A Bird’s Eye View

It’s that time of year again. Or rather, it was, as of the weekend just past. The time for the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ https://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/. I do it every year and the same thing happens every time. First, the weather is invariably terrible. It can be sunny, calm, mild right up until the day – then what happens? The rain comes, the wind increases, the cold intensifies. The windows stream with water on the outside and steam up on the inside. If there was a bird the size of an albatross out there, you’d never see it. But not to worry, because there isn’t a bird to be seen. Not one. Anywhere. Well what would you do, if you were a bird? That’s right, the same thing as every self-respecting bird living in my garden does. Run, or rather fly, for cover.

And it’s not as if they aren’t out there. Most days you can expect to see blue, great and coal tits, green and goldfinches, chaffinches, jackdaws, hooded crows, collared doves, dunnocks, robins, thrushes, blackbirds, wrens, rooks… If you’ve the time to sit quietly for a while, depending on the time of year you could add long-tailed tits, goldcrests, bullfinches, siskins, redpolls, chiff-chaffs, willow warblers, treecreepers, swallows, house martins and blackcaps to the list. Not to mention the herons, various ducks, swans, cormorants, buzzards and ravens that fly overhead, or the grasshopper warblers that reel away for hours in the twilight – though you’re not allowed to put these on the ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ list, because for that you only count birds you see actually in your garden at any one time. I’ve even had a sparrowhawk make a brief appearance once or twice. And don’t even get me started on the starlings and house sparrows, both in national decline to a worrying degree, but not in my garden. Flocks of forty at a time aren’t uncommon. Rather proud of them, I am.

But do I ever get the chance to put them down on the BG Birdwatch form? No, I do not. I’m convinced they know. They know when the BGB comes round. They know I’m there, with my paper and pencil, binoculars at the ready. And they hide. Even on the rare occasions when the weather co-operates, the birds don’t. Take the sparrows. I know where they are. I can hear them. They’re in the hedge, tittering. Don’t believe birds can titter? Think again. These sparrows can. And it’s no good creeping up carefully, thinking you’ll count them as they sit in the hedge. They can hide behind tiny twigs – even the very fattest sparrow can do this. It’s like shape-shifting. Then you make one incautious move and whoosh! The whole lot break from cover and disappear behind the hedge into next door’s garden if you don’t mind – tittering as they go. (I don’t, though, have the Telephone Bird as described by Paul Jennings. To read more about this, and many more birds otherwise unknown to science, try his ‘The Birds That Never Wert’, to be found in the anthology ‘The Jenguin Pennings’. It’s not just very clever, but hilariously laugh-out-loud funny on every page. Do not read in public if you’re self-conscious!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Jennings_(British_author)

Now you may be wondering what, if anything, this has to do with The North Beyond. Well, actually, more than you might think. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an ornithologist of even modest accomplishment, in fact I’m not really even a proper birdwatcher. But I love to see birds going about their lives, to notice the seasonal ebb and flow of migration, to hear the other-worldly sound of swan-wings overhead or the sweetness of blackbird song in a cold spring sunset. And I find it heartbreaking to know how rapidly the numbers of even once-common birds are declining. Are we really facing silent, empty skies? Will we let this happen, even though we know we can do something to prevent it?

It was early in September when I began writing The North Beyond. If I paused for thought and glanced outside, the chances were that the three birds I’d notice first would be a robin, a dunnock and (probably several) collared doves. But even as I wrote, there was something I could hear, because close by, at the top of a hedge, was a robin’s singing perch. The robin, a strongly territorial bird, is one of the few that sings all year round and as other birdsong fades away in autumn, its voice becomes particularly noticeable. Probably the most famous reference to this in English literature is in Keats’s ‘To Autumn’: ‘…and now with treble soft The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft’ – see http://www.bartleby.com/126/47.html for the text of the whole poem.

It’s true what you often hear, that some stories seem to write themselves. Sure enough, before I knew it there was a robin in the story: a robin that sang in the courtyard of Tellgard, a robin Arval listened out for, ‘…plaintive and wistful, the voice of the dying year singing on into winter when all else was silent’ (The North Beyond, Part 1 page 145), a robin he tempted to his windowsill with a jar of crumbs. Once Arval’s robin had established his presence, he began to pop up time and again. Of course, it wasn’t the same robin: as Arval himself reflected, ‘Strange how easy it was to persuade oneself that it was always the same robin, even though one knew quite well that the little birds lived barely a season or two’ (Part 2 page 255). Nor was my robin the same bird. It took me four years to finish The North Beyond and I’ve often wondered how many different robins sang outside as I wrote. (And there’s another Keats connection here, but this time with a different bird. Try ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days…’) See http://www.bartleby.com/126/40.html for the whole poem.

But as the book became longer and the story wound on, the robin became a sort of leitmotiv woven into the narrative. There’s the robin that perches briefly outside the window as Maesrhon is born and the little wooden carving that he made as a boy. It was one of his three favourite birds, the others being the dunnock and the collared dove – you’ll recognise these as two other residents of my garden that flew into the story. ‘Maesrhon had sat hidden until (the dunnock) was close by him and he had seen its neat shape and the fine grading of brown and grey in its plumage. To him, it had a quiet elegance, a quality he saw also in the doves: he loved the pink shading in the grey of their feathers, the unexpected garnet of their jewel-like eyes’ (Part 2 page 10). Like Arval, he loved the robin’s song, but heard an undertone in it that disquieted the old man: ‘I often think, if the world were to end, if men were no more, still the robin’s voice would ring out unheeding’ (Part 2 page 269). Best not to say a lot about the little carved robin because it would give too much of the story away – except this, Maeshron speaking: ‘It was flawed, but my heart went into its making’ (Part 2 page 196). And what about the bird that caught the attention of disappointed, lonely Astell, lorekeeper of the Nine Dales, and brought warmth into his solitary life? ‘Look how spruce and red his feathers are. It won’t be long now before it is time for nesting once again’ (Part 3 page 171). In Rihannad Ennar they had a special name for the robin, ‘…where, though it was a bird that sang throughout the year, (the robin) was often known as the winter-warbler’ (Part 4 pages 361-2).

Where one robin flew, in from a garden to the pages of a book via its author’s imagination, others followed. ‘…wading birds ran to and fro or wheeled above, twisting and turning with flashing wings…and white birds of the ocean…swept by…They cried to him of secret, lonely places, of wide grey waves surging far from land’ (Part 4 pages 181-2). And of course, many more. Because birds are not simply beautiful, interesting, intriguing: they’re a vital component, an essential ingredient, a stark indicator of how this world is faring. This world, their world, our world. Knock out the birds, and what happens? It’s like a house of cards: remove one, and the whole edifice collapses. This whole world could be, should be, a numiras. (If you’ve read The North Beyond, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, why not give it a try?) Make it happen!

Many thanks to Dave Brayshaw for the photograph of a robin. All the efforts to get one of collared doves displaying were thwarted by the birds, who refused to co-operate either by staying still, appearing in groups, pairs or even at all. Predictably, only last week I counted over forty together just around the corner…