I don’t remember when in my life I first became aware of birds. Do any of us? And yet they are a common experience to us all, rich or poor, city or countryside, north, south, east or west. We must as children simply take them for granted, their chorus at dawn, the chatter through the day, their hush at night, broken only by the hooting of owls. Perhaps we were fascinated by the hopping and pecking of sparrows, or wary of the gulls when they got too close for comfort on a beach. Maybe our sense of wonder matched David Attenborough’s as he presented us with the extraordinary wattle of Temminck’s tragopan, or our imaginations were caught up in Tippi Hedren’s panic and terror as the birds gathered around her in Hitchcock’s film. Or perhaps we simply had a father or a mother who liked to point out the birds in our garden and tell us what they were.
I didn’t have that, but I suppose my daughter does. She’ll engage or roll her eyes, according to mood. She likes to see them feed from the half-coconuts outside the kitchen window. Dead birds are definitely interesting. A tit beheaded by a sparrowhawk or a siskin’s neck snapped through collision with a window. Both of those we buried. Like the seemingly innate ruthlessness of the cuckoo, the sparrowhawk shows us that they have no scruples, that survival instinct rather than morals is what binds nests or flocks of them together. But how hard it is not to think nature is inherently good when you wake to a dawn chorus. In Cormac McCarthy’s The road, as much as anything else it is the absence of birdlife which renders his post-apocalyptic world terrible.
How then did I make my way to birds? It was a small hop from the trees, I suppose. Originally, from words, words printed on paper made from the wood of the selfsame trees. From wanting to be a writer and believing that a writer should be able to describe the world, should be able to say which flowers are growing as characters pass across a wasteland or through a formal garden, which trees line an avenue in France down which they cycle, or, as a narrator soliloquizes about his life from the hard comfort of a picnic table, which bird has landed at his elbow. From making this effort I know a little bit more than I otherwise might, but I still feel an ignoramus in front of the vast variety of the natural world.
But I keep perusing field guides and checklists, and as I have done with trees, perhaps I could also outline my life using the birds which have flown through it. Sparrows, pheasants, and pigeons. Herons, peafowl, and Canada geese. Red-crested pochards, tufted ducks and coots. Blackbirds, crows, and great tits. Nightingales, of course. Murmurations of starlings, tidings of magpies. There has been the odd Garrulus glandarius too.
Keep your eyes peeled for birds with a twitcher’s intensity and you’ll see things you’ve never seen before. Red kites soaring on updraughts where a plain meets a line of hills. Falco subbuteo – the hobby – emerging from an abandoned crow’s nest to fly like a Brazilian footballer dribbles. A charm or flutter of greenfinch chasing each other in and out of a hedgerow.
Near where I work there is a park and at its centre, an aviary. I don’t much care for birds in cages, but we will insist on putting them there, and I suppose it is another means by which children come to know birds. The other day I was circling this aviary and I saw two cockatiels copulating. The male’s cheek was no more blushed with colour than it usually is. The sex was rough and short-lived. The female flew off as soon as it was over; no endless turtledove cooing here. I wished the cockatiels an uncaged life back among their native Australian trees. One in which they could stretch their wings whenever they wanted and raise their young to live free.