In Praise of Birds: ‘Hello, Who are You?’

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Short Reflection (15th September 2013 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

When I was about 20 years old, in a Secret-Santa present exchange one Christmas, I let it be known amongst my old schoolfriends that I would like to get a book about birds.  I’ve no idea what brought about this urge at that particular moment in my life.  I do recall having fond memories of studying a wall-chart that mum had bought me as a child so that I could identify the birds that came to visit our caravan on holiday in Kent each year.  In fact I’ve managed to dig out the wall-chart which set me on the path to being a birdwatcher.

That Christmas, the Secret Santa came good, and I pored over the beautiful book I’d been given, amazed at the variety of birds to be found in this country (most of which I’d never heard of, let alone seen).     I started to wonder where they had all been hiding.  I was about to go away for a snowy New Year’s break at a cottage in the countryside and packed the book to take with me.  Soon after I arrived, I noticed an insistent call coming from the tree outside my bedroom window.   I remember pulling back the curtains to be greeted by a large-ish, pigeon-ish, bird and thinking “Hello, who are you?” (This phrase still pops into my head whenever I see or hear a new bird, or even a rustle in the undergrowth, and if nobody else is around I have been known to say it out loud to the bird in question).  I consulted my bird guide and found it was a collared dove.  This was thrilling news – a bird I had never met before – and even now I find it exciting to meet a new bird for the first time.  It turns out that collared doves are pretty common and they have a repetitive coo-ing that can drive you quite crackers when they are perched in a tree outside your bedroom window… but that didn’t matter at the time.

In the early days of my life as a birdwatcher I knew so few birds that I found myself happily tripping over new species everywhere.  I remember being especially grateful for ducks – generally large birds, rather hard to miss, which stay still long enough for you to focus your binoculars – and a colourful treat during the winter months when they migrate here from colder places in great numbers.  I had never considered the possibility that there might be ducks other than mallards to think about… but soon I had been introduced to gadwall, pintail, wigeon, and many more beautiful wild species.  Along with my mum, I’ve always had a fondness for small birds, finches and tits like the ones on my wall-chart, and although some of these will obligingly come to a garden bird-feeder, others are more of a challenge to spot, being small, fast-moving, and often quite secretive.  And there are a whole class of birds that birders jokingly ref