An Anonymous Thought

At the beginning of April, I began to realise that if this lockdown lasted throughout the Spring, then the conditions for wildlife to prosper would be better than in any year I’ve experienced since I was a child. 

A month later, it’s beginning to look really good. We have greenfinches, goldfinches, chaffinches, goldcrests, a song thrush, a chiff chaff; blue tits, coal tits and great tits in the walls, collared doves in a tree next the house, a Siskin in the vicinity, a heron!, at least 3 lots of blackbirds, wrens, a dunnock, a robin or two, pesky Jackdaws and even more irritating starlings. 

Then there are gulls and buzzards overhead, and an owl, probably long eared, who leaves pellets under our bedroom window. I hear pheasants down the hill, and partridges used to nest here, though I haven’t seen them for a few years now. I haven’t seen a bullfinch yet this year either, but a lot of buds have gone missing.

The jackdaws begin to surround the house in February. I try to shoo them off every day, but it never works. They used to build nests in the chimney, and we were regularly having to open the access to the old wood burner to let one of the young out. They’d fall out of the nest and possibly down an adjacent chimney pot. Either that or the whole nest would come clattering down the chimney with young “jack” in tow. What a mess. It was always a black mess, because of all the soot that came down and out with the young bird.

The danger they present is that there’s a threat of a chimney fire with half a nest a quarter of the way down a chimney. But a real annoyance is the fact that they’ll try to build a nest on the sloping roof. They always fail because the roof is too steep, but sticks fall into the gutter and clog the flow of water into the drain. And lie in great stick-piles on the ground beneath the gutter. Which is out of reach, twenty five feet above the ground.. So they’re a liability, and the March air is often filled with the loud voice of an ancient ape shouting into the mist.

They watch him. They know that he’s an ape. They can hear it. He’s got a very old pellet gun that he goes into the house for, in order to make a bigger sound. In 30 years he’s never hit one of them. Actually, the damn thing wouldn’t hit a barn door five yards away, but it does provide the sanctuary of getting them to take off for a few seconds. They retort. Six or eight of them will shout “jack”, all at once. It’s a ritual. It doesn’t happen more than once these days. We just share looks of suspicion. Stare at each other.

Every year, half way through these exhaustive attempts to try to build on a sloping surface, I find smashed eggs on the ground. He doesn’t have much of a clue actually, he’s just the giddy activating tool, but the egg forming inside her must alert her to the fact that it’s got to go somewhere. Maybe not! Since she has no nest to drop it into, she goes into what we must assume is jackdaw labour on a ridge tile, and pops it out onto the roof.. and it just rolls off and smashes 30 feet below. Life is cheap among the daws. I’ve seen three eggs laid from 30 feet into the ground like this in one season..

I’ve never actually seen her do it, so I’ve not been able to look into her face at the time to see whether or not it could be classed as a tragic event.. or just a minor cursory excretion.

They flutter when I come out. Perched on the edge of the gutter to see what I’ll do this time. The idiot. Look at him, down there, idiot! The wall belongs to them from February to May. It’s a cliff edge to them, in a universe of cliff edges with holes in them. I should have put the scaffolding up when I had it, and filled all the holes with cement and stone, but I never managed to do it. Most of the holes are old wooden scaffold pole holes. When I first came to the house there was still wood in a couple of them. Wood from 1827, when it was built. I wish that I’d taken that wood out now, and kept it as a souvenir of the house thirty years ago. I miss those 1827 pieces of wood.

The house has retained the look it had when I first saw it. It was like something out of a Bronte novel. Did I have a secret longing to become Heathcliff? Perhaps I’d be willing to court that kind of silent, desperate rage; but… no, I just needed a warm fire to stare into, to encourage the latest vision, to labour over a thought, before letting it go without knowing, without even making a record of it. An anonymous thought.

Tracy has described a bird to me that sounds like a snipe, that’s flown out in front of her somewhere down the hill, but I have no proof.

The list above is all common stuff. I haven’t seen anything rare yet, but this is the first Spring for a long time without business somewhere in the distance. It’s really quiet. I can usually catch long scars of aircraft exhaust across the sky on a clear day. Scores of them. We’re 35,000 ft below the route to the east coast of the USA. They’d be audible on a still sunny day, but they’re not there, they’re not anywhere. It’s not been like this since 1960. 

Actually, this year there’s been a bit of confusion. Covid looks and sounds very similar to Corvid, which is a word that I’ve used since I was a kid to describe the crows as a related family. Corvidae in Latin. The corvids in these islands are ravens, carrion crows, hooded crows, rooks, jackdaws, magpies, jays, and choughs. So sometimes I refer to the disease as corvid-19, because I’ve used that word all my life. I couldn’t help it at first. I quickly grew out of it, but the association in my mind is still there. Four weeks ago, I’d have just got up and daydreamed through my morning cleaning ritual; gone downstairs into the kitchen with the radio on: and one of the first words I would have heard would have been ‘covid’. Wham! A picture of a magpie flashes into my head. So that in February I was seeing magpies all day!? With the occasional jackdaw thrown in.

Last year a hooded crow nested in the tallest tree in the garden. The tree is about 50ft tall. We noticed, possibly before the crows did, that the tree was dead at the top. So that instead of the nest being hidden by the spring growth, it was still naked after the eggs had been laid. Hooded crows are notoriously shy, but there they were, in full view during the entire nesting period. Their behaviour was interesting. The pair of them would fall like stones out of the other side of the nest until they were about ten or fifteen feet from the ground, probably in the hope that they wouldn’t easily be seen. It became something I’d see happening every day for 2 or 3 months this time last year. They’ve wised up, and they’re not back this year. Shame; I enjoyed them. 

There was a huge tree at the gate that was taken down in the storm of October 2017. The ravens used to nest in it. We’d hear them croak and bark throughout the day. It was like listening to tuneful dogs. It was fantastic to have them here, but they’ve lost their cover now, and I’ve only heard them a couple of times this year. They suited the house, and it was surrealistically mutual for the human in me.

Even though some of the crows are majestic, and very intelligent, they’re all flying rodents. None more sly than the magpies. I usually work in the studio in the spring and summer with the studio door open. So I’m sometimes sitting with a guitar, but more often at the computer. I face north into the screen, as the sun slowly comes into the door to the south west, which is on my left. So that I glance to my left and see that the shadow has moved, and just after midday in mid summer, the sun breaches the roof to the south and starts to shine in through the studio door.  

On a nice day in June last year, I was in situ when an awful row burst out in the yard. The swallows were angry and shrieking, and a couple of magpies were cackling like they do. I sprung up immediately. It wasn’t difficult to know what was happening. The magpies were attacking the swallow fledglings. I jumped out of the door and headed for them. I shouted and they squawked and scattered. 

“HEY, HEY!” I shouted loudly. I went over to the wood shed to see whether or not they’d pulled the nest off the beam. I really enjoy the swallows, they’re really good fun and they’re endearing. They know that they are, so they have a symbiotic relationship with us where they provide company and we provide some kind of shelter. By the time I’d got to the shed, Tracy was already out of the house, and we found the head of a young swallow. Just the head. Probably the body had gone down in one gulp.

The dinosaurs had been. They were dinosaurs with brains. They knew when to pillage. They could easily have taken the eggs, but it’s just possible that they’d waited until more energy had been stored in the young birds before they could no longer wait. The meal was ready. Sod all these slugs, and bits and pieces of dead stuff.. Get the fillet steak out, slap it down in one gulp, and chase it with a Champaign of rattling laughter. In reality, they could just have been alerted to the chicks by the constant flow of traffic to the nest by the parent swallows. There are times when I’d really like to have a proper gun, but that’s not the way I should ever intervene. My presence and my voice have to be enough. Always.

The swallows were edgy for the rest of the day, but the magpies weren’t going to return, especially to be greeted by the apes. Their instinct tells them that the apes can endanger life. They’re not really going to be that willing to strike again on the off chance. I played outside that evening, until dusk. I sang out. They didn’t come back.

But the worst of our neighbours are the starlings. From February to late May, it’s the earthlings versus the starlings. It’s my fault, because I’ve always prioritised other things rather than the smaller holes in the walls… which belong to them for a whole three months at this time of the year. And I have to raise my voice, because if I don’t they’ll be back to start a second brood. It’s like having ten unwanted sergeant majors move in at once. Keeping them out is virtually impossible. They WILL find a way. 

Up close, they’re spectacularly decorated birds, but sadly, they’re vermin, and their arrogance is absolute, and confrontational. For a creature of that size, they’re unbelievably aggressive. Their will to breed in exactly the place they want to is astounding. You can throw the kitchen sink at them and they’ll still come back. Really, we should be killing them, because they really are flying rats. A two hundred pound starling would rule the world. They seem to have everything except size.. Intelligence, flight, character, communication, stamina and cunning.

As each year goes by, I ask our neighbour Brian, who’s good at fixing most things, about putting up scaffolding to finally plug the holes. In the past, we’ve blocked one or two by just putting stones into them from a ladder. This year, before all the spring noise started to happen, I asked him would he put some scaffolding up, but then I started to think about it. There are nine outside walls on the house. All of them represent nesting sites. Putting nine lots of scaffolding up just isn’t going to work. The expense, just to keep the starlings out, would challenge the national debt, and that’s before any of the actual work begins… So then we thought that we’d hire the mobile bucket crane from the local tool hire, and we’d get it done.

He came back to report that they were now charging €250 a day for it! So it was going to take at least a week to get around the house, find them all and block them. There are at least five pairs nesting in the wall as I write, but there are probably 200 holes, so you can see the problem. It’s much easier for them to choose an alternative hole than it is for Brian to find them all. 

So the bucket crane would have to be hired again, and maybe again… and.. the hire price is a rip off. We know that, but if they can get that much a day, and they obviously can, then that’s the going rate. Before I say anything else, I must tell you that the walls are two feet thick, so the birds mostly don’t get into the house through the wall..

As I was about to suggest a compromise, Brian was dragged off to England for a family bereavement… and Covid arrived. I’d missed my chance again.

So the starlings are still with us. Largely because I’m not going to dump cash into a bottomless anti-starling slush fund. Even so, it’s now become a choice. Do I get rid of them or not? Is it a priority? There are other priorities. A floor needs to be put down in the dining room. It was half done just before Covid struck. The old floor has had it. It would be done now but for this lockdown. And that’s not all that needs to be refreshed. And there’s a budget.

I think that I have to go for it, and there’s one overriding thought. I want to have sparrows back in my life. I grew up with them. I know them. They’re really sociable in a different way than starlings are. Let me just drift for a moment and make a couple of wildly speculative comparisons. For me, starlings represent middle class soldier/civil servant officers. Their arrogance befits their nature. They are ‘in command’. They’re snotty, and they boss and dictate. They have a social rigidity that would seem to be law-bound. You do this.. this happens.. You do Not deviate! They live in Gilead. And they’re shite filled peeves.

Sparrows are totally different. Their society is much more integrated. They live in an actual commune. They squabble about stuff, very regularly. At least three times a day someone has run off with someone else’s Mrs for a quick one, or someone else’s beak has been put out of joint by some odd remark. So that their society is much more socially integrated than that of the starling, whose social life, at least in the nesting season, seems to be about more order and less contact among couples. In the autumn, there are massive flocks of starlings, whereas the sparrows just chirp along, day by day. Starling flight is strong and quite fast, whereas sparrow flight is a brief flutter from A to B. The starlings largely disappear in the winter. The sparrows stay put.

Now. Can I intervene? Do I want to bring a little bit of chirpy disorder back to my own environment? Mm, can I single handedly replace one species with another? Can I be god? Could I do it in mutant stages? I’m starting to read through de-extinction papers, but gene-editing wouldn’t be my strong suit, so I might have to do a bit of plain old cut and paste. If I was, by some chance, able to fill all the holes in the two walls at the studio entrance, and put sparrow-size open nest boxes up on the wall in the autumn.. then something else might arrive into them in the spring.

I’d have to put a few nest boxes high on the wall, with entrances smaller than a starling could comfortably get into. So, who might come if that was the case? There are only a few that would use a house wall nest box. Swallows might, but they don’t arrive until April 26th. It would be occupied by then, and probably by great tits. Cheeky birds with a lot of character. No chance! The Stasi would already know, and would already have found a hole nearby that the apes had missed, and the tits would be stared down, psychologically overcome, and hounded out.  

Back at ‘The Big Stone Tent’, the drama will continue into another season. It should be on the History Channel actually, along with ‘Mountain Men’, or The Discovery Channel, along with ‘Alaska The Last Frontier’. Will raymundo ever be able to get up at dawn in February to outflank the starlings with a pea shooter and mud pies? 

A fox screams in the chill night air.

The next series will begin in the Autumn. 


One thought on “An Anonymous Thought

  1. Evocative description, Roy. Thanks. You and your walls, eh?

    Even here in London (maybe especially here), the lockdown’s been great for birdsong and cleaner air. We look out on a small nature reserve at the back of our house and it’s mostly pigeons, doves, magpies and parakeets keeping us entertained.

    The other day I saw a magpie land on the ridge of our back roof with a piece of bread in its beak which it must’ve found on the common nearby. After a few tentative pecks, looking about warily, it carried it across to the neighbour’s roof, deposited it in their gutter and covered it with a piece of moss before flying off. Opportunistic dinosaurs with brains, no doubt, with an ugly castanet cry, but I do love their shape and colouring.

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