Leo Tolstoy did not like cuckoos. How famous writers and poets listened to birds

May 28

Spring has been quite nippy this year, but birds are always on schedule: it is in May that migratory birds return to the city from the south. Starlings and chaffinch fill the capital with their singing in the mornings, while bluethroats and nightingales sing in the evening. Their joyful warble penetrates closed windows, and if you open them or stand on a balcony, you instantly feel as if you were in a fairytale, especially those of us with trees and bushes under our windows.

For now, birdwatching is hardly possible, since it requires long walks in parks and other green areas. But mos.ru is here to back you up with bird quotes by famous writers and poets.

Here is what Sergei Aksakov (1791–1859), author of The Scarlet Flower fairytale, wrote in his “Notes and recollections of a hunter on various hobbies,” written in the mid-19th century. Aksakov was a passionate hunter and fisherman and wrote many books on this subject. In this paragraph, he talks with a shade of bemusement about the people who find joy in simply marvelling at birds or listening to them sing.

Ivan Kramskoi. Sergei Aksakov’s portrait. 1878

“…There is also an occupation of a selfless kind, when the only reward consists of the pleasure of listening to, seeing, feeding and raising all kinds of birds and even animals; this is the case of singing birds and pigeons. The former at least indulge the ear with their singing, while for the latter this is beyond their ability – all they can do is make a hollow cooing sound every once in a while.”

Soviet nature writer and ornithologist Vitaly Bianki (1894–1959) dedicated almost his entire life to birds. He believed that all feathered species deserved attention, regardless of their singing talents or whether they could only cawk or quack. Bianki published his first short story, “The Journey of a Red-Headed Sparrow”, in 1923 in the Vorobei (Sparrow) magazine. One of his most famous books, Whose Nose Is Better?, came out soon afterwards. Later Bianki wrote two more books to form a trilogy with the first one: “Whose Feet Are These?” and “Who Sings What?” Vitaly Bianki wrote extensively on birds and animals and many of his works have become children’s all-time classics.

Vitaly Bianki

His father, Valentin Bianki, was a zoologist. Following in his father’s footsteps, Vitaly became an ornithologist and also devoted his life to studying fauna. After all, his interest and love for birds dated back to his childhood. For this article, we chose an excerpt from a letter by Valentin Bianki to his son on 20 July 1943. At that time, Valentin was evacuated to the Urals, while his 17-year old son was studying at a military college in Leningrad.

“I saw wild ducks, teals, sandpipers and four oyster catchers on the Zuikha River. I heard them squalling last summer, but I couldn’t be sure, so I didn’t note it down. So there is yet another variety. Valya made an interesting observation on the Zuikha River: crows find shellfish in the pebbles, take them in their beaks, fly up to an altitude of about five metres, and then drop their prey and rush to feed on it. There are so many crows here, and they are doing this all the time, flying up in the air every minute with their catch. I saw this myself using binoculars.”

Wild duck. Photo: mos.ru. Maxim Denisov

Nikolai Sladkov (1920–1996) was another well-known Soviet nature writer, who co-animated News from the Woods radio show together with Vitaly Bianki. Sladkov loved birds and animals from his childhood, and kept a nature observation diary since second grade. He would take his notepad, go into the forest, listen, observe and make notes. When he became a writer, he discussed the advantages and downsides of this method in his short story “The Forgotten Notepad.”

“A notepad offers a convenient and simple tool. All you have to do is write down: ‘The first snipe bleated’ or ‘A robin on the fir tree started signing.’ That’s all there is to it. Everything is so straightforward. This is something to help you remember, to leave a reference. But having made this note, you have to find a way to fix in your mind the memory of this robin that all of a sudden decided to sing a tune, and the fir tree joined the chorus with its branches ringing out its sparkling song.”

Snipe. Photo: Mospriroda

Nikolai Sladkov took up hunting when he was still young, but quickly gave up this hobby, as he came to believe that the unnecessary killing of animals was barbaric. Instead, he took up wildlife photography. In his books, Sladkov always stressed the need to treat nature with care. As he became older, he continued to keep his nature observation diary. For example, here is what he wrote about his encounters with forest dwellers and how they affect people.

“We cross and then part ways, and there seems to be nothing between us. But this is not so. After meeting a bird or an animal, you cannot be indifferent to them anymore. Every once in a while, you will think about how they are getting along out there in the woods. What are they doing, and is everything all right with them? This means that you are not alone, but in the company of all the animals you have met in the forest.”

Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov (1892–1975) was born into a family of a peasant woman and a forest ranger, and was predestined to work in agriculture. In 1910, he enrolled in an agricultural course in St Petersburg, but quickly realised that he cared about literature much more than about other studies. The same year, he published his first short story, The Salt of the Earth, and started working as a reporter. He travelled a lot in his younger years, and was a member of Otto Shmidt’s expeditions to the Arctic. Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov wrote many children’s books on animals, based on his own observations. Here is how he described an encounter with a flock of restless jays and saw them in a new light.

“All of a sudden, I heard hushed sounds that were incredibly pleasant. I thought that they were coming from real musicians who were playing flutes, pipes and other instruments I knew nothing about… Hiding behind a tree, I soon saw about two dozen jays just above the footpath. Perching in the nearby trees, these birds were humming in an especially joyful manner.”

Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov. Jays.


Seeing a jay in Moscow, let alone hearing its calm singing instead of a worried squeak it makes when seeing a human, is no easy task. Starlings are a different story. These birds with their beautiful glossy black plumage actively hunt for worms in late spring and early summer, jumping in the grass, fluttering from one branch to another, and signing out loud. Alexander Kuprin (1879–1938) described their signing.

Alexander Kuprin

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know if the starling has its own song, but in their singing you can hear many things that have nothing to do with this bird: fragments from nightingale’s songs, the oriole’s sharp mewing, the redbreast’s soft voice, the musical bleating of a leaf warbler, the tomtit’s gentle whistle. Among these sounds you can all of a sudden hear tunes that will make you laugh, like a chicken cackling from a tree, a knife on a grindstone, a door creaking, or a trumpet tune played by a child. Having all of a sudden played this musical interlude, the starling would instantly carry on with its marvellous good-humoured song.”

Alexander Kuprin. Starlings

Starlings. Photo: Mospriroda

The joyful starlings also inspired Vladimir Mayakovsky who published a poem about these birds in Pionerskaya Pravda newspaper on 16 April 1927. It all started when the newspaper’s editors asked the poet to write something about the Bird Day that was marked in Moscow on 27 March. On that day, 5,000 children hanged 1,098 birdhouses around the city. In fact, Bird Day was observed in the USSR since 1924. Some say that there was a time when Vladimir Mayakovsky helped pioneers prepare the event, drawing posters with them, making birdhouses and even came up with a slogan: “We are waiting for you, comrade bird, why aren’t you coming?” This slogan later gave the title to the poem Mayakovsky wrote for Pionerskaya Pravda. Here is a fragment:

Vladimir Mayakovsky


A cry is flying



from every side,


a cry is flying



to everywhere:


– Spring has come!



With starlings! 

Welcome, starlings! –

In the best place

of the grove

on a loosely spreading




the house is ready.

Little birds

with great appetite.

They are ready



to devour



seeds and





Commonplace birds can also be a source of admiration, for example sparrows, since every living creature has its own character. This was the thinking of Vera Chaplina (1908–1994), a children’s writer who wrote about animals and worked at the Moscow Zoo for more than 20 years. Chaplina got to know the zoo as a school student when she joined the young biologists’ club taught by zoologist and nature researcher Pyotr Manteufel.

Vera Chaplina and lioness Kinuli. 1940

The girl fed animals, made observations and used them in her research. In 1933, she created an experimental site where young animals of various species were placed together. This idea later became an integral part of the zoo’s brand identity. It was then that she started publishing her first short stories about animals, based on her experience with what she saw at the zoo. In 1946, Chaplina became a full-time writer, and left the zoo. But she continued to observe animals. For example, here is an extract from her short story “Our sparrow Pik” (from her 1976 Casual Encounters collection of stories).


“We came to our country house every Sunday, since the garden requires a lot of attention in March: we pruned dry branches, painted the trunks of apple and pear trees with whitewash, and when we took a break, we would watch sparrows working hard near our neighbour’s house. They tirelessly flew back and forth carrying straw and feathers to build their nests.
We gave one of them the name Pik. He had brown wings and a beautiful red breast. Instead of making the usual twitter, he would say “pik-pik” in his sparrow language.”

Andean condor Kuzya from Vera Chaplina’s short story Condor. 1940

However, not all writers were fond of birds. For examples, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) believed that the less you see of a bird, the better, judging by the writing of his secretary, Valentin Bulgakov. Here is what he wrote on 26 April 1910.

We had lunch on the porch. Tolstoy marvelled at the weather and nature. One could here cuckoo cooing.
“I don’t like cuckoos,” Tolstoy said all of a sudden. “So boring! Other birds go unnoticed, but not this one. Just as a dog when it starts to bark. Frogs go unnoticed as well.”

Valentin Bulgakov, The Last Year of Leo Tolstoy

Source: mos.ru

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