By David Rae
Each of us may prefer a different songbird: the nightingale singing at dusk, or the tumbling skylark in summer meadows, inspiration for poetry and symphonies in imitation and praise, or the gull with its plaintive cry longing for the sea, the bright twitter of robins, the haunting call of the curlew. Every songbird has its champion.
The blackbird is my favorite. That fluted call; gentle, effortless. In the summer nights of youth, I sat by the window. In the trees above, I watched the blackbirds and listened to their song. A questing, unknowing desire rose within me as I grew from child to boy.
I’m not a boy now. I am a man, grown up and married and my children gone, moved west. Less prosperous than my parents, my home is not surrounded by trees full of songbirds. Mine is a small terraced house with a postage-stamp-sized garden. Ridiculous, it is much bigger than a postage-stamp. Such a cliché. But clichés have merit; postage-stamp it is.
We raised our family in this house, my wife and I. When we moved in, the garden was bare and uninteresting, with grass cut short. We planted climbers around the fence, and as the children arrived one by one, and grew like weeds, the plants scrambled up, forming a dense cover. Our busy garden, scattered then with toys and children, was not where you would expect blackbirds to nest, but we could hope.
One year, two blackbirds signaled their approval of my gardening by nesting in behind the honeysuckle. The clutch hatched and, suddenly, a whole host of juvenile blackbirds circulated round our postage-stamp. The winds whisked the feathered balls around the garden like scraps of wool. Twig to ledge to fork handle to fence post and round again, shouting and chasing his or her brothers and sisters. How they squabbled. Even my own children never fought as much. But like all families, it was as much in play as seriousness.
Our joy did not last. My oldest son, Tom, witnessed the accident. One of the birds had flown into a window. I told him the bird would be stunned and that it would get up if he left it alone, but he said it had been lying still for a while.
When I went into the garden, the blackbirds hid away, watching me from the honeysuckle. The little bird was clearly dead. The wind ruffled the corpse’s feathers and carried away the fading warmth of life. The eyes were open, but no longer bright, and the legs tight-curled in death’s rictus. It was the first time that my children had seen death. It was the first time that I had seen death. What could I do? Simply depositing the bird on the compost heap didn’t seem right, and other eyes were watching me, children’s eyes.
We used a shovel to lift the dead bird into a shoe-box coffin. The ground in our garden was thin and stony—a difficult place to dig a grave, so we carried the box to a marsh nearby. We stood at attention while the box boat sailed and sank like some avian Up-Helly-Aa. It seemed right. The little thing would not be trapped by the weight of earth above him.
Back home, we found the blackbirds gone.
It was years before they returned. We were delighted. One adult male and three females tended the nest. Two of the females were juveniles, helping to feed the clutch. When they hatched out, we could hear the sound of demanding chicks wanting fed. We loved to sit with windows open, letting their song drift into our house with the scent of sweet briar and woodbine. The tragedy seemed forgotten.
But a different type of tragedy struck the nesting birds, in the shape of a pair of black and white murderers: magpies. Even amongst crows, the most reviled. Jackdaws, hoodies, rooks, and ravens; they will flock together at times, but they will not tolerate their pied brethren in their company.
We were roused one day by the snakelike rattle of a magpie, and the furious alarm calls of the adult blackbirds. We saw two magpies inching towards the honeysuckle. We shouted, and they slipped away, but from then on, we were engaged in war. We chased the magpies off. We put wire mesh as close to the nest as we dared. I considered buying a gun. But it was a war we lost.
As the summer days grew longer, the magpies started their assault earlier and earlier. The sun can rise as early as four thirty in the summer. My children, now in their teens, tried to help, and, when roused by the rattle-call of the magpie, slipped out of bed to chase the rascal birds away. But we became tired and weary; eventually we heard a commotion in the garden, and when we came out, the magpies were gone and the blackbirds were more furious than ever.
We couldn’t tell how many of the chicks the magpies had stolen. But the blackbirds left the very next day. It is possible that they moved any remaining chicks to a new hiding place. We hope that is what happened. But we knew it was not. Fledglings murdered.
We gathered our own children to us. We could keep them safe at least. For a while at least. Or so we hoped.
My children made their own lifes. Like the blackbirds, we could not protect them forever. We failed them in ways we could not guess. They do not speak of it, and visit less often than we wish.
The blackbirds have not nested in my garden for many years. It seems better that the play of nature raw in tooth and claw, another cliché, is played out elsewhere. The honeysuckle is thicker and more of a barrier to marauding magpies than ever. I hope that one day the blackbirds return, and we can gather together to enjoy their song.