An early piece of artwork c1960
I am going to begin with a warning. It is a word of caution about the sudden acquisition of new and unlikely interests. I was sure that this could not possibly happen to me but I have been struck down with a chronic interest in wild birds.
I have become a twitcher! and it happened so quickly and without warning so I was powerless to resist it. It has become so bad that I now even look out for Bill Oddie programmes on the television (Springwatch, Autumnwatch, How to Watch Wildlife, Wild In Your Garden, Birding with Bill Oddie, Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie and Bill Oddie Goes Wild) and not so long ago I would have preferred to boil my own head rather than watch a Bill Oddie programme.
When I was a boy I used to collect Brooke Bond tea cards and diligently stick them in an album, even then one of my least favourite collections was British Birds because it was just so dull. I preferred the African Wild Life and the Asian Wild Life collections because they were colourful and exciting, I think I even quite liked the Tropical Birds set but British Birds, for me, were always such a disappointment.
One day in March I was doing a little early shrub pruning in the garden and I was tackling an overgrown and scruffy specimen that is attached to the garden shed. I was working in a frenzy, slashing away and cutting back indiscriminately, when my efforts revealed an obviously recently constructed bird’s nest. I was sorry about that because where it had been carefully concealed in the labyrinth of twigs and leaves it was now dangerously exposed to the elements and potential predators. At this stage no one seemed to be occupying the nest but I kept an eye on it for any sign of activity and began to see a pair of blackbirds flying in and out quite regularly. Goodness knows what they thought about the rearrangements that I had made to their front door but I was pleased that it hadn’t scared them away.
Then one day it happened. This was the day that I crossed over and I became hopelessly hooked. I had been making regular inspections but on this day I was elated to discover three shiny blue speckled eggs in the moss at the bottom of the nest. Because of my habitat vandalism I decided that this pair of birds was my special responsibility and I started to provide food so that they wouldn’t have to go far away from the nest that I had uncovered to the world.
I carried out some research and was surprised to learn that these eggs could be hatched in about three weeks so I increased my nest inspections to twice a day in anticipation of the happy event and was overjoyed one day to find some baby chicks lying pathetic and vulnerable in the bottom of the nest. After that I stayed away for fear of frightening away the adults but I needn’t have worried and they stayed around and were happy enough to accept the food that I was regularly putting out for them.
The male quickly became the boss of the back garden becoming increasingly territorial and chasing away other birds that were bold enough to venture in to share the bread and raisins that I was providing and the pair of them kept up a frenetic level of activity going backwards and forwards to the nest to keep the little ones fed. I was surprised how quickly they grew and very soon there was a serious overcrowding problem in the nest with three fat chicks competing for their share of a very restricted space.
Then in April I was away for a few days and upon return was disappointed to find that they had gone, not even a thank you note left behind and I was sad that I had missed their first flight, I had been looking forward to it as though I was a parent myself waiting for a child to take its first steps.
See, I told you that I was hooked!
An interesting fact about the Blackbird is that it is the national bird of Sweden and although many World countries have national birds this is the only one, apart from the English Robin, that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden. Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots for their national bird, the French have the Cockerel and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful. The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.
In the Middle Ages and right up to Shakespeare’s time the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ouzel, Ousel or Wosle and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland. The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.
Also, north of the border, where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle. A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian; all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.
My dad knew all about birds and when he was young he kept a journal of British species in an exercise book. This was his blackbird page…
Other posts about birds: