By David Rae
Of all songbirds, the finest is the Blackbird. Like opera singers, this is not a question of rational judgement according to set criteria, but of the depth of emotional response that the singing bird raises within you. Many have different favourites and will argue variously for the Nightingale singing at dusk, almost too high and sweet for the human ear, or for the tumbling sound of Skylarks in the summer meadow. These birds have inspired poetry and musical symphonies in imitation and praise. For others, the sound of Gulls raises a romantic longing to be at sea. Certainly, I cannot claim that other bird songs have no merit and would add to the list of favourites the bright sound of Robins and the haunting call of the Curlew. It is a topic for debate that can never be exhausted.
But for me, the Blackbird is the finest singer. And I am not alone in my opinion. The fluted call of the Blackbird; gentle, effortless, floating; it is the sound of my youth. Not my childhood I must say, for that would be the busy call of a Chaffinch or maybe the cheerfulness of a Blue Tit. These are fine songbirds too, and their sound evokes within me that time of innocence and hope. But it is not childhood I am nostalgic for; I have no wish to return to innocence. It is youth that I miss. It is a fountain of youth I hunt for, not a fountain of childhood.
As a youth, I was strong and brave and handsome and virile. Now almost none of these words describe me. Perhaps for you, the soundtrack of your youth is a playlist of pop songs that, like songbirds, are of varying quality and a topic of endless debate. Of course, I listened to pop music, but through summer nightfalls, I’d sit in my room and turn off the radio. I’d open the window and look out onto the tree canopy and listen while moths entered my room and fluttered around me. The song of the blackbird; the sound of my youth, and of that questing unknowing desire that rose within me as I went from a boy to a man.
I’m not a boy now. I am a man and an old man at that. I do not want you to think that Blackbirds played a part in my life only while a callow youth. When I grew up and married, I was far less prosperous than my parents. I did not own a house with a grove of trees full of songbirds surrounding it. Instead, I bought a small terraced house with postage stamp sized garden. I feel ridiculous describing the garden as postage stamp sized because of course, it is much bigger than a postage stamp and because it such a cliché. However, there is a certain merit in cliché; if I had said twenty feet by thirty-five and with a high fence eight feet tall on three sides, then you would have struggled to picture it. Postage stamp; that you can picture entirely accurately.
Modest as our house was, it would have to do. I raised my family in that house, and it is no meaner or finer than a hundred thousand other houses of similar merit that sit just below the national house price average. It sounds as if I’m ungrateful for what I have, but I’m not, I’m just pointing out that my garden was not one that you’d expect to find blackbird visiting, and for the most part they didn’t. When we moved into the house, the garden was bare and uninteresting with just grass cut short stretching from fence to fence, green and dull. We planted climbers all around the perimeter, and as the children grew, they scrambled up and over the fence (both children and plants). The plants formed a dense, thick cover, giving our postage stamp a pleasant woodland feel.
Imagine my delight and the delight of my offspring when one year a pair of Blackbirds signalled their approval of my gardening efforts by nesting in behind the honeysuckle. They seemed to nest very early. I would think maybe March. Of course, you must not imagine it to be a typical March that, like the rhyme, came in like a lion and out like a lamb. This March was neither lion nor lamb, but more like a bad mannered Labrador, disobedient and bouncy and ready to jump up on you at any moment. The winds blew all month; it was good laundry drying weather. It was bright and clear, but also cold.
Even better then nesting, the clutch hatched, and the fledglings reared successfully. So, there was suddenly a whole host of juvenile Blackbirds circulating around our postage stamp. I counted five fledglings and both parents taking up residence; seven birds in all. Can it really have still been March, Perhaps the pair arrived in March and scouted out the garden before nesting later in the year. Either way, by now the year had moved on, perhaps to June or even July, but the weather was still brisk and breezy and damp? Could that be summer; it could have been; the weather is so unreliable. The winds would whisk the feathered balls around the garden like scraps of wool. They would jump from twig to window ledge to fork handle to fence post and round again, each young bird shouting and chasing his or her brothers and sister. How they squabbled and fought. Even my own children never fought as much. But like all fighting families, it was as much a game as serious. It did mean that if we went out into the garden to do anything, mow grass or hang up washing, the birds would scold us and try and chase us away. But it was cold anyway, so the children were quite happy to stay indoors and watch the birds playing and listen to their haunting piping play song that sounds almost as if the wind was singing. And my wife was not going to let a bird no matter how angry stop her from hanging out her washing.
As the breeze picked up, the juvenile’s games became more real. It was as if they played tag, chasing each other. They would scatter and circle like dust caught in a back draft.
I did not see the accident. My eldest boy came crying to me. The birds had been chasing each other, and one of them had flown head first into the living room window. It would be stunned; I told him, and it would get up if he left it alone, but he said it had been lying under the window for a while and not moved. I went to see, and the bird, one of the juvenile Blackbirds, lay still. When I entered the garden the Blackbirds did not scold me, nor did they do anything, but I could feel their eyes watching me from hiding places deep within the honeysuckle and rosebushes. The bird was clearly dead. The wind blew the corpse feathers this way and that and carried away the fading warmth of life from the cooling body. The eyes were open and legs tight curled in death’s rictus. It was the first time that my children had ever seen death. It was the first time that I had to deal with death too, close up. I was not quite sure what to do. It did not seem right to simply deposit the bird on top of the compost heap, and other eyes were watching me, children’s eyes.
I sent my son to fetch a shoe box, and we lifted the bird into a cardboard coffin. The ground in our garden was thin and stony. It would be hard if not impossible to dig a grave, so we carried arried the box, the bird coffin, to a marsh nearby. There we gave the dead bird a watery grave. In some ways, it seemed more appropriate to consign the bird, a creature of air to an element transmutable and in constant flux rather than to a solid earthy grave. The little thing would not be trapped underground by the weight of cold earth above him.
Of course, the Blackbirds did not attend the funeral. But my children stood to attention as we let the shoebox boat sail out over the peaty water like a Viking Up-Helly-Aa, No flames came from the cardboard coffin, but tongues of air like invisible flames seemed to rise up from the shoe box as it sank into the stream carrying the blackbird across whatever river the souls of dead birds cross. We said no words and sang no songs and our thoughts were our own.
When we returned, we found that all the Blackbirds, young and old, had left the scene of the tragedy. They had departed hurriedly within an hour of us removing the bird. They did not return to our garden for a long time.
But return they did; almost ten years later. I was delighted, and so were my children. They nested much later in the year. It was high summer when they built their nest and not a normal insipid, blink and you miss it, Scottish summer, but a proper hot and lazy summer where you left your windows open all night in the hope that it would be cool enough to sleep. There seemed to be one adult male and three females tending the nest. I assume that two of the females were juveniles that were not breeding but helping to feed the clutch. It was not long before they hatched out and we could hear the sound of demanding chicks wanting to be fed. It seemed as if the tragedy of ten years past was forgotten.
But a different type of tragedy was to strike the nesting birds. This one came in the shape of a pair of black and white murderers; Magpies. The first time they came, the snakelike rattle of the Magpies and the furious calls of the adult Blackbirds roused us from our beds. We went out into the garden and saw two Magpies inching towards the honeysuckle disregarding the angry threats of the adult Blackbirds. As soon as they saw us come out of the house, the murderous Magpies slipped away. From then on and for the rest of the summer we were engaged in a war. We tried to chase the Magpies off, and we put wire mesh up as close to the nesting birds as we dared. I even considered buying a pellet gun to shoot at the predatory Magpies. But it was a war we lost. As the summer days grew longer, the Magpies arrived to start their assault earlier and earlier. The sun can rise as early as four thirty in the summer and it is never truly dark. My children tried to help and when roused by the rattle of the Magpie would slip out of bed and into the garden to chase the rascal birds away. But we became tired and weary. Eventually, we heard a commotion in the garden from the honeysuckle, and when we came out, the Magpies were flying away leaving the Blackbirds more furious than ever.
We couldn’t tell if or how many of the chicks the Magpies had taken. But the Blackbirds were gone the very next day. It is possible that they moved any remaining fledglings to a new hiding place. We hope that is what happened. It’s a better story than the alternative or a happier one at any rate.
Since then the Blackbirds have not nested in my garden. In some ways, it is a relief from the responsibility it seems to bring, and it seems better that the play of nature raw in tooth and claw, (I know another cliché), is played out elsewhere. This last episode is now about ten years ago. The honeysuckle is thicker and more of a barrier to marauding Magpies than ever, but they have not returned. Should the Blackbirds ever return to our garden; I will update this report, and the story will begin again.
First Published in Rosetta Maleficarium