Among the things I know about birds
I know nothing about birds. I've never been into bird-watching, never taken binoculars on my long walks in the countryside. I used to nod sagely when my dad pointed to a black speck in the sky and called it a buzzard, but I didn't know how he knew. Other than a heron – art nouveau sculpture of a bird with its feet in water – I didn't think I could confidently identify any, ten years ago.
In 2011 my other half and I moved to an upstairs flat with a large garden, in a village no longer quite separate from the neighbouring small town. Trees on all sides towered above the roof, and we could look down from our windows on shrubs, flowerbeds, an unkempt lawn. We liked the idea of a wildlife garden, it sounded like the responsible thing to do and we were keen to see a hedgehog that hadn't been flattened by a car. The thing about hedgehogs though, they're nocturnal. They roam around in the dark. What you're most likely to see in a wildlife garden is birds.
The highest mark I ever got in art at school was for a coloured pencil drawing of a kingfisher that I'd copied from a book of British wildlife. I spent hours on that picture, I can see its vivid blue and orange now, so I guess I could have identified a kingfisher if I'd ever been fortunate enough to see one. I knew that, like herons, they were found at rivers. But unlike patient, static herons, kingfishers are darting and nimble. I'm told that you see them as a flash of colour streaking past, if you're in the right place at the right time. The only time I was, I didn't turn my head quick enough and I missed it.
In our previous eleven years across three flats and two houses, we hadn't had so much as a single bird feeder. No nesting boxes, no bird table for the last handful of stale crumbs from the loaf. We remembered the kids' shows instructing us how to tie string through yoghurt pots to provide fat and seeds to blue tits in our youth, but since then birds had been Someone Else's Business. The wildlife garden book we got for our first Christmas here made it clear that this had to change. We bought a bird feeder, filled it with sunflower seed and hung it from a tree. We cleaned and filled the bird bath the previous owners left behind. We filled a second feeder with peanuts and hung it from a shrub that was too flimsy for the cat to climb. Time to sit back and watch.
When I was a kid my dad helped me build a bird box. I sawed and hammered, he made a circular hole for blue tits to fly in and out. I painted it white and wrote Blue tit Manor above the hole, in blue. Just in case the birds didn't know who it was for. Blue tits are easy to recognise, the clue's in the name. Other than kingfishers, which weren't about to turn up in our tiny garden three fields away from the nearest stream, they were the only part-blue British bird I'd heard of, and pretty small. I didn't know there were great tits and coal tits lurking; if I saw any I probably assumed they were blue tits that didn't happen to be blue, like not all blackbirds are black.
The constant in this wildlife garden of ours has been the blackbird. Or several blackbirds. Early on, I'd hear them crashing around in the undergrowth and expect a sizeable mammal to emerge: a rabbit or fox, the neighbour's cat – ours was much stealthier than that. I soon learnt to associate that level of disturbance with a blackbird, the least stealthy of all the birds in the garden. I knew what blackbirds looked like – again, the clue's in the name. Except that female blackbirds are mottled brown, and lots of other birds are black. But none of the other black birds in the garden are that dainty-looking yet heavy-footed, and they don't have narrow yellow beaks. So, by the time we'd been here a few months, I was confident on male and female blackbirds, as well as herons, kingfishers and blue tits. Oh, and robins.
Half the Christmas cards I've sent and received have featured a robin, if not as the main attraction then perched on a pillar box or garden gate in the background. We all know what robins look like, the red breast gives them away and since I couldn't have named a single other British bird with a splash of red, I wasn't about to confuse a robin with anything else. Magpies are another bird I recognise through culture, I needed to be able to count them as a child because of the rhyme (One for sorrow, two for joy…). They're large enough to be easy to spot across a playground, with a long tail that moves stiffly up and down like a pinball flipper. Growing up around horses I knew piebald meant black and white, so here was yet another bird with a clue in the name: magpies are black and white. I phoned my dad eighteen years ago to ask him what looked like a magpie but with added blue, I'd seen the most beautiful bird on the back wall. When I clarified that I meant the black wings had an electric blue sheen in the sunlight, he said that's just what magpies look like. I'd never noticed before.
A friend of ours came to stay when we'd been here a year or so. We don't have a TV so in the living room all eyes are drawn to the huge window and the activity beyond: cows pottering about the field across the valley, clouds scudding across the sky, tall trees dancing in the breeze, and of course, the birds. We all struggled with identification so when she saw a copy of the Collins Bird Guide in a charity shop on her return home, she sent us it so we could learn about what we were watching. I confess it was daunting. It covers the whole of Europe, confusing matters by providing illustrations – not even photographs – of types of birds that don't appear in England at all, never mind as far north as the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. But nobody was asking me to read it cover to cover, memorise Latin names or learn which birds are related to each other. It was there for reference, for when we saw a bird and wanted to know what it was. We kept it on the windowsill.
In the era of Blue tit Manor, I was given a postcard of a chaffinch. I don't recall seeing one in real life but, kingfishers aside, this was surely the most colourful bird outside of the tropics. I painted a poor copy of the postcard and treasured both. I hoped for chaffinches in our wildlife garden. Finch beaks seemed distinctively stubby – broad-based triangles bordering on the equilateral balanced on their faces. What with that and the colour, I figured they would be easy to spot.
Some of the first chaffinches I saw in our busy wildlife garden were bolder and brighter than the postcard by far. Clearly there was a spectrum of chaffinch brightness, just as there were blue tits here that were so dark blue as to seem black. I knew I had a lot to learn, but once I had my Collins guide I learnt that those dark blue tits were actually coal tits, and the vibrant chaffinches were examples of the hitherto unimagined bullfinch. I now know that in order of colourfulness it goes: male bullfinch, female bullfinch, male chaffinch, female chaffinch. For a while I needed to recite this hierarchy when I saw one and even then it all got a bit fuzzy around the bullfinch/chaffinch border, but I look at them now after years of regular viewing and wonder how I could ever have confused a female bullfinch with a male chaffinch.
It turns out there are many different finches. None of them are helpfully named. There's the greenfinch which can be identified by the yellow edge to its wing. The goldfinch is easy to spot as the only garden bird I've seen other than a robin that has a splash of bright red – in this case it's like it's wearing a red mask. The siskin, which doesn't mention its colour or that it's a finch, is sort of yellowish green and might at first glance be thought to be a greenfinch. Some or all of these identifications may apply to only one sex, or only to adult birds, and I don't guarantee I can pick them out in a line-up.
For three successive years, once our wildlife gardening was underway, we took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, where for one hour in late January enthusiastic citizens log the types of birds they see in the garden, then send the results to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds so they can monitor populations. For each of those weekends, armed with the Collins guide, I could tell the difference between the song thrush and the mistle thrush, one of which seems resident in our garden and the other a visitor. The knowledge evaporated again shortly afterwards, and I assumed most of the other identification knowledge went with it. Only, I saw a woodpigeon on its too-small nest in the yew tree last Spring, looking like a parent with a well-cushioned backside trying to sit on a primary school chair, and I didn't have to look it up. The beefier, more consistently-coloured cousin of the city centre pigeon, I've watched its kind crash onto the bird table, snap flimsy sapling branches and make its clod-hopping way around our garden for years. I could no more mistake it now for the elegant mushroom-coloured collared dove with its black torque than I could mistake a magpie for a jay.
A jay is a magpie in a different colour scheme, brown with a sky-blue patch on each wing. The nuthatch is a folk-art miniature of a kingfisher that's been left to fade in the sun. Long-tailed tits are black and white sketches of grubby cotton-wool balls with infeasibly long lollipop stick tails, and a smudge of pink to elevate them towards finished artwork. If it looks like a mouse is scurrying up the sycamore, that'll be a tree-creeper. Jackdaws are the charcoal crows that fight over chimney pots and wake me up at the crack of dawn with their squabbling.
I know more than I think I do about birds. Once I started listing the species I can recognise when I see them from the living-room window, I realised how much I've learnt since we moved here. I didn't set out to, I haven't studied or deliberately memorised, but through hours of casual watching I first learnt to distinguish differences, then started to put names to colour schemes. I'm never going to win an ornithology prize, I don't know any Latin names, and I wouldn't bet as much as a jam doughnut on my ability to distinguish between a siskin and a greenfinch under pressure, but I feel more connection to the wildlife in my garden. From being a host to birds, they have become distinct visitors or residents. I notice patterns in their arrivals and departures, their feeding and nesting habits. At the start of lockdown in Spring 2020, with everyone in the neighbourhood trying to get their daily walk in we sometimes went out after dark to miss the rush. One night we came home to find three hedgehogs trundling around our garden. It was lovely, but not as exciting as that time a merlin paused in the sycamore for a few moments on a diversion from the nearby moor.