Category Archives: Birds

Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson

Corvus by Esther Woolfson is a remarkable book about the birds she has has had living with her; birds that were found out of the nest that would not have survived if she had not taken them in.

‘Corvus’ is a genus of birds including jackdaws, ravens, crows, magpies and rooks. The specific birds Esther Woolfson has looked after are a rook, called Chicken (short for Madame Chickieboumskaya), a young crow, a cockatiel, a magpie, two small parrots and two canaries. But it all started with doves, which live in an outhouse, converted from a coal store into a dove-house, or as they live in Aberdeen in Scotland, a doo’cot.

Although the book is mainly about the rook, Chicken, Esther Woolfson also writes in detail about natural history, the desirability or otherwise of keeping birds, and a plethora of facts about birds, their physiology, mechanics of flight, bird song and so on. As with all good non-fiction Corvus has an extensive index, which gives a good idea of the scope of the book. Here are just a few entries for example under ‘birds’ the entries include – aggression in, evolution of, navigation, in poetry, speeds of, vision, wildness of, wings’

It’s part memoir and part nature study and for me it works best when Esther Woolfson is writing about Chicken and the other birds living in her house, how she fed them, cleared up after them, and tried to understand them. Although at times I had that feeling I get when I visit a zoo – these are wild birds kept captivity and I’m not very comfortable with that, I am reassured by Esther Woolfson’s clarification that reintroducing these birds to the wild was unlikely to be successful and indeed they lived longer than they would have done in the wild. Though Chicken and Spike (and the other birds) live domesticated lives they are still wild birds:

I realise that if ‘wild’ was once the word for Chicken, it still is, for nothing in her or about her contains any of the suggestions hinted at by the word ‘tame’. Chicken, Spike, Max, all the birds I have known over the years, live or lived their lives as they did by necessity or otherwise, but were and are not ‘tame’. They are afraid of the things they always were, of which their fellow corvids are, judiciously, sensibly; of some people, of hands and perceived danger, of cats and hawks, of things they do not know and things of which I too am afraid. ‘Not tamed or diminished’. (pages 115-6)

At times, where Esther Woolfson goes into intricate detail, for example in the chapter on ‘Of Flight and Feathers‘ I soon became completely out of my depth, lost in the infinity of specialised wing shapes and the complexities of the structure of feathers. But that is a minor criticism, far out weighed by her acute observations of the birds, her joy in their lives and her grief at their deaths – her description of Spike’s unexpected death and her reaction is so moving:

I wept the night he died. Sitting in bed, filled with the utter loss of his person, I felt diminished, bereft. I talked about him, but not very much, in the main to members of the family, who felt the same, but to few others.

It’s the only way, this compact and measured grief, for those of us who are aware that there has to be proportion in loss and mourning; we laugh at ourselves for our grief, trying to deal with this feeling that is different in quality, incomparable with the loss of a human being.

We felt – we knew – that something immeasurable had gone. (page 209)

Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved animal can recognise that sense of loss.

Corvus is a beautiful book and I have learned so much by reading it. I must also mention the beautiful black and white illustrations by Helen Macdonald – I think this is the Helen Macdonald who was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk.

Esther Woolfson was brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing and has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer’s Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. For more information see her website.

Saturday Snapshots

A few weeks ago I posted about the Attack of the Sparrows on the House Martins’ nest. A couple of weeks later the house martins all left and flew off to spend the winter in Africa. Each year they use our house as a building site for their nests. They are beautiful little birds and I love to see them flying high in the sky above our house and the chicks as they poke their heads out of the nest waiting to be fed.

It’s illegal to remove their nests whilst they are building or using them as they’re protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and you could get fined up to £5,000 and/or a 6 month prison sentence for every bird, egg or nest destroyed. And as they’re on the Amber list (because of recent decline in numbers) the RSPB is encouraging people to help them nest.

Well, they didn’t need any encouragement from us and built four nests in the eaves of our house. One was above the living room window, so you can imagine the mess their droppings made on the window and window sill. But now they’ve gone David has taken the nests down and cleaned up the mess they left behind, so he could sadolin the soffits and fascias. The nests came away mainly in one piece. My photos show how they’re constructed – mainly of mud and sticks formed into a cup shape.

House Martins nest P1010917

House Martins nest P1010918For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog A West Metro Mommy Reads.

The Attack of the Sparrows

For a few days now little white feathers have been appearing on the lawn at the front of the house – and in the back garden too. We were a bit worried that our cat had been catching birds, but mice are her preferred option. We were wrong – it wasn’t down to Heidi.

This year our house has been home to four lots of house martins, with four families in four nests, one at each of the gable ends and a fourth on the front wall of the house built over the cover of an extractor. These birds have been dazzling us with their spectacular aerobatics as they’ve been swooping and sailing above us high in the sky most of the summer, catching the insects that love to bite me. Needless to say I love house martins.

I don’t know how many broods they’ve had but there are still fledglings in the nest at the front. According the RSPB they can have up to three broods and I suspect each of the families have done that this year. They’ve made quite a mess on the walls and window sills with their droppings.

The puzzle of the feathers on the lawn was solved the other day when we saw two sparrows attacking the nest, pulling out feathers and poking around inside the nest – and the fledglings were still inside. I never knew what aggressive little beggars house sparrows are! The RSPB site tells that they often damage house martins’ nests and even attack adults, eggs and young birds. This attack was rebuffed by the house martins and the sparrows flew off – but there are more white feathers around this morning, the war continues.

Sparrow on HM nest

C is for Chaffinch

There are countless numbers of chaffinches in our garden. It’s the second commonest breeding bird in the UK, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there are so many around. They eat insects and seeds, but they prefer to eat the seeds that have fallen to the ground rather than from the bird feeders.

We have put a tray of seeds on a garden table outside our kitchen patio doors and can watch them at quite close quarters as they come to eat the seeds. Whilst they crowd together on the ground they’re more cautious closer to the house and they only come one at a time to the table. David took these photos. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)

I think this one is so lovely. It’s a female chaffinch that has just landed on the rail of the decking and the wind is ruffling her feathers.

In this next photo her feathers have settled down:

Then a male chaffinch arrived. He likes the sunflower seeds.

I love his colours.

An ABC Wednesday post for the letter C.

Saturday Snapshot

There was a loud bang the other day. I looked around the house but couldn’t find anything that had fallen down to explain the noise. Later I noticed that the front room window was looking rather dusty, and then I realised what the bang had been:

There are lots of wood pigeons and collared doves flying round our garden and it looks as though one had tried to fly through the window. It had certainly left an impression, probably seeing the reflection of trees in the window and thinking it could fly through. Fortunately there was no dead or injured bird anywhere to be seen!  We’d better get some stickers on the window!

See more Saturday Snapshots on Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

Saturday Snapshot: The Birds Have Flown

I’ve posted a few photos and videos of the collared doves’ nest – first the empty nest, then the eggs were laid, the chicks hatched and now we have an empty nest again. On Thursday evening the second young collared dove left the nest and has not returned. I do feel a little sad – empty nest syndrome!

Empty Nest!

Here is a video showing the final moments as the young bird left the confines of the nest behind the satellite dish for the last time and flew off into the wide world beyond. It looks quite big in the video but in reality it is still very small.

To participate in Alyce’s Saturday Snapshot meme post a photo (new or old) that you (or a friend or family member) have taken, but make sure it’s not one that you found online.

Collared Doves – Update

The young collared doves have been growing rapidly this week. We’ve been watching as the parent birds take it in turn to sit on the nest and feed their young. Today, for the first time the young birds have been left on their own in the nest – there’s not much room for them, never mind an adult bird as well. I expect they’ll be leaving the nest soon.

Here is a short video showing the two chicks being fed: