Re­flec­tions

Rosa­mond en­joys watch­ing a spe­cial fam­ily of birds from her win­dow

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

Rosa­mond Richard­son en­joys watch­ing a spe­cial fam­ily of birds in her gar­den

ATRIPLE-PRONGED FEEDER stands out­side the stu­dio win­dow, next to a hedge pro­vid­ing cover for the birds as they wait their turn. Among the shrubs a Rosa an­der­sonii briar, gnarled with age, arches over the pa­tio, pro­vid­ing a con­ve­nient launch­pad as they line up for seeds and suet balls. A trail­ing nas­tur­tium, self-seeded, scram­bles over the ter­race walls and un­der the feeder. Acan­thus, helle­bores and a white clema­tis min­gle in this se­cluded cor­ner of the cot­tage gar­den. The stu­dio dou­bles as a bird hide, af­ford­ing il­licit dis­trac­tion when I’m meant to be work­ing. The usual sus­pects – Green­finches, Bluetits, Great Tits, House Spar­rows, Chaffinches, Dun­nocks, Long­tailed Tits, a Great Spot­ted Wood­pecker – visit at reg­u­lar times of day, tak­ing turns, al­ways com­pet­ing. My res­i­dent Robin among them, of course. I saw him on the suet balls one af­ter­noon be­fore notic­ing, perched on the briar, a brown bird. Pretty much just that, with its back to me, an LBJ, lit­tle brown job, plump with speck­led head. As I watched, the Robin on the feeder darted on to the branch and fed it a morsel of fat. Then again. The lit­tle brown bird hopped and turned side­ways on to me: it was a young Robin, fresh-feath­ered with streaked face and spot­ted thrush-chest, buff and chest­nut wings, hand­somely marked with a yel­low­ish wing-bar, and grey un­der­parts. It was joined by a sec­ond young­ster, slightly smaller. The par­ent bird hopped to and fro feed­ing his off­spring, then started to ca­jole them into hav­ing a go at help­ing them­selves – to com­i­cal ef­fect: it took one of the young birds most of the af­ter­noon to get the knack of hold­ing on to the wire frame of the feeder be­fore in­sert­ing beak to reach seeds. The sec­ond bird didn’t get it at all, sat there on his branch look­ing ab­ject and hope­ful in turn. Robins have al­ways been spe­cial. Wil­liam Blake fa­mously wrote, “A Robin red­breast in a cage/puts all heaven in a rage”, and to harm a Robin was al­ways thought to bring evil con­se­quences. Yet, it used to be the cus­tom in medieval times in Bri­tain to hunt and eat them, roasted with bread­crumbs, and Robins were still com­mon fare in 17th Cen­tury Eng­land, eaten for what was claimed to be their medic­i­nal prop­er­ties. Luck­ily, things change. To Roger Deakin, Robins are the an­gels of my vegetable gar­den. You turn round and they’re not there. Then there they are, next to you. A man who de­voted him­self to in­ves­ti­gat­ing Robin facts was evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist and ecol­o­gist David Lack who wrote a clas­sic based on his field stud­ies, ‘The Life of the Robin’. His hours of ob­ser­va­tion led him to con­clude that the world of a Robin is so strange and re­mote from our ex­pe­ri­ence that into it we can scarcely pen­e­trate, ex­cept to see dimly how dif­fer­ent it must be from our own .... [we] de­ceive [our­selves] into as­sum­ing that the mind that inspires them is not un­like the hu­man mind. He ends his mono­graph with a quote from philoso­pher Fran­cis Ba­con: “It is strange how men, like owls, see sharply in the dark­ness of their own no­tions, but in the day­light of ex­pe­ri­ence wink and are blinded”. It was a while be­fore I saw my fam­ily of Robins again at the feed­ers. When they re­turned, the ju­ve­niles were still plump, strong-look­ing, fresh and shiny. The older one’s smart chest­nut speck­les were now freck­led with scarlet. A splash of rust-red was be­gin­ning to spread like a blush from un­der­neath his wing. Sum­mer passed. The last time I saw one of them was in early Septem­ber. His head and face were still speck­led, and the rust-red blush had spread fur­ther – he re­minded me of a spotty teenager – and the un­der­parts had turned whiter. I might never see him again, this unique, plucky lit­tle crea­ture: he would be driven off my patch by his ter­ri­to­rial fa­ther to es­tab­lish his own, and if he sur­vived vil­lage cats and the per­ils and dan­gers of be­ing a young bird, per­haps I would hear him singing his au­tumn song on one of my walks up the lane into the fields. Rosa­mond Richard­son is an author and journalist who also writes for The Coun­try­man, and her Wait­ing for the Al­bino Dun­nock will be pub­lished in spring 2017

The lit­tle brown bird hopped and turned side­ways on to me: it was a young Robin, fresh-feath­ered with streaked face and spot­ted thrush-chest, buff and chest­nut wings hand­somely marked with a yel­low­ish wing-bar, and grey un­der­parts

Young Robins start out speck­led then grad­u­ally ac­quire the typ­i­cal orange breast

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