Exploring the relationship between the urban and the wild in her hometown of Aberdeen, Esther Woolfson investigates the way we live in cities and the most common species – from sparrows to slugs – who share the urban landscape.
The garden flutters, alive with threatened birds. On a lowering morning in August, a morning almost magnificent in its dark-skied, raining dismalness, they’re gathered here outside my window, unceasing in their busy fortitude, apparently impervious to the weather, feeding at the bird-feeder, crowding in, jostling, nudging, singing; beautiful, small, vital, ever-moving, their voices sparkling brilliance into the blue-grey darkness of the morning.
Passer domesticus, the house sparrow, like busy, mobile fairy lights garlanding the over-grown viburnum and philadelphus. Even unseen, they’re there in the sway and dip of the branches, in a sudden chasing, a sudden domestic (or domesticus) quarrel or avian outrage of one sort or another, in an outbreak of loud and shrill complaint. An incident of passion or violence becomes an explosion of leaves, a bout of vigorous grooming and preening transforms into a scatter of raindrops from the branches.
They appear suddenly, entire families of them, like a Busby Berkeley chorus in unison from the newly growing spring arrases of green, to feed and hop and sing and flap and quiver before retiring back as one into the thicket of rose, jasmine and pear. On bright days, they sit, peering, as from windows from their individual branches, chattering, calling, like a noisy shrubful of watching concierges.
Their singing is loud but if something stops it, it stops suddenly, as if it’s been switched off. Then we wait, indoors and out, in silence until whatever danger they have discerned but I haven’t has gone and those of us who sing, resume our singing. Sometimes, I walk from the back door to fill the bird-feeders into the shrill and shriek of sparrow alarm, a sound that sparks like fire through the garden, a shrub-to-shrub, tree-to-tree incendiary, small, high choirs of warning. Usually, I’m just too late to see them fly and so I know I’m not causing their alarm. I rely on their judgement and their observation because they’re never wrong. When I look for a cause, I find it – the neighbour’s cat watching us all from a window, a burst of alarm-calling from another garden as a hawk flies overhead.
From Field Notes From A Hidden City – An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson (Granta)
“A bout of vigorous preening transforms into a scatter of raindrops from the branches”