Students Staff

01 March 2011

Conference celebrates birds

A Conference of Birds

From swans and nightingales to eagles and falcons, birds have fascinated writers, scientists and poets – from Charles Darwin to John Keats.

This year, as part of Essex County Council’s Essex Book Festival, the University of Essex’s Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies is hosting A Conference of Birds on 12 March.

The Conference brings together scientists and creative writers to explore the unique inspiration of birds, now and in the past.

The one-day event will be chaired by Professor of Creative Writing, author and mythographer, Marina Warner, explained: ‘From the mythical Roc in the ancient Middle Eastern tale, 1001 Nights, to the finches which Darwin studied on the Beagle, birds have stimulated writers, often acting as a metaphor or symbol to encourage the reader to draw parallels between themselves and their environment.

We have brought together a diverse group of speakers to share and explore their own experiences of the bird world.’

Amongst those contributing to the programme is writer and amateur birdwatcher Tim Dee; award winning poet and author Tobias Hill; evolutionary ecologist Dr Claire Spottiswoode; and David Morley, poet and ecologist.

In addition, historian of science, poet, falconer, and illustrator, Helen MacDonald, will be reading from her collection of poetry, Shaler’s Fish, and will be exploring the link between birds and science.

Throughout the Conference, members of the University’s Creative Writing team will be reading from selected works by authors including the nineteenth-century poet John Clare, and there will be a screening of Monty Python's Albatross and scenes from The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a silent film dating from 1926.

The Conference also provides an opportunity to find out about the contribution of birds to the environment and a major Essex-based initiative underway to preserve their natural habitat. The RSPB’s Hilary Hunter will be discussing the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project – a landmark conservation project which aims to combat the threats from climate change and coastal flooding by recreating the ancient wetland landscape of mudflats and saltmarsh, lagoons and pasture.

Professor Warner explained: ‘In the face of such devastating loss of natural habitat and continued threats to all our wildlife, literature has an increasingly important role in bringing scientific awareness before the public and connecting us with nature.’

The Conference has been inspired by the University’s own expertise in literature, nature and science. Essex recently launched an MA in ‘wild writing’, spanning all these areas, which focuses on writing about the environment.

Tickets are still available for the Conference on 12 March. The event will take place in two sessions, 2.00-5.30pm and 5.30-8.00pm. Tickets are priced at £7/5 for both sessions or £4/3 for one session and are available from the Essex Book Festival box office, telephone 01206 573948 or visit:

Notes to editors
For more information, please contact the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone 01206 872807, e-mail

Full programme
Afternoon session: 2pm-5.30pm
2.00pm: Welcome and Introduction by Marina Warner
2.10pm: Claire Spottiswoode, “Cuckoo Secrets: Warfare and Treachery in the Nests of African Birds”
Intermezzo – James Canton reads from The Peregrine by John Baker
3pm: Hilary Hunter, “'Wild Isle, Wild Inspiration: The RSPB Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project”
Intermezzo – Philip Terry reads from “Clare Cuts”
3.30pm: Helen Macdonald, “A Feather on the Moon: Falcons and Military Technoscience”
3.50pm: In Conversation – Panel Q & A’s
4.00pm: Refreshment break, including Marina Warner on “Bird Metamorphoses in the 1001 Nights” and a screening of Monty Python’s Albatross, followed by scenes from Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
4.40pm: David Morley, “The Invisible Birds: A Reading, with Birdsong”
5.20pm: In Conversation – Panel Q & A’s
5.30pm-6.30pm: Wine Reception
Evening session: 6.30-8.30pm
6.30pm: Welcome and Introduction by Marina Warner
6.35pm: -6.50) Tobias Hill, “Weland Smith”
Intermezzo – James Canton reads The Butter Bump by John Clare
7.00pm: Helen Macdonald, From Shaler’s Fish
7.20pm: Tim Dee, “Blown Eggs and Dead Fields -The End of an African Farm”
Intermezzo – Adrian May reads “Wingsarewe” and “I know where the nightingales sing”
8.00pm: Marina Warner, “Lullaby for an Insomniac Princess”
8.15pm: In Conversation – Panel Q & A’s 

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