IT'S ALL ABOUT BIRDS ...
"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark," wrote Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. I always find it an inspiration, a soaring delight and a warm comfort to hear the tuneful solo of a lone little bird singing its heart out in the gloom and cold of a dark morning in the hours before sunrise, as if the sun has already broken through and is warming its wings and heart. But this month, as the golden light begins to gather strength once more, bathing and tending the land in penetrating glorious shafts through the mist-laden air, it not only warms emerald moss and bare branches slowly advancing their buds - it unravels lighter evenings and the silken strands of more mellifluous birdsong, forming a rousing chorus of voices heralding a new season.
The Romans and the Celts regarded February as the start of Spring - and in parts of Sussex the 14th February was known as 'the Birds Wedding day' as traditionally it was thought to be the day on which birds chose their mates. Tradition had it that if a woman saw a Robin flying overhead on Valentine's Day it meant she would marry a sailor. If she saw a Sparrow she would marry a poor man (but be very happy) and if she saw a Goldfinch she would marry a rich person. If she saw a Blackbird he would be a man of the cloth, and a Dove, he would be kind. But if she saw a Woodpecker she wouldn't marry at all. It's not recorded what a Redwing would signify, flocks of which have been rising and falling upon farmland all around the village since January - perhaps a dandy with the distinctive white strip above his eye? And what of the chattering calls of fields of Fieldfares, nodding Yellow Hammers, or the trees alive with the sound of Starlings? (Although Starlings often sing some notes too high for human ears to hear). An abundance of high-energy exuberance, high on life and hope and testosterone and pheromones, perhaps signalling a 'suitcase-full of suitors' or a 'lounge of lovers' for those who are single, rather than just one soul-mate?!
Drift of pure snowdrops, white bobbing bottoms of roe deer, hazels dripping with the male flowers of catkins, whilst the females shine their tiny red stars, the countryside is a romantic flourish of a poet's rousing prose and vision. A stretch of warmer days has already stirred many frogs and toads into action, having emerged from hibernation to return to their breeding ponds. At the Covid-deserted Furnace Lakes I watched a pair of Great Crested Grebes perform an incredible mating dance. Synchronising their diving they emerged with weed 'presents' in their beaks whilst shakes of their spikey orange headgear also formed an essential part of their flirting.
Birds are found in the ancient mythologies of almost every culture and are mentioned over 300 times in the Bible. God is a bird under whose feathers we can find refuge and Jesus asks us to "consider the birds" to keep us from being anxious. But with the loss of habitat diversity, destruction of hedgerows, the use of agricultural chemicals, the demolition of old buildings etc., birds are on the decline and many species are on the brink of extinction. February is a tough time for them and they need all the help they can get - we can play our part in helping them by providing food and shelter.
As natural sources of seeds and berries are exhausted, feeding our feathered friends become even more important. It's also essential to have cleaned out old nest boxes of parasites by the end of Jan/beginning of Feb - making sure they're not being used as a wintering roost first. (Although wrens are usually notoriously territorial, 63 were recorded together in one box, obviously doing their best to keep out the cold!) We also need to clean our bird tables and baths regularly, to stop the spread of disease which infects and kills. Unfortunately, Trichomonosis or 'canker' is currently spreading through the gardens in the village where I live. Caused by a parasite, caught through contaminated food or water, birds eventually can't swallow and then die. Despite completely emptying and disinfecting my own feeders twice, I've recently witnessed both a puffed-up lethargic Greenfinch and then a Sparrow, both suffering with swollen necks, having difficulty swallowing and breathing.
"Considering the birds" will hopefully help our other wildlife at the same time, as the health of each living being is inter-related. And long may these divine messengers bring delight and peace to our own minds. After all as Emily Dickinson wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers". And these quills themselves are another miracle, coming in all shapes and sizes, colours and preens, offering protection from sun, rain wind or cold, from thorns and insects and above all, enabling them to soar to the heavens!
Surviving, is one goal, breeding quite another. The competition will be hot, aerial performances will be ramping up a gear and new voices will be singing new songs in the days and weeks to come. In the words of Thomas Berry, "We lose our souls if we lose the experience of the forest, the butterflies, the song of the birds ... "
(You can report any illnesses of birds or other wildlife in your garden on the Garden Wildlife Health website)