Mad about the birds

BIRDS asked Sasha Norris to talk to people who really enjoy common birds

We live in paradise. Think of a cup of hot chocolate: South American Chocolate, Devonshire milk and cream, American marshmallows, Indian Cinnamon, wrapped up in a cup made from Swiss trees, with a special jacket to protect our hands and a plastic lid so we can drink it on the go. I had a cat-maimed fledgling blackbird, Meryl, who underlined our extravagance. She would hop around my kitchen, gleaning all she needed from the crumbs lying around on plates, or from the compost. How easy it is for us to be generous to the creatures which share our immediate habitat. To give the garden birds some food. In his book The Company of Animals, James Serpell reveals that being kind to other animals is not a pathology of Western excess, but has been a facet of all human populations, reaching back far into prehistory. Tribal people the world over, from Native Americans who fed berries to bear cubs to the Fijians who tamed parrots, lizards and eels, have fed and nurtured animals for no other reason than that they seem to enjoy their company.

Great conservationists and biologists, including Peter Scott and Konrad Lorenz have learnt much by spending time in the company of wild birds. The first time I held a sparrow in my hand, training for my PhD, I was astounded by the intricacy of its plumage, the delicate lacing of colours and layers of minute feathers on this least celebrated bird. As part of my research put some colour rings on them so I could identify individuals. One male sparrow returned four years in a row to nest under the gutter outside my bedroom window. This connection revealed something that is too easy to overlook: that individual animals have individual lives just like us, that they suffer trauma and enjoy triumph and change throughout their lives. Perhaps that is why so many people, of all backgrounds, get a kick out of the birds which live in their environment, because they reflect something of ourselves while being so very different.

In January the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch will get tens of thousands of people watching and recording their garden birds for an hour, during one weekend. Most will watch their garden birds all year round anyway. Some will be really smitten. Here are some tales of birds and their people from our small island.

An educated bird

In the quad at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University each spring, a mallard makes her nest. Among the lavender and ivy she settles in and she has chosen well. Some times she is accompanied by Hoppy, the good-looking drake with a bad leg, sometimes by a different admirer. Whoever she chooses as her mate, the porters at LMH don’t mind. The porters (named for their job guarding the portcullis or entrance to the college) are duck crazy. In the Lodge, pictures of the LMH duck adorn the wall. She has been coming for four years now and last year raised three consecutive broods. The porters watch carefully as she leads her babies through the college gates into the University Parks, where they graduate into the world of water by jumping into the Thames. Alan, Allan, Sue, Pat, Ian and Barry, all six LMH porters, wish her well.

Wildlife Hospital.

Keith Easter was for decades head gardener at Papworth hospital. He arrived in Papworth as a 19 year old TB patient and there recovered his health. The hospital now specialises in heart-lung patients, many of whom have major surgery. Several rooms look out onto the grounds including a lake with much bird life. I asked Keith whether he thought people enjoyed the sight of wildlife around them when they are in recovery.

‘I don’t think so, I know so, from what they tell me,’ he replied. The value of birds outside the window to recovering patients can’t be overestimated. When there was a residential home for disabled people, Keith used to take the ducklings up to the quad for them to see. Here they were protected, till they grew up a little, from foxes. The residents always delighted in them, ‘loved them’ he said.

Keith has several bird tables in his own garden and writes articles for the local church magazine about them. ‘Its like watching telly,’ he says, ‘what happens. It’s incredible. We have a pair of collared doves, they chase off all other doves, and the blackbirds bring their young ones, to bathe in the fountain. Its almost like they are dipping their toes in to see if its warm enough. Twice a year or so, we get a yellow wagtail and the wife enjoys the green woodpecker. I remember watching a dove once stretching out its wings and I realised it was taking a cold shower from the rain drops. The sparrows and starlings have become very crafty you know, at getting the peanuts, they fight like hell… ‘ And so Keith’s garden soap opera goes on.

Observant illustrator Ian Lewington, bird illustrator whose works include Rare Birds of Britain and Europe (Collins) the twitchers’ bible, Auks of the World (OUP), and Birds of the World (Lynx edicions), has been feeding garden birds since he was five. He started because he wanted ‘to see them closer’. Now he has three special cat-proof seven-feet-tall tables. Seeing them so relaxed has allowed him to learn about bird anatomy from his own couch.

‘Dunnocks are standard passerines. In my garden, I can see their feather groupings, and how they relate to each other, the map of tracts. You can see their shapes in different conditions, when it’s sunny and hot versus when it’s cold; their feet holding onto branches. Illustrators,’ he says ‘often get feet wrong, they don’t know the structure of birds’ feet – three toes forward one back – the back toes have no joint, the outside toe three, middle, two and the inside toes, one joint.’ Bird illustration is a fusion of art and science, perfect observation replicated with brush and watercolour. Ian worries about his birds when he goes to the Isles of Scilly (bird watching of course) so now he gets a neighbour to feed them when he’s away. Ian feeds them on mixed bird seed: they especially like sunflower hearts.

Pigeon Poet

When I first saw Katherine Spiller on a busy Saturday morning in Oxford, she was waiting for Stan. Stan was born with one foot missing, and he relies on Katherine’s help. Stan is a pigeon, one of a hundred that Katherine knows by name. She stands in the doorway under the ancient Carfax tower on Cornmarket with pigeons on both shoulders, on her hat, all around her feet, all straining for peanuts. Katherine has had her picture taken hundreds of times by American and Japanese tourists. After she lost her job five years ago, she gradually became more involved in helping individual pigeons until she became ‘the pigeon woman’. Like a few highly committed scientists I know, Katherine has learnt to recognise individual birds by their markings and behaviour. Beau, Josephine, Bothey, Trumpy, Jumpy and Righto (who had a bad right leg) are all Katherine’s birds. The first to fly onto her shoulder was ‘young specky’, named for his distinctive feathers, and the oldest bird she knows is Speckly, at least six.

Katherine loves the birds, she says because they are ‘inventive and kind’. She has so many stories. Once she saw an adult bird encourage a youngster who was leaning rather mopishly against a shop window up and back onto the nest. They lift up my heart she says. Katherine thinks that Stan may be being pursued by a male pigeon, in which case she will have to add ‘za’ to the name. Stan(za) the pigeon eventually turned up and hopped about a little way off from the crowd knowing he/she would get Katherine’s attention and some grub. Many people are ambivalent about pigeons, and the RSPB cannot take responsibility for people who feed the birds and annoy town councils, or neighbours, but Katherine deserves a mention for her devotion to birds, even if they’re not everyone’s favourite!


Onyx gorillas and oil painted hounds, wood carved elephants and a marble red kite decorate the extravagant home of another bird-aholic. For the sake of his precious garden birds, I cannot release his identity. Every week the local butcher delivers offal to his door, which he carefully chops up and stores in the freezer for his guests. Regularly, he scatters meat on the field just beyond his fence and awaits the spectacle. Gradually they gather in the surrounding trees, imposing birds, with a five feet wing span, which only ten years before were extinct in England. While I watched, the clouds cleared to reveal baby blueness. They came down one by one like flickers of fire gathering momentum from each other’s confidence, building in numbers: till 40 red kites dance like crows after harvest over the valley. Impossible 15 years ago, red kites have been reintroduced by the RSPB and English Nature so successfully, that the sight of them over the Chilterns is now commonplace. Feeding them is not important for the birds and may be bad for them. If you want to feed them, it’s best to do it every so often so that the birds do not become dependent and lazy, but instead learn to spread their wings and find their own food. But for a garden bird feeder, a flock of red kites takes some beating.