Robson on… Avian activity


Since the start of lockdown I have been walking for an hour, around sunset, almost every day. This is great time of day to watch wildlife and the unseasonably mild spring has made it a daily delight. Animals are of course, entirely unaware that the world is a bit more unsettled than usual just now. I find that somehow reassuring. In these uncertain times a feeling of ‘kinship’ with non-human earthlings can help, even if the feeling is not mutual.

Some of those earthlings, the avian ones, are quite easy to see. Birds often gather together as this slightly improves their odds if we, or any other animals, decide to hunt them. If you’re missing crowds go and watch gathered water-fowl, pigeons, gulls, sparrows and crows all go about their work. More solitary are blackbirds, grebes, jays, woodpeckers, robins, wrens and herons, the latter can often be seen on the canal. 

I have seen a falcon, a Peregrine I think, hover over it’s prey in one of the less built-up suburbs. Birds of prey are still rare in cities but can be seen quite often in the edge-lands, where the distinction between urban and countryside blur. Watching one hunt is a mesmerising.

Ted Hughes brilliantly describes a hunting hawk in the first poem of his first collection, with the same title, The Hawk in the Rain.

… but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.

I encourage you to read Hughes’s bird poems, he usually writes with a directness that is accessible and conjures tangible images of many different creatures. 

Less direct is Hughes’s collection Crow which tells tales of the mythic trickster crow of many cultures. Look for the deep iridescent blue on the backs of crows and ravens. You can spend the rest of the day trying to decide if it was indeed blue or a colour as yet unknown to science. Watching crows along the canal squabbling over a discarded chicken takeaway is one of natures true wonders.

Waterfowl, ducks, geese, swans and moorhens, seem to like a good old-fashioned punch up at dusk so it’s a good time to observe them. There is no doubt a good evolutionary reason for this boisterousness but, to my unknowledgeable eye, they appear to simply enjoy a row. They settle down again as night creeps in.

Gulls are ubiquitous in town and country and, of course, by the sea. That said you can leave the ‘sea’ part out of their name, most gulls have never seen the it and, apparently, they think it’s a myth. Read Landfill by Tim Dee, it’s a lovely look into their lives and how those lives are linked to ours. Wood pigeons and their tough inner city cousins, with their often mangled feet, make interesting viewing. When startled, you may have noticed, pigeons ‘batter’ almost straight upward to evade a threat. This is thought to be because they used to live on mainly on rocky ground in the ‘olden days’ and this was a way of evading lizards and wild cats that stalked that terrain. 

In Birmingham there is a growing population of starlings in the city centre. Their seemingly anarchic ways and punk feather-styles make them a good lunchtime distraction.

Farther off red kites glide over Wycombe and the Chiltern Hills and can be seen easily from the train to London. Kites are often a bit scraggy looking but are still majestic and they are slowly moving to new grounds so keep your eyes to the skies. 

I haven’t even mentioned the dawn chorus! Get up really early and listen.

During the current time we, perhaps, feel less connected to our fellow humans. We might also be less at the behest of our usual daily timetable. Take advantage of that time, if you can, and connect with the feathered fauna that live near you. Feel part of something, no matter how passively, and go for a walk.

Partly inspired by our Fiona’s piece on great tits.