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.
August 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm
Love this, as my experience has been quite similar. Birdwatching is something that just creeps up on you (er, that could just be one of the little fledglings….)
August 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm
Glad it struck a chord, mln. Yes, once time and circumstance allow, it certainly does creep up on you. A bit like getting older in that respect then…
August 8, 2012 at 5:42 pm
Excellent post! It’s true that the notion of a world without birdlife is a terrible one. Even though the dawn chorus at my current lodgings is a bit sparse (the resident mockingbird tries to make up for it with his multiplicity of songs), I am still grateful for the few sparrows, doves, and robins that rise to greet the day.
August 8, 2012 at 5:51 pm
Cheers bf. Pleased to hear there are at least a few birds in your neighbourhood prepared to rouse themselves. Sleeping in a converted roof space means I tend to hear every note of our full-on chorus for sections of the year. Not that I’m complaining mind.
September 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm
I love the detail about the male cockatiel’s cheek being no more blushed than usual.
I used to be able to watch birds closely from my last apartment, where I fed them on my fire escape. Mostly mourning doves, and a couple of pushy blue jays, who would fly off with the squirrel’s peanuts in their beaks. In my present apartment I have not been tempted to put seeds out, for fear of drawing the entire population of the nearby park. I do miss them, though.
September 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm
I’m afraid I don’t have a good relationship with squirrels (it’s a long story; well, two long stories in fact) and would favour pushy blue jays with a supply of nuts over sciurine rodents any day.
September 5, 2012 at 11:30 pm
Lots of people seem to have problematic relationships with squirrels. My grandmother once had one leap at her and get its claws embedded in her wool skirt, and she walked to the nearest vet with it hanging there. I used to feed them by hand, which I admit is very stupid, but nothing bad came of it.
September 6, 2012 at 10:18 am
I may try and tell one of my two tales about the bushy-tailed beasts here before long; for now, suffice it to say that recently it’s been their sleep-disturbing propensity that’s been the issue.
September 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm
Ah. They do make a lot of noises, none of them nice to wake up to.
January 23, 2014 at 4:22 pm
It’s so hard to pick a favourite amongst the immensity of vocabulary and wordmithing in each of these lipogrammatical pleasures, but this one is certainly close to it. Really wonderful writing.
January 23, 2014 at 10:46 pm
Birds always bring out the best in me!
I really appreciate you going to the time and effort of reading through this alphabet of mine, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the stories.