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The joys of birdwatching under lockdown

Admire our avian neighbours, by all means—but don’t envy them; they, too, have been dealing with a difficult period of confinement

By Cal Flyn   July 2020

Birdwatching is having a moment during lockdown, as thousands of normally-uninterested eyes take note of the life around us—in our gardens, on our daily stroll—for the first time. For many, it seems as though the birds are now louder and more active than ever.

Ornithologists, however, assure us that the change has been largely our own. In empty streets, birds have felt more present than ever. In our quieter lives, the comings and goings in between branches have become more enthralling than before.

Lockdown began at the perfect time of year to inspire a nation of twitchers. Since we were confined to our homes in March, migratory birds have been returning in waves, offering us a steady stream of new species to identify. Here in Orkney, I watched the first swallows of the year making landfall from across the Pentland Firth—whipping through the air, tails streaming behind them—not in any way flagging after their long journey from South Africa. A friend tells me that sand martins have taken up residence further up the coast.

Other species have been showing off their courting behaviours for us to admire. I’ve been watching the eider ducks in Stromness Harbour: sleek monochrome males ululating to their tawny lady folk in the shallows. And in the meadow down by the coast, where marsh marigolds glint like gold coins and flag irises rise like pennants, lapwings tumble through the reeds and skylarks holler from a hundred feet high.

Urban locations are no less rich with life. For those taking heed of the avian life in their local streets for the first time, I recommend the Collins British Bird Guide in the form of the phone app, which makes identification as easy as it can be (birds are searchable by size, colour or shape of bill) and a memoir called Birds Art Life by Toronto writer and illustrator Kyo Maclear—who, during a difficult period, takes up birdwatching. She trains herself in the art of noticing: of waiting and watching until something beautiful makes itself seen.

I think much of the pleasure we find in birdwatching comes from a sense that they live a life of liberty—a life on the wing, lacking in the sort of constraints affecting us right now. But of course the birds are also entering a period of house arrest and concentrated child-rearing themselves.

In the tree behind my house, a dozen noisy rooks have built untidy nests. I see wrens and starlings flitting, frantic, from holes in walls. Chick-rearing is a stressful time for birds. Those that nest on the ground, like terns and curlews and lapwings, face constant risk from predation (or blundering feet). They work hard to keep their brood fed. A blue tit with a clutch of chicks might need to catch as many as 1,000 caterpillars a day.

I read an interesting book recently: An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth, which portrays human history from a bird’s eye view. In it, Smyth depicts humans as the background extras in the lives of birds, who take advantage of our man-made cliffs (buildings) and proffered nest boxes, but feel no special affinity with us. It reminded me to view their behaviour on their own terms. So: admire our avian neighbours, by all means. They are beautiful, and endlessly interesting. But don’t envy them; they, too, have been dealing with a difficult period of confinement.

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