Birdlife

Birdlife

Covid has struck our household, again. I have been brought, resentfully and then gratefully, to a stop. Glen has scored the tell-tale red line on a LFT, like a pregnancy test in reverse. He is shivering and roasting on the couch, hesitating between swallows and sounding like Phil Tufnell after an epically heavy night. I am red-line-less, but my head feels stuffed with cloth, held in a brace of the least forgiving kind, my stomach tumbled and a deep tiredness in my bones, but maybe I’m just joining in.

As usual, with stopping has come noticing as the world draws into focus. The clarity I chase, even as I whisk the viscosity of days to cloud them, comes in a rush. I can smell the honeysuckle in the still-light evening, the hot, sweet grass as I walk out from the cool of the house. In the garden I see bees and hoverflies flitting between the lavender and lamb’s ear, butterflies sparring, white and tortoiseshell, against the cloudless sky. I can hear children climbing the hill to school, exclaiming at the sight of a spider; the sound of bass slipping from a car window as it rushes past, the cry of a newborn being wheeled up the lynch. I sit in the early morning sunshine and watch the light play through the silky petals of cosmos and poppies in the veg patch.

But I also feel the tremble of the ground and hear the beeping of construction vehicles in the field beyond as the new houses go up. I imagine the earth sighing as the field that shimmered and swayed, buzzed and flickered, is scalped to a patch of bare red earth. A crunchy path of gravel has been laid where we walked on sun-hardened soil, trailing hands through the feathery fronds of grasses. I hear a scientist talking about their research on the radio, how biodiversity loss causes climate change and climate change causes biodiversity loss. And so we go on.

Here in my garden I revel in the wild bits, in the fortune that means we have the space to let it go. In the rough patches nettles, grasses and wildflowers thrive; shelter and food for insects, birds and mammals in this wave of heat. Recently, as darkness fell, Cooper drew me up to the garden with his barking , to where a mother and tiny baby hedgehog were curled up in protective balls at the pond’s edge.

I discover a new addition to the garden, a tall yellow daisy that has drifted in on the wind. It is not pretty. It has prickly, blistered leaves and bright yellow flowers. I look it up and find it’s called Bristly Ox Tongue due to the rows of tiny hooks on its stems and leaves, making them rough to the touch, like a cow’s tongue. Brought to these shores by the Romans as a salad and with a medicinal use for parasitic infestations, it’s widely considered an invasive weed. But I learn that it also provides a rich source of food and shelter for pollinators such as butterflies, hoverflies, moths and beetles. I decide that it can stay. 

Yesterday, as I watered in the cool of the evening, waiting to catch sight of the Buck moon, I gave in to the hens’ demand, jostling at the gate, to join me. They stalk out, heads twitching, a coo in their throats, scratching up grubs and pecking at the wall. I watch them keenly, sprinkling them with the hose each time they make a move towards my veg patch. I turn away for a moment and when I turn back I see Alice, chief hen, and very much the Robert Maxwell of our chicken world, running across the garden at speed, gulping madly at a writhing slow worm dangling from her beak. The others pursue her in a cartoonish gait. I join in, like one of the villagers in the tale of the Gingerbread Man, failing to catch her, or save the slow worm. Crossly I round them up, regretting my soft-heartedness and shoo them back into the orchard.

The sparrowhawk is a regular visitor, picking off sparrows and bothering the swallows. The swallows returned in April and we watched one, claiming him as ours, perch each evening on the roof, calling for a mate. We’d heard about the Saharan sandstorms making migration even more challenging this year and wondered whether she’d made it. Coming home from a walk with Coop some weeks later, I stood at the top of the steps to drink in the day before my desk claimed me and heard their distinctive burble in the courtyard below. I crept down, like a child excited and anxious to see whether Santa had been on Christmas morning, and went over to the shed. There he was, sitting on top of the roof box, chattering excitedly to his mate on the ledge. She’d made it – and they were nesting again.

In March we’d watched from the window as the sparrowhawk pinned a blackbird to the cobbles in the courtyard, staring around imperiously with bright yellow eyes as the blackbird writhed and shrieked. I wanted to bang on the window, to save the blackbird, torn between sentiment and sense. What if this was the blackbird that had kept me company during lockdowns, that I’d watched feeding his young and bathing in the birdbath? I felt sick and shaken. He was calling for help, how could I not intervene? I held on to my hands and went back to my desk.

Once the struggle was over, the hawk plucked slow mouthfuls of downy feathers from the blackbird which drifted the courtyard for days. I searched for advice online, for reassurance that I had done the right thing. The RSPB told me not to intervene, that the blackbird would probably have died from the shock and that if disturbed the sparrowhawk would go on to kill another bird, rendering the blackbird’s death futile. I tell myself that the sparrowhawk probably had young to feed, that this was what evolution looked like. It was brutal, but wasn’t that what nature was, what we were, made brutal by our drive to survive?

Last week, alerted to another blackbird’s shrieking protests, I sprinted up the steps to the garden, ready to shoo the cat from whatever dark art she was practising now. But there was no cat, just a blackbird and a sparrowhawk perched above me in the yew tree, locked in a standoff. The sparrowhawk sat for a while seeming to weigh up the situation as the blackbird kept up his volley of admonishment and shrill protest. I felt the hawk’s eyes on me as he lifted from the branch and away with a dramatic swoosh. For a moment, I was redeemed.




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