Paying Attention to Birds

I’ve never taken much notice of birds. I’ve known they’re a thing, and appreciated their music, but apart from the ones that nested in the guttering around my bedroom and would wake me up with their chirping and rustling every AM in the spring, I’ve not interacted with them much.

Readers of this blog will note that I’ve been doing my best to be more active and to be more mindful. I thought a good way to do that might be to take more notice of birds and learn a few of their names and faces. It occurred to me partly because my girlfriend has a birdhouse in her garden that we can see from the living room windows, and this spring, like every spring, a pair of great tits have made their nest there. I’ve always known that we had great tits nesting in the garden, because my girlfriend tells me and points them out every year, but this has been the first spring where I’ve really had a good look and ponder, really thought about what a great tit is, what colours it is, what its movements look like. I am thinking of it a bit like a mindfulness exercise. I’ve read before about paying attention to people’s shoes, or reading license plates, as a way of getting out of your own head and managing your anxiety. I thought, well, why don’t I try pay attention to the birds around me? Other people I know seem to get enjoyment out of it.

I borrowed a book on birds off my girlfriend, and a similar book off my grandmother, and I’ve been asking them questions and picking their brains about what kind of birds to expect in the garden and what kind of food they like, and where they like to nest. I’ve also found out that a bag of wild bird seed for like, a quid, and a flat surface, such as a sundial, is a great combination if you want to attract birds. I knew a few birds before all this because they are so (I hate this word but it’s the best fit) iconic, such as robins, magpies, and blackbirds. Now I am passably good at identifying great tits, starlings, and sparrows. I’ve also got a pretty good idea of what a goldfinch is. And the seed I’ve been putting out has been monopolised by some wood pigeons and collared doves.

It has also occurred to me that having a better knowledge of the local wildlife would better my fiction. Consider for example the difference between,

“The birds sang in the morning mist”


“The robins and blackbirds sang in the morning mist”

(Pardon the differences in rhythm. Also pardon that I’ve probably made a mistake and they sing at different times of the morning, or something.)

People (like me) who know fuck all about birds are going to hear the same thing in their head regardless, but people who know what a robin or a blackbird sounds like are going to really benefit from the specificity; it’s going to be a lot easier to imagine and seem a lot more real. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve just finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. He knows a lot about wildlife and is always very specific when it comes to describing it. Not being able to picture some of the things he was describing made me feel inadequate. I could only imagine what a wild cornucopia Area X is to someone who can follow all of VanderMeer’s descriptions. I’m glad for the feeling of inadequacy, because it’s always nice to have a signpost or two as to what you don’t know.

You know, Corbyn’s fascination with manhole covers might fulfil a similar function to my nascent birdwatching. It’s nice and relaxing to just take a moment to wonder what birds are in the garden, or in a tree that you’re passing, and for a moment it focuses your attention on something that isn’t your worries. I’ve not often had so little knowledge bring me so much pleasure, and I look forward to learning more about birds. In the future I plan to learn a bit more about insects and plants, too, and I’m just glad that Peterborough is a place that affords me opportunities to look at and think about this stuff. There’s a lot to complain about with regards to Peterborough, but I am doing my best to see the positives in it and see what I can do to try and make it better for myself and others.

PS Talking to people about birds means you get to use the word “jizz” in polite conversation and if that’s not the best thing ever I don’t know what is.

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