I will remember the December just gone as having been mostly grey and grim. And wet. On many days, in the little park below my kitchen window, the leaden skies seemed to hang so low they could hardly have been above tree-top level. And in the rare, brief appearances of a watery sun, you could see your face and the bare branches of the trees reflected in the puddles that were everywhere in the sodden ground.
There was hardly ever any wind – and it was strangely quiet. Just the odd cry or shout from the children’s playground; a dog barking; distant traffic. It was like the world was waiting for something. And seldom, in that stillness, the sound of a bird.
W and I sat in the park many times, looking around, wondering where they were. The occasional wood or feral pigeon would zoom down out of the murk, peck at a few minuscule specks on the wet pathways, then clatter up and away, leaving the park birdless once more. Where, at times like that, do the birds go? Do they tuck themselves away in the deeper recesses of hedgerows, briar patches and nooks in the eves of houses where they wait out the cold and the wet?
But then, only a few days after Christmas, things began to change. I was walking through the park on my way back from the shops one morning when I was brought up with a start by a sound – a bit like the far off rippling of a fast running stream. Listening, I slowed right down. As I moved forward, the sound grew in volume until it became clear it was coming from somewhere above me. I stopped, looked up. The topmost branches of a tall plane tree were swarming with tiny birds! It looked and sounded like each one was chattering and twittering at full tilt with all those around it. They were little more than silhouettes, hopping around and fluttering against an overcast sky, but I could see them clearly enough to recognize the shapes of tits, great tits, blue tits. It was like the bird world had come alive again!
And since that day, so it has continued. Yesterday, the blackbirds who live in the park were scuttling around, rooting among the dead leaves on the ground, shattering the peace with the occasional alarm call; one was perched on the TV aerial of a nearby house, singing his exquisite, flute-like song. The four or five robins who live in the park were all out there, singing. One was no more than a metre and a half from me, quite unconcerned by my presence, as I stood watching him, his red breast pulsing with his beautifully wistful song. (I say ‘him’, but he might have been a her – the robin sexes look alike and both sing). And as I was watching him, a sudden squadron of half a dozen brilliantly green, ring-neck parakeets with their scimitar-like wings and long, trailing tail feathers swooped by overhead like jet fighters, squawking like banshees as they raced away into the trees. It really felt as though something had happened to jolt the birds from their hideaways and launch them into a new, expectant round of life and living.
I wonder if birds instinctively recognize when the year changes – and I mean not when our numbered Gregorian years shift from 19 to 20 etc, but when the natural, seasonal change occurs – at the time of the winter solstice, December 21st/22nd. I wonder if they sense when the dying of the old year is done, and the birth of a new one is about to take place. Then out they come, tweeting, singing, soaring through the air, looking for a mate with whom they can ride life’s new wave.
I’d like to think they do. Birds, after all, possess mind-bogglingly complex instincts. How does a tiny, delicate creature like a willow warbler, for example, weighing only a few grammes, manage to make its way every year, the four or five thousand miles from Central Africa to the UK in order to breed, then make it all the way back again? How is it birds such as swallows often come back to the same nest site in the UK that they had the year before? How does any migrant bird know when it’s time to leave either one of those countries to begin the journey to the other? And yet, unfailingly, they do.
You can learn a lot from birds. Sit by a lake in a park and just watch the ducks, the geese or the swans. Don’t think – just look and be. It’s a meditation. They go calmly, quietly and in an enviably stately manner about their business. Every now and then, there might be an irruption of squawking and flying feathers. But after only a few seconds of purely ritualized confrontation, the combatants will part and once again, go their separate ways with little more than a shaking down of their feathers, as if to dispel any residue of irritation or anger. Such wisdom. Were they to act as we do, each combatant would retire to his own clump of reeds and recruit an army.