On the last day before the hospitality sector in England locked down, my wife and I sat in a hotel garden in Cumbria watching the comings and goings at a bird feeder. The occasion was my birthday and the dinner had been booked for months. It just happened to fall on the last day of service; there was some doubt over whether we would get breakfast. The bird feeder, meanwhile, was being visited by goldfinches and greenfinches, blue tits and great tits. The colours were vivid in the late afternoon murk: the red-faced goldfinch caught out in some transgression, the yellow and black bars on its wing a flashforward to the hazard tape that would mark off the weeks to come. The greenfinch was cloaked in a velvet far greener than the bird books ever suggest. Even more exciting was a pair of bullfinches: you’re only certain in your identification of the rosy-pink breast of the female when you also spot the male, its shocking peachy-pink puffed-out chest unmistakable.
Back home we decided the way to survive lockdown was to buy a bird feeder. A local hardware shop, with a table in the doorway and a queue around the corner, sold us a basic model, which we filled with peanuts and hung from a low branch on the tree outside our bedroom window. I had worried the squirrels might get in on the action, but hadn’t realised how quickly and efficiently they would take care of business. They simply climbed down the string and turned the feeder upside down so that its lid came off. We refilled the feeder and tried various approaches to defy the squirrels until we finally had to admit that the hardware shop had mis-sold the item, which was not a bird feeder at all, but a squirrel feeder.
My wife went online and ordered a device similar to an intercontinental ballistic missile, its glossy metal overhanging lid and slippery Perspex cylinder surely rendering it squirrel proof. We hung it on a wire and filled it with mixed bird seed, and then sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Acquaintances warned it could take weeks for the birds to get the message (the squirrels having grasped the concept of futility). It did indeed take weeks – how many is hard to say, since they passed so quickly in April, May and June. One day we noticed the level of seed had dropped. We started watching for longer periods and finally spotted a blue tit. Then a sparrow. A great tit followed – or was it a coal tit? The tits and sparrows almost emptied the thing in a week and we bought more seed.
We discovered that you have to make sure the feeder is never empty. One night, a week ago, it did become empty and we were unable to refill it until the next day. It’s funny how quickly word gets out that the feeder is empty, but once you refill it, the birds continue to stay away for several days. Bad news, it seems, gets around the bird world faster than good. It took four days before we noticed the level had dropped and, then, another day passed before we saw the first bird, a house sparrow, back on the feeder.
I want to see the great tit again, or the coal tit, because I want to identify it. Is it a small great tit, perhaps a juvenile, or an adult coal tit? I know the difference on paper – I’ve got a shelf full of guides – but it can be hard to put that knowledge into practice in the field (if looking out of one’s bedroom window at a bird feeder through a pair of binoculars can be said to constitute being ‘in the field’), when what might be more important is the jizz. Yes, the jizz. To be fair, if one may still use the expression in contexts where it is actually germane, I did do a double-take when I first saw a copy – I say ‘a copy’; obviously I mean ‘my copy’, since I bought it; how could I not? – of Birds by Character: The Fieldguide to Jizz Identification in Henry Bohn Books in Liverpool. Jizz, as you might already know, but I didn’t, means the general character of a bird. ‘Jizz is instantly appreciated,’ writes author Rob Hume, ‘but its meaning is understood only through experience.’ Turning to the coal tit, I read that its character is that of a ‘tiny, lightweight ball’, which doesn’t help, but ‘Zooms to peanut bag, stops dead from full speed, zooms off again with nut’ does describe pretty accurately the way my mystery tit behaves around the bird feeder.
As spring turns to summer I know there are birds are in the bushes and trees because I can hear them, but the foliage makes them hard to see. The bird feeder draws them into the open for a few seconds – time to identify them and simply enjoy watching them. Each new bird – or returning bird – that alights on the feeder produces a miniature rush of endorphins.
One bird we haven’t seen is a bullfinch, but maybe we will see one – or a pair – when we go back to Cumbria, for dinner, bed and breakfast, and the hotel garden bird feeder.
Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality, Ornithology, The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories – and seven novels, most recently First Novel. He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories. Reader in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press, which publishes original short stories as signed, numbered chapbooks, and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize. His English translation of Vincent de Swarte’s 1998 novel Pharricide has recently been published by Confingo Publishing.