Looking for something to occupy our twitchy minds, someone started listing all the bird species on people’s hats, tee shirts, and pins. Suddenly we were deeply involved in creating a new kind of bird list, and quite a list it was with parrots, trogons, night herons, and so many more. Those of us who participated found ourselves with renewed energy on this most boring part of the trip. All because we were creating a different bird list.

Of course birders keep lists. Not just a life list, but regional lists, state lists, county lists (one of my favorites), city lists, and lists of birds seen in your backyard. But many birders get more creative. I know birders who keep lists of birds seen while attending Sox games at Fenway. Other birders keep “loo lists,” birds seen or heard around whatever “facility” they are attending. Many birders keep a list of birds seen on their local patch, some park or property near where they live that they bird often. I keep a list of birds seen on the grounds of Worcester Art Museum where I taught for decades. That list includes Golden Eagle (flyover), Barred Owl (roosting in a sapling in our tiny courtyard), Bohemian Waxwing, and American Woodcock (also found roosting in the courtyard). Of course, I also have a long and exotic list of the birds found in the museum’s artworks. Many birders likely have a list of their own lists.

Professor Sir John H. Lawton CBE, FRS, is not your average birder. He is the former Vice President of the British Trust for Ornithology and is currently Vice President of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). He is the recipient of many UK and international awards and honors for his conservation efforts. He keeps an international list of birds he has seen on his trips and a list of birds seen in the United Kingdom. He is currently keeping a unique list of birds seen on pub signs, and Inn Search of Birds is a detailed accounting of his finds.

For the non-British reader, Lawton offers an introduction to pub history and pub culture. Currently there are about 51,000 pubs in the UK. The pub looms large in the British psyche. What is a pub versus a tavern or public house? Well, it is a little complicated.

They are all public houses which means they are not private drinking holes or clubs, but are open to anybody (during opening hours, above a certain age and sober-ish) to walk in and buy a drink. Most pubs just have a name, and do not carry the epithet ‘Inn’ or ‘Tavern’. But where they do ‘an inn differed from a tavern in that it was usually located along the ever-growing road network, providing overnight accommodation, food and shelter for travelers.’ (p. 22)

There are a number of books written about British pub history and organizations dedicated to preserving that history. Think about all the films you have seen that take place in Britain, and many of them at least feature a pub. Fine examples of cinematic pubs are the Yorkshire pub The Slaughtered Lamb featured in the 1981 horror film An American Werewolf in London and the London pub The Winchester featured in the 2004 zombie-comedy Shaun of the Dead. There are a number of songs about pubs, my favorite being “Two Pints of Lager and a Package of Crisps, Please!” a 1980 song by the British punk band Splodgenessabounds. This song title became the title of a popular TV sitcom that ran from 2001-2011.

Named pubs go back to the 14th century. Lawton tries to find the oldest still extant pub with a bird in its name. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks claims to be the oldest pub in Britain, but Lawton writes that it isn’t, “not by a long chalk.” (p. 61)

Lawton began this project before the pandemic and even wrote a short piece in British Birds about pub birds in 2020. It was during the Covid plague that he had the time to do more research on the subject. A sample of 711 pubs revealed 117 identifiable species of birds, 17 non-specific birds (“duck”), 4 mythical species, and 36 named after what Lawton calls “bird paraphernalia” (nests, feathers).

To count as a “pub bird” there has to be a bird featured on the pub sign or a bird in the name of the pub that actually refers to a bird. Pub names can be deceptive. The Ostrich Inn is named after a ship, The Rook and Gaskill is named after a pair of sheep rustlers, and The Grouse and Claret are the names of wet fishing flies. These pubs, therefore, do not count.

This book took a lot of research and legwork. Yes, Lawton did use Google to find some potential pub birds but only to be sure they were countable. Visiting a pub’s website or person behind the bar was often of little help.

A few pubs have amusing names, or names that are a play on words. I wonder if the Nightjar Bar in Hebden Bridge (West Yorkshire) or The Swallow between Grimbsy and Lincoln are meant to be puns? We shall see. But more often than I would like with such names I have had limited or even no success in explaining them. Asking the person behind the bar too often generates an unhelpful shrug of the shoulders, and if you Google almost any pub name you get an avalanche of photographs of food, drink and happy customers, but typically nothing about how the pub got its name or history. (p. 17)

Many times, a pub changed hands and was renamed. Many closed during the pandemic.

Mostly it is an outside job, and not a very exciting one at that, or done by searching on Google. But in Edinburgh I once asked a taxi driver to take me to the Doocot (dovecote). “What do you want to go there for?” he asked. I explained. “It’s burned down-insurance job” was his reply. It was being rebuilt, and it’s the only pub I’ve been chased away from when taking a photograph. (p. 1)

The most common pub birds Lawton found were Mute Swan, eagle, cock or hen, pheasant, Black Swan, falcon, duck, Mallard, goose, raven, dove, and pigeon, and in a three-way tie, magpie, kingfisher, and pelican. For each of these common pub birds, Lawton includes a section on that bird’s history in Britain. For instance, under Mute Swan Lawton writes about “upping”:

Mute Swans were semi-domesticated and managed for the table from at least the 15th century under ‘swan laws’ dating from 1482, but much earlier statutes probably existed to control their ownership, management and exploitation. From the 16th century onwards Mute Swan cygnets were caught and marked to signify ownership, primarily with notches, brands or other marks cut into the upper mandibles. By the reign of Elizabeth I there were at least 900 such registered marks in Britain. The tradition of catching and marking Swans, known as ‘swan upping’, continues annually to this day during the third week in July, on the River Thames between Sunbury-on-Thames and Abingdon. The Swans are now only ringed, not mildly mutilated, and their ownership is divided equally between the crown and two livery companies (which are direct descendants of medieval trade guilds), the Vintners and the Dyers. Swan upping was and is carried out by teams known as ‘swan uppers’; The Old Swan Uppers pub in Cookham Rise, north of Maidenhead on the Thames, celebrates the tradition. It currently has a flying Mute Swan on its sign. (p. 26–7)

There is a pub called The Swan with Two Nicks, referring to swan upping, and a more recent pub is called The Swan with Two Necks, possibly a misunderstanding of the upping practice.

In Lawton’s discussion of the eagle, he writes about a beloved nursery rhyme:

I cannot identify the second foreign Eagle, but I can identify where the name comes from. Virtually all children in the UK know the nursery rhyme Pop! Goes the Weasel. The first verse goes:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes
Pop! goes the weasel.

And the third verse:

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

The key lines here are “Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle.” The pub (The Eagle) is still there, at the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Way in London, and it has an Eagle on its sign, but not any old Eagle. My best guess is that it could either be a Harpy Eagle (from South America) or a Martial Eagle (from Africa); if I knew which field guide the artist had used, identification would be easier. (p. 36)

Why a Harpy Eagle on a British pub sign? Many pub owners hand the sign artist a bird book or just ask them to do an internet search. The artist often does not know anything about the ranges of birds and just chooses one that will look good on the sign. The quality of the artwork on a pub sign varies tremendously. Sometimes it is only the name of the pub. Other times there are paintings or reliefs of the bird. Some of these signs are very realistic; others, minimal sketches like a brand logo; some are even rather cartoonish. The sign for The Owl and Hitchhiker on Holloway Road in London features a humorous owl sitting on the thumb of a close-up hand. The artwork is simple, but amusing. The pub title is referring to two famous authors who lived close by: nonsense poet Edward Lear who penned “The Owl and the Pussycat” and Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

There are many oddities about the pub birds in Inn Search of Birds. There is a pub named after a goldcrest, but no pub is named after the beautiful Eurasian Avocet. There are a number of odd pairings that include birds in pub signs like The Mole and Chicken in Easington. Though England is filled with pub birds, to date Lawton has found very few pub birds in Scotland. He has no idea why.

As in real world birding, Lawton finds some real rarities, like the pub called The Yellow Wagtail in Yeovil:

The pub was built in the late 1960s or early 1970s and the name was obviously chosen for a reason. When the pub was built Yellow Wagtails almost certainly bred around Yeovil and may still do (just). Their preferred habitats are damp meadows and marshy fields in river valleys, many of which have been lost since the Second World War to agriculture, so like many farmland birds they are declining. (p. 180)

The normal subspecies in the UK is Motacilla flava flavissima, which suggests it is the yellowest of the group. The bird on sign is not this subspecies. It has a blue-grey crown and ear coverts, a bold white ‘eyebrow’, a whitish throat and a green back (‘ours’ has a buttercup yellow eye stripe and a darker but still yellowish head and back and a yellow throat). Identification of Yellow Wagtails is tricky and this one looks most like Motacilla flava bema [sic, read beema], known as Syke’s Wagtail. This subspecies breeds from the Volga steppes eastward and birds that at least look like them occur here as vagrants. As sure as heck they don’t occur around Yeovil. (p. 180)

A friend and colleague of Lawton, Bob Holt, suggested the ultimate way to enjoy pub birding:

I can think of a new, hybrid recreational activity, Ticks and Tipples. The goal would be to go to a destination, find the real bird shown on the pub sign nearby (the tick), and then go to the pub for a drink (the tipple)…going to the pub first doesn’t count, since one can see all manner of improbable things when a touch inebriated! (p. 95)

I love the idea of Ticks and Tipples, but in reality it would be a tough twitch most of the time. Imagine looking for a grouse or eagle in the metropolis of London. Lawton also found a number of pubs that were well inland but named after seabirds. Still, it remains a goal.

Inn Search of Birds is a wonderfully idiosyncratic bird book based on a unique and passionate list. The book is illustrated with many small color photographs of the pub signs. There is even a small “art gallery” of some of Lawton’s favorite bird pub signs. There is a lot of British history sprinkled throughout as well as a number of personal birding anecdotes. Inn Search of Birds includes extensive end notes (p. 189–206) and three indices: general, places in Britain, and pubs. Finally, combining birds and pubs makes this one of the most “British” books you will have read in some time. Thoroughly enjoyable.

To listen to my conversation with Sir John Lawton for WICN, please use this link: <>

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