Friday, 20 January 2012

A bird's tale

It was during midwinter a couple of years ago that I had the ‘bizarre bluetit experience’.  If you’re into birds – I don’t mean in a twitching, tracking-down-the-elusive-red-throated-marshmallow-hawk-warbler type of way – but just into enjoying your regular avian visitors, you’ll hopefully understand why it was special.

Anyone who feeds their garden birds will probably know how you can get quite used to having one or two ‘tame’ ones; blackbirds and robins seem to be the most receptive.  It just takes a combination of time, trust-building and food to get the occasional brave feathered character to come to your door or window and wait for edible treats, or even to take them from your hand.  I’ve got to know several blackbirds over the years who develop certain habits that ensure they’ll get some juicy sultanas: one used to jump on the back-door handle and perch there, tapping on the window glass.  I became well-acquainted with a robin who followed me around the garden and became trusting enough to land on my fingers and take a snack from my open palm.  You can almost see them calculating the odds – weighing up hunger versus danger and deciding that some degree of human interaction is a safe enough bet.  They let you get close – but only on their terms.

The weird thing about the bluetit who appeared one winter’s day was that there was no time, no trust-building nor enticement of food involved.  I first spotted this individual from my window and noticed that when other birds flew away this one didn’t.  This often happens when a bird is a bit poorly and its usual defensive reflexes are not kicking in.  So it immediately caught my attention as I watched its behaviour during the day.  Next morning I saw it again and, curious as to what it would do in response, I went outside – the other birds flew off, but bluetit stayed where it was.  I don’t know why I did it, but I’m a bit soppy like this, and I remained still, about eight feet away, and called over to it.  Yes, I know, soppy. I think I probably said “hello sweetie” in the kind of voice you use for cats and babies….  And the bluetit looked up, uttered a little call, then flew in a direct line towards me and landed on my arm. 

I couldn’t believe it.  This tiny bird then hopped along my sleeve and onto my shoulder and sat there right next to my face.  I could actually smell it – a slightly musty aroma – and as I turned my head towards it I could feel the faintest touch of its feathers near my chin.  It seemed to want to snuggle in to me.  I was delighted – but really quite shocked, and absolutely baffled. 

Once I’d got over the surprise (and desperately wishing my husband was around so he could take a photo) I was able to manoevre the bird by letting it perch on my fingers.  It seemed perfectly happy to stay with me but also wanted to climb up my back which was getting a bit awkward.  I took it to a branch and encouraged it to move onto it so I could go back indoors.

For the next few days bluetit and I got to know eachother.  I would notice it in the morning, go outside, attract its attention with a “hello sweetie” and have it fly to me from wherever it was to simply sit on my shoulder, often trying to nestle into my jumper or push up close to my face.  It didn’t even take any food on offer – it was as if it just wanted to be with me. I don’t know why it was so immediately tame and unafraid, but I can only guess that it may have been fostered by someone and had become ‘imprinted’ – when a wild bird or animal thinks of a human as its parent, or own kind.  This means the creature is rarely able to survive in the wild, as it doesn’t relate to the usual behaviour of its own species and is unlikely to know how to search efficiently for food.  Even then, this bird would have hatched in the Spring, so had it been kept in captivity all those months in between and then set free in the winter?  It does seem strange.

Sadly, though, I can only think that must have been the case.  After several days of being totally enraptured by this delicate, almost weightless bird’s trusting, willing and very close company, I was walking back from the village and got caught in the snow.  It came down thick and hard and settled.  I feared for my tiny friend’s ability to protect itself and stay warm and well-fed in the harsh conditions.  I didn’t see it for the rest of that day.  Next morning the snow was even deeper and the heavy white of the sky suggested there was more to come.  Other birds swooped down and fed frantically from the seed-feeder, knowing they were in for a hard, cold spell.  I kept calling for it.  “Hello sweetie..?”   

But  I never saw that little sweetie again.


  1. One of the more unexpected aspects of our recent move to a more rural location, is our total immersion in the comings & goings of the bird population.

    When I was young my parents would be forever dispatching me to the garden with scraps of bread and fruit for Dad's homemade bird-table, but I had absolutely no interest. Now here we are, four months into our new life in the country with the RSPB website virtually the homepage on our laptop, Bill Oddie forwarded books exchanged as Christmas presents and the seed, nut and fatball bill rivalling that of our own weekly food shop!

    Your post is delightful and moving - It also gives me hope that I might also make a little friend or two in the garden someday.

  2. Thanks, The Swede. I totally identify with all you say. It wasn't really until we moved out of flats and had our first garden that I became so consumed by my interest in, and love of, birds. The more you start to connect with them, the more you want to, and it just keeps going and getting better! Like you I sometimes wonder if I spend more on the birds' food than our own... but it's a gift that keeps on giving...

    I bet you'll get some blackbirds in particular that will become familiar as individuals over time. We had one female blackbird ('Nesta') who visited every day for about five years (and even nested in the hedge a few times and brought her kids up here, aww....) She had a distinctive look and personality, a feisty old bird she was. Tesco's Value Sultanas are the key...!

  3. This was the music playing in my head while I was reading your post. Enjoy the rest of your weekend. J x

  4. Lovely, but so poignant! What a privilege to have that degree of intimacy with a little feathered creature, albeit fleetingly.

    The Herring Gulls have been so dominant and noisy down here on the South Coast for years that they all but scared most other birds away. However, since the advent of communal bins on our street corners, which are emptied three times a week and used (in the main) quite sensibly, the blighters have had less grub to scavenge on and their dominance has waned a bit. We now have a family of blackbirds nesting next to our crappy little back yard, and their cheeky boldness is a thrill. Not very exotic, but you take what you can get.

  5. That's nice, John, I don't know it - thank you very much! Hope you had a good w/e too.

    Thank you too, ISBW - I admit I was glassy-eyed whilst writing it with the recollection becoming more vivid as I did so, and no happy ending! It's great that you now have your blackbirds; their intelligence and individual ways make them a joy to share one's space with...

  6. What a bitter-sweet but magical experience... lovely post. Thankyou.

  7. Ah thank you lml - much appreciated!

  8. This is such a great story about a Blue Tit. They're normally such a nervous bird, always flitting around my garden 'feeding station' seemingly never staying motionless for even a few seconds.....I would be completely honoured to have such a bird come to me.

    I've always had a huge love of birds ever since I discovered my first birds nest in a bush in my Dad's allotment in the late 1960s. I would have been no more than 5 years old. Holding a birds egg in my tiny hand was a revelation. Ever since that day I made it my duty to learn about and care for our feathered friends....

    1. Hi - thank you for dropping by and for the lovely comment! I've just been watching a bluetit this morning, flitting back and forth to the nest box so I'm hoping very much there will be a family in there this Spring. It always feels like a privilege when they choose to nest so close.
      That's so great that you had such an early experience and that it led you to care about/enjoy birds from then on. They give such pleasure, don't they? (and they don't even know it!)


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