I can’t remember when my adventures with birds began, but they seem to have been going on all my life. Everything a little out of the ordinary was an adventure. I have a vivid recollection of my first baby cuckoo, in a hedgesparrow’s nest . . .the hideous creature, rearing up and puffing itself out to an enormous size, opening that vast red mouth until it looked big enough to swallow me! It was revolting and fascinating. Then there was the thrush that built a most decorative nest of flowers out of the rockery, the pied wagtail that built between two seed-boxes in the greenhouse, and the hedgesparrow that lined its nest quite unmistakably with my aunt’s red hair.
To this period of early childhood, too, belongs the memory of the blackbird’s evening song, which I shall carry in my head and heart for always. I associate it with the drowsy feeling that comes just before sleep, the rustle of the heavy curtains as the breeze sucked them to the open window and let them flop back again, and the occasional sound of grown-up talk and laughter floating up from the drawing room below. My particular blackbird had one snatch of song so sweet and beautiful that it gave me a strange feeling inside—an uplifting joy that was almost a pain. Other birds were singing too, but I was listening to the blackbird—waiting for my song to come round again and hoping that I wouldn’t fall asleep in the meantime. What strange beings grown-ups must be if they could laugh and talk just as though nothing were happening!
Soon after my tenth birthday infantile paralysis threatened to put a stop to bird-watching, which had by now become my favourite hobby. But one of the beauties of bird-watching is that no special physical assets are required beyond good eyes and ears. Even during the months in bed my feathered friends provided me with memorable adventures—a robin who allowed himself to be coaxed daily on to a table in my bedroom for crumbs; a starling, known to us as Susie because of her cheery call, ‘Wait for Susie,’ interspersed with imitations of hens and that characteristic, watery purring. During this time, too, came an introduction to Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, which gave me new ideas about bird-watching. And as my health returned I became a member of the British Empire Naturalists’ Association, of which there was a flourishing branch in our neighbourhood. We used to meet early on Sunday mornings, may be 6 or 7 a.m., at a prearranged place. Our little party usually consisted of two farmers, their wives and sons, the station-master, the school-master’s son, the postman, my aunt and myself. Many a mile did those splendid people carry me—bandy-chair or pick-a-back—so that I should not miss any of the adventures. And they were many. Pheasants’ eggs (I remember our leader’s excited words, ‘Take a good look everybody! These are the first and last nightingale’s eggs you are every likely to see outside a collection’); our leader’s imitation of a cuckoo’s call—so real that the answering bird flew low over us, searching for a mate he did not find!
Three or four years’ membership of this splendid society taught me these things. I gained knowledge from the enthusiastic grown-ups, both about birds and in the art of stalking and observing. I became quite suddenly aware of the pleasure to be gained from bird-watching. I learned the importance of a reliable handbook for identification, and how to use it.
When I was fourteen I was sent to a boarding school in Surrey, and as I could not play games or go for walks I had a splendid opportunity of pursuing my favourite hobby. The grounds were large, hilly and wooded. Everything was so different from the flat cultivated land of home. The first lesson to be learned from the strange new surroundings was that the same birds in Surrey do not sing quite the same songs as they do in Lincolnshire. Even the totally different acoustics played tricks. All had to be learned again. I remember what a lot of trouble the great tit caused me, and how many times I followed him up, thinking he must be some bird unknown to me! But there were many rich rewards—many kinds of warblers I had little chance to study at home, and nuthatches, bullfinches and long-tailed tits. The greatest single adventure was undoubtedly a wood lark’s nest, which I found in a wood of Spanish chestnuts after five hours’ stalking. As I watched the yellowish-brown bird with strange, arresting movements, and a song that I can only describe as sounding like a cork being squeaked in a bottle-neck, I couldn’t imagine what it might be. But later, with a nest of eggs to help in identification, the mystery was triumphantly solved.
It was also in Surrey that the goldcrest became such an everyday acquaintance that, at a later date, I very unexpectedly found a nest by seeing the tiny green bird slip out of a shoulder-high branch of a fir tree. Perhaps that was the greatest adventure of all, for although the birds are not uncommon, the nests are extremely difficult to find. I returned to the spot some weeks later when the nest was deserted and brought the branch back with me—mainly as proof to my sceptical friends. My pride knew no bounds when an ornithologist of considerable local repute told me that in his whole life he had only seen three such nests—and he didn’t find any of them himself. The nest itself was of moss, lichen and cobwebs, lined with hair and feathers, and cleverly slung below the branch like a hammock, several of the smaller twigs being pulled down and woven into the nest to give support. The whole thing was incredibly small and neat, and it seemed hard to believe that a family had been reared in it.
This last adventure was a comparatively recent one, and the scene now shifts once more to Lincolnshire, during the 1940’s, when again the simple, fascinating and inexpensive hobby of bird-watching took the place of other pleasures that were out of reach—this time because of the war. Now I was married and had a creeper-covered house and half an acre of garden, with trees, shrubs and well-grown hedges. It was a marvellous place for birds, and I did all I could to encourage them. One year twenty-eight nests were actually recorded within the half-acre, and these were of sixteen different kinds. Besides plenty of the commoner ones like thrushes, blackbirds and hedgesparrows, I was happy to be able to include a spotted flycatcher, a small colony of tree sparrows in a hollow elm, and a goldfinch which made a nest of forget-me-nots. The tree sparrows were something quite new to me, and I remember how my heart jumped when I first realised that the ordinary-looking sparrow outside my kitchen window had a bright ginger topknot. This was no house sparrow. It could only be a tree sparrow. I flew for the reference book. Yes, there it was quite unmistakably, with ginger head, white cheeks and small, neat, black moustaches! During the following months I saw them every day at such close quarters that I could never again muddle the two. Everything the tree sparrow does is a shade neater, a shade more ‘respectable’ than his cheeky cousin. Even his chirrup, though similar, is a little more ‘refined.’
One other adventure must be fully told. Towards the end of March 1941 a rather unpractical song thrush decided to build a nest on a ledge two inches wide in the gable of my roof. Needless to say, every piece of grass fell to the ground as soon as she tried to put it in place. At first she flew off to find another bit. Later she simply flew down to the ground and picked up a bit from the ever-growing heap below the ledge. I watched this amazing performance for over a fortnight, and she worked desperately almost every daylight hour of that time. How long it would have gone on I cannot imagine, but in the end I took compassion on the silly bird. I called in a young enthusiast who, with the help of a ladder from the farm next door, climbed up and nailed a board on the ledge, making a platform about six inches by ten, with nails sticking up round the edge to prevent the nest blowing off. The nest was complete in three days, and before a week was out she was ‘sitting.’ Even then the thrush’s adventures were not over. I remember that a day or so before the young birds flew, a sparrow hawk discovered the nest. The weather was warm and my husband and I were sitting in the garden. The first thing we noticed was a most unnatural silence—a silence so intense that we could not fail to be aware of it. One could feel that something was about to happen. Then I saw a silent shadow slip from the apple tree close at hand, and move a little further away from us. It was a sparrow hawk and was undoubtedly after our young thrushes. Mrs. Thrush was standing on the corner of the platform with her young ones behind her. She was poised in a defiant attitude, with her feathers drawn in tightly to her body so that she looked strangely long and thin. She kept this position—and I never saw her move so much as an eye—for over one and a half hours. The hawk made three or four more visits to the garden that afternoon. We never saw him come and seldom saw him go. He just appeared in his stealthy way, and each time we first became aware of his presence by the deathly hush that fell upon the garden. At length my husband got his gun. He did not have to wait long. There was the hawk in the apple tree, not ten yards from the thrushes, the villain! One bang and he slipped out of sight and did not return. He was not hurt, but must have realised that we meant business. The young thrushes were safe and life and song returned to the garden.
It is easy to be led away on a quest for the ‘rare’ without realising how much we all have to learn about the commonest of our birds. Why do starlings continue to congregate in their thousands far into the breeding season? Do tits do more harm than good to fruit buds while searching the trees for grubs? Do female robins really sing a song indistinguishable from the male? In 1941 I was able to answer this last question, at least to my own satisfaction. Once again my observation post was the kitchen window. The robin’s nest was in the bottom of a hawthorn hedge barely five yards from the window. I knew the female from her mate because for some reason or other she had no tail. I watched both birds closely and was surprised to find that though she made no attempt to find her own food while brooding the eggs, she would sit on a branch and sing snatches of song every bit as full-blooded as the male. In fact they frequently held lively conversations in this manner. It is from little bits of observation such as this, carefully collected, recorded and passed on, that our knowledge of birds is gradually built up. The compilers of reference books do not draw upon their own knowledge only, and the text is usually full of references to the observations of other people—nearly all of them amateurs. The same story has to be heard from many different sources before it is regarded as proven. The importance of records cannot be over-estimated—memory is such a fickle friend—and although the pure pleasure of any hobby can be spoilt by being taken too seriously, it is obviously more fun to find, on looking through other years’ records, that the blackbird is nesting a week earlier than ever before.
Bird-watchers, like fishermen, have an endless supply of anecdotes—though the former are usually more truthful! To me bird-watching has been one of the greatest joys of my life. It has never become an obsession to the exclusion of other things, and I have never wished to become ‘an expert’—confining myself to a mere curiosity, which from the age of about six has possessed me. When I sit back to contemplate the subject my mind flies away to the earliest years, the blackbird’s evening song and the never-ending background of the rooks, cawing in their gentle, homely way, in the rookery about my childhood home. There was something so sweet and fresh, so wholesome and innocent about that first awakening of my love for and curiosity about birds. I could wish for nothing better for my own three children. How far the feeling can be engendered I do not know. Too much encouragement might nip it in the bud. It must be put in their way so that they experience for themselves the secret thrill of each new discovery. That is the essence of the game. If anything unusual comes our way I draw the children’s attention to it and leave it at that. Usually my well-thumbed reference books come out and the game of identification is on. And next time they will remember. There was a greater spotted woodpecker that came every morning for a while last winter, to peck at an apple which had fallen from the tree and lodged in the top of the hedge . . . but there I go again!
Thanks to Eve Anderson for passing on to me a copy of PUS Diamond Jubilee: 1891-1951 years ago. And thanks to the Armitt Trust for permission to publish this article on this blog.