Bird Listening

For everyone stuck at home, pining to be outside and aching for a different reality...

When you can’t go outside, here are some projects I offer you to bring the outside to your window or your door. Bird watching and listening have brought me immeasurable joy, comfort, peace and fun. If I were an artist I would paint, carve, draw, sculpt them – but I am not, so all I can do is invite you to look, listen, marvel and share in this delight.

Wherever you are in a city, there are birds.

My city is London.

At Plumstead station, I once missed my train to listen to the glory of a song-thrush. On the flat roof outside my office, pied wag-tails bathe daily in the puddles. In Holborn I once heard the screech of peregrines and looked up, disbelieving, to see three of them, circling the pigeons. In Crystal Palace I watched redwings, on Peckham Rye there are goldcrests to be heard above the football training. In a carpark in Nunhead I saw a very confused pheasant. In Hither Green I saw 4 woodpeckers in one tree. Next to Ford Dagenham is a landfill site, stinking gently of cabbage and crawling with tractors. Here I heard, then saw a cuckoo on a fence post. Starlings strut across every supermarket car park – look at one and see it’s not black at all, but Gothic and bejewelled in green, purple, silver and gold. Robins are the ones that shoot across pavements at ankle-height – flash of Diana Prince red on their breasts as they remind you everywhere is their manor. Sparrows are here in any scrubby bit of shrubbery, chirpy brown and oat with grey caps. If you see a blue-grey sparrow it’s a dunnock - when you know their sweet song, your ears will confirm the difference. Goldfinches charm with their burbling in clusters all across London – their red and yellow faces sometimes visible, their song unmistakable. Great-tits and blue-tits are ubiquitous – blue and yellow flashes accompany you wherever you go, if you look for them. As I write this in zone 2, I am hearing emergency sirens and the indignant ‘chack’ of a great-spotted woodpecker. Funny how the woodpecker sounds louder, or more important, to me. In May the swifts will come and perform their spitfire ballet over my house, snapping the flying ants which burst from beneath concrete and rise up like air-bubbles in water to the sky-surface. I wait for this, every year. Martins and swallows will return soon too – city eaves no longer provide nesting space, but still they persevere.

Soon the blackcaps will return and sing to heart’s-bursting every morning around my house, in every tree. In Burgess park lake the great-crested grebes will perform their courtship dance and offer pond-weed to show their commitment. Moorhen and coot are always there, the swans will have their usual V.I.P nesting area away from the dogs, the bicycles, the barbeques, the commuters. Chiffchaff will chiff then chaff, wrens – tiny brick-brown balls of fluff – will trill with tiny might – outrageous in their size to volume ratio. Grey heron fly across back gardens with their incongruous right-angled chests defying what I know about aerodynamics.

I challenge you to look out of your window, your high-rise, your skylight, your door, your car, your train. You will see birds.

When you cycle, skate, walk, scoot, commute, drive or sit enforced by a widow – look in a different way – look for the birds.

There is a pecking order of where the birds hang out – when you know where they are, you can learn their size, plumage and song. One day you recognise their habits and flight patterns. One day you will look at a patch of river and think – there should be a dipper here, and one will appear to order. You will feel like you have super-powers. Crows, gulls, pigeons fly high then congregate on any grass or food source. Robins and wrens fly low and across pavements, undergrowth to undergrowth. Blackbirds and thrushes hop, consider, hop again. Magpies point the way, arrow direct into the thick of trees. Jays screech – a flash of sapphire on their buff wings. Wagtails fly in scoops between rooftops, tracing invisible paper chains over every street. Their distinctive ‘tch-tch!’ tells me they are overhead when I am shopping. Green woodpeckers bound in long grass, looking for worms on playgrounds. Kestrels suspend themselves the height of flyovers along the lengths of the A2 and buzzards patrol motorway corridors.

Birds are ignored, we take away their berries and insects and offer KFC and chewing gum. Even so, they remain and offer tiny moments of secret connection to our wifi lives. Open your bird ears and it changes your perception of where you live and your place in the world. I promise you.

Bird Projects

Make a window bird-feeder from things you have in your house. The birds will come to you while you have to stay indoors.

Fill it with things you are about to throw away

Learn who visits you

Learn their songs

Next time you open the window or leave the house, listen, then look and feel better.

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