Tawny Clark counts down the twelve birds of Christmas
A Tittering of twelve piebald magpies, leaping about like peers at a Christmas party. ‘Good morning m’Lord’. A Parliament, a Mischief. An entrenched obsession with stealing shiny things, our shiny things. Five gold rings? Noisily they bicker and squabble. One magnificent fellow sits atop the washing-line post, surveying the garden with beady eye. His long, illustrious tail feathers stretch out like a tight-rope walker’s pole, helping him balance against the blustering gusts of December – although sensibly he opts not to step out onto the line.
Eleven rowdy starlings impose a screen-break I’d neglected to take. Their raucous visits, a reminder to top up the food which is being swiftly devoured before my eyes. Work focus is fruitless whilst these ‘reptilian’ birds jostle gregariously for fatballs. Delighting their audience, they hover like iridescent hummingbirds at the feeders draped from skeletal Rowan branches. A few snatched moments of mindful distraction. Even from the desk, through the window, nature strives to unite, to connect with us. Watching wild wings and daydreaming of flight is a soothing balm for life right now.
Ten herring gulls, a coven of cackling witches perched along roof ridges and wooden fences. Numbers swell when bread is tossed on next door’s lawn. Taking turns to dive for scraps, they run the gauntlet as their feline foe secretly crouches – tail twitching – beneath the picnic table. If washing is on the line, the perpetual debate: sigh in resignation, or move like a dancing lady to whisk it inside to safety. To blow dry in the West Wales winter (or any time of year!) is a satisfying victory, but guano-smears will force a frustrating re-wash. This time, I mutter through clenched jaw and leave fate and forecast to determine the score.
A Host, or Quarrel of nine house sparrows in viburnum branches. They dust the blushed pink blooms with a fervent flurry. Enticed away from the manicured hedges of one street over by the buffet of nutrient-rich nibbles and the dishevelled flower border awash with untidied-away seed heads. To see sparrows hustle in the garden is a life-affirming hug from a long-lost friend.
Eight feral pigeons skulk and strut across the roof tiles, as I belatedly plant spring bulbs. Perpetually unprepared for disturbance, they repeatedly thunder into the air with chest-fluttering force. The noise is designed to warn of danger – although it makes me wonder if other species have learnt to ignore such melodramatics, as none but me appears distracted from their occupation. Once the rapid heartbeat abates, peace and planting resumes.
A clattering Train of seven Jackdaws passes overhead, although only one pauses to assess the proffered feast. Solemn and methodical it stalks the lawn. Jackdaws have an affinity with people, they say. Communicating like humans – through eye contact – we feel they understand us. Lock eyes with a jackdaw and it will gaze upon the deepest, darkest secrets of your soul. ‘Mi welais Jac y do’. The Jackdaw too has a fondness for shiny things. Is it he instead who has those five gold rings?
A Banditry of six blue tits hop, skip, and jump through the willow den to reach the feeders. Clutching tightly to the Barra bending stems, their blue caps are at risk of blowing from their heads. I want to throw the doors wide and bellow, ‘Come inside’. These adorable pick-cheeses cause less nuisance nowadays, but beak-pecked milk bottle top childhood memories will always make me smile.
Accentors assemble. Five polyamorous dunnocks frolic in the fallen leaves. It’s the quiet ones to watch out for. These dowdy, unassuming birds are said to have quite the raunchy and impetuous sex life. The absence of avian paternity tests is perhaps what makes them the ideal target for the scandalous cuckoo?
A Bevy of four smartly dressed collared doves coo contentedly from an apple tree. They perch and preen pleasurably until the Tribe of magpie Lords reappears and shouts, ‘Oi, get off our land!’
A trio of blackbirds stab and flick the un-swept, leaf-topped grass. They pick at rotting apples and play musical statues on the welly-muddied lawn to the music of passing cars, barking dogs and jovial, ‘Howdy do’s’. Their festive comradery contrasts to the bitter rivalry of spring when orange beaks clash like vicious swords for the garden territory.
A couplet of wrens, tails merrily on high, hop like rotund field mice between terracotta pots. Dryw, in Welsh, folklore abounds with depictions of the Hunting of the Wren, the widely practiced but thankfully long ceased winter solstice tradition to bring luck for the coming season.
And finally, the man of the hour arrives. The herald of yuletide. The icon of Christmas. The festive celebrations can at last commence as a red-breasted robin alights in a dwarf apple tree.
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