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Bewildering Birdsong

I was ambushed the other morning by a jay. I’d never seen one before, or at least I’d never stopped to wonder ‘what was that?’. It seemed commonplace enough, except the wings were tipped with the kind of blue you don’t forget: blue stripes interspersed with black, like a chess board. But the blue was lighter and more glossy than kingfisher-blue. They reminded me of solar panels, almost white where the sun hits but different shades of azure and navy lower down. I don’t get how solar panels work, just as I don’t get how a shade of blue that’s glossy and fluorescent might pre-date glow-in-the-dark paint or those neon lights that Tracy Emin keeps making.

Is that a bit too glib though? The whole ‘lost for words’ and ‘beyond my understanding’ script: a cheap version of Kant, Smith, Burke & co., puzzling over how many sublime experiences it takes to change a lightbulb.

I don’t know much about birds, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time around them –  or with them around me. I grew up where the farmland meets the fells; where the songbirds of the British spring meet the dinosaurs of the uplands and tarns; where the cute birds meet the wild ones. And I’ve found technology helpful too, to describe the call of lapwings. Do you remember the sound of ‘pull-it’ when you used to play ‘Bop-It’ between Christmas and New Year during the noughties?

Over the summer, as I was coming down the gentle side of a hill called Pen-y-Ghent, I heard a lapwing. You hear them before you see them. It was stomping about in short, thirsty stubs of grass. It would call out, then strain its neck forwards and pitch its head to one side as though listening for a response. en it would rotate ninety-degrees and call again. Strain, pitch, rotate, call. I stopped to watch it, remembering someone telling me that they were social birds. Whenever I’d seen them before they were always in pairs. I compensated for knowing next-to-nothing about birds by construing its call as the shout a lost child might make in Sainsbury’s. But this went on for minutes, and the bird gradually hopped further away from me until I was just staring at the ground. I turned to walk on, and saw another set of unmistakable concave wings and a white belly gliding overhead.

The jay that ambushed me, though, wasn’t waiting on the pasture at the bottom of a fell but hopping through shrubs on Haverstock Hill. Whereas the lapwing refused to have anything to do with me, the jay came within touching-distance, and seemed to wait, deliberately, for me to give it a seed or a berry. Then it got bored of me and flew up onto the branch of a pear tree. Not knowing what a jay looked like, I hoped it was a partridge.

It feels wrong to say a jay’s wings are like a solar panel, or that the lapwing’s call is like a Christmas gimmick of yesteryear. But it’s better than ‘stunning’, ‘wonderful’, ‘otherworldly’, all of which you hear a lot. The day got a whole lot stranger after seeing the jay. We saw a cockatoo in a cage next to a pub on Devonshire Street, and then, on the banks of the canal in Regent’s Park, we watched ducks swarm a mother and daughter trying to eat a McDonald’s. We stood for a little while before realising they were greylag geese, and it took us longer still to say ‘Fuck! Are they herons?’. There were three or four of them: two scrounging amidst the ducks and geese, and a couple on the other bank, stood still, so still that you could walk by without seeing them. The older woman threw them a chip and caused a scrum – a silly decision if you’ve got more than thirty ducks begging and only small fries.

Where I’m from herons are wild birds. They stalk the tarns and the rivers that fall down from the fells. It’s not unusual to spot one, but you do spot one. ‘Was that a heron?’. What’s that line – ‘standing tall like the minute hand of a clock’? When they move, they crane their necks in slow-motion, and when they turn their heads snap instantly. Watching, you feel as though you were icking between lm stills. Taking off, too, their wings unfold like something out of Mary Poppins’s handbag, and beat to an old rhythm. Gesturing towards something ‘otherworldly’ you might say. But I’d be grateful if you didn’t.

The idiom’s pretty ubiquitous in bird admiration. From the name of the curlew, meaning ‘messenger’, to the idea of the barn owl as a ghost in the landscape, or Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous instress of the kestrel, birds tend to be understood as portals into, or glimpses of the viewer’s preferred metaphysic. The curlew’s name is thought either to be onomatopoeic or riffing on the Old French corliu, meaning ‘messenger’. Whilst curlews don’t migrate like swallows to South Africa, they do migrate towards wintering sites in southern Europe so that, at home, in the north of England, they are messengers of the springtime.

The whole delight, for me, in watching birds, whether still or flying, is that they immerse you in a different semiotic. You don’t have to throw up your hands as though they carry some indecipherable revelation. Just involve yourself for a moment in a set of natural contingencies: the heron on the water; the curlew over the pasture; the buzzard circling overhead, too high to hunt, but cawing in delight as it rides a thermal up-drift. ‘Otherworldly’, for all its obviousness, at least registers something bewildering and beguiling in the birds. My worry, I suppose, is that as people eat their lunch and read the Guardian on their phones in Regent’s Park, and run along the canals in the afternoons, the herons will stop being bewildering. Not just because people become used to them but because herons will become part of the everyday. They won’t need to wade through the water to hunt because they can scrounge from a tourist.

From long before Cicero wrote tracts on the auguries of bird-flight, birds have been a register for bewilderment. But what happens to the tenor if the vehicle stops working? If we stop finding birds bewildering, will we just become a species of know-it-alls?


Patrick Naylor reads English at Merton but spends most of his time thinking about herons.


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