Review: Fledgling by Hannah Bourne-Taylor
It is the start of May and, here in West Wales, I’m eagerly scanning the skies. Any day now the swifts, having travelled thousands of miles from Africa, will return for three months to their nests made of straw and saliva in tall buildings and church towers.
It is very special to read about swifts when they are due back and Fledgling, by Hannah Bourne-Taylor, provides another world that we earth-dwellers could never encounter.
Another world that goes far beyond the spectacle of the swifts’ aerobatics in the sky as they catch food in flight.
This enchanting debut nature memoir captures both the heart and the mind, allowing for smiles, tears and a very different perspective into the world of birds.
In Fledgling, Hannah Bourne-Taylor magically recounts the rescuing, hand rearing and release of two birds back into the wild. She has bravely allowed the human world, which she once felt on the edge of, the most intimate of welcomes into her personal experiences.
This is, without doubt, one of the greatest love stories of all time. It is also one of the greatest survival stories of all time, of which I am in awe.
Anxiety and despair
As a ‘trailing spouse’, Bourne-Taylor lived in rural Ghana with her husband Robin between 2013 and 2021. This was a time of much loneliness having left a busy life of family and friends for a concrete flat that resembled entombment, ‘I felt myself shrinking, muttering, stumbling’.
Staying at home all day with no one to talk to in an unfamiliar place, Bourne-Taylor began to spiral into a hollow world of anxiety and despair.
Ultimately, it is nature that brings her back to life. Within this memoir, which is so beautifully dense with descriptions of place, Bourne-Taylor lovingly explains how the birds, a swift and a finch, allow her to feel again, ‘he led me to realise the joys of living in the moment’.
The birds brought a reality to her life. She became even more aware of the wild.
The swift and the finch are both strong characters and so well-articulated in detail, ‘Its wings were the colour of brown satchel leather, its breast was buff, the colour of rich tea biscuits’.
Despite only rearing the swift for two weeks before its heartachingly powerful roller coaster release back into the wild, the writing allows the reader to lovingly bond with the bird, ‘we existed together in that moment, our heartbeats meeting through skin and feather’.
It is such a heartwarming moment when the swift climbs up and nestles into Bourne-Taylor’s collarbone, ‘a huge nest for us both’.
The finch has such a vivid personality and reminds me of a miniscule, feathered child. He is quizzical, curious and communicative, and I can imagine his ‘frantic twittering for food’ alongside my four children at our dining room table in Carmarthen.
The way in which Bourne-Taylor describes his movements are both comical and heartwarming, ‘the little bird lost its balance, teetering for a moment before rolling backwards’.
He reminds me of my stubborn one year old who is attempting to independently negotiate stairs. Raising children and birds is a full-time commitment.
Last year, my friends Beth and Rich found a sparrow hatchling in a nest that had been disturbed. By the end of the day the parent birds had not returned. The hatchling must have only been a few days old, blind, unfeathered, and clumsy.
It did not yet resemble a bird as we know it, the bright pink skin taught against tiny muscles and bone, dark patches running down its spine. Every twenty minutes it demanded food by flinging its quivery head back with sudden force, its bright yellow mouth gaping wide.
Thankfully, Beth and Rich were able to take it to the specialised Gower Bird Hospital in Pennard on the Gower Peninsular, a charity which cares for sick, injured and orphaned wild birds and animals.
Their sole intention is to return them to the wild. No such place existed in Ghana for Hannah Bourne-Taylor, and she had sole responsibility for the finch for 84 days.
This is a memoir of contrasts: England and Ghana; human and wild; despair and fulfilment; and Bourne-Taylor cleverly describes it all with a gentle sensory that packs a punch.
She paints with words using an artist’s palette and can take us from her Oxford garden with ‘wisps of wisteria’, ‘pin pricks of purple’ viola and the ‘motoring purr of bumblebees’, to the African ‘sea of green grassland’ giving way to ‘brittle greying twigs (that) snap underfoot’ and ‘white star like petals of the Carissa shrubs’.
I could go on, the imagery that Bourne-Taylor breathes to life on the dry pages of her book is exquisite.
The story is expertly structured and weaves in other wildlife encounters, including Bourne-Taylor saving insects from her swimming pool and rescuing a Pangolin, the world’s most trafficked animal, from an illegal roadside seller.
By saving these animals, Bourne-Taylor is also saving herself, ‘I felt the strongest feeling of joy, a feeling that eclipsed everything bad, everything unfair, everything cruel so that the world seemed to be made of hope’.
With skill, Bourne-Taylor is able to lull you under nature’s magical spell before shattering it, throwing you to the harsh reality of the wild. It is both humbling and shocking.
Fledgling is a must for everyone, gently catapulting the reader beyond the realms of current understanding. Bourne-Taylor’s words bring messages of hope, identity and belonging. Kind and courageous, she encapsulates the importance of family, including feathered and furred. She has two Ghanaian rescue dogs.
And just as Bourne-Taylor begins and ends Fledgling by casting her eyes to the skies for the swifts, I shall too. Later I shall gaze upwards, dog at my side, and hope to catch the year’s first magical glimpse of a swift.
Note from front of book: If you come across a bird (or animal) you believe needs help, seek urgent advice before intervening because it is extremely stressful for a wild creature to be handled and it might not be in its best interest. The Wildlife Trusts have useful and thorough advice or search online for your local wildlife sanctuary or the RSCPA. wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-advice.
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