I seem to have built up a relationship with a blackbird. I didn’t consciously set out to do so. But maybe subconsciously I did.
A few years ago I had a cat, Theo, who was from a rehoming place. He was semi-wild and mostly wanted feeding regularly, slept most of the day and hunted at night. He did come for cuddles and the nights he didn’t venture out I would wake up to find him asleep on my back. He was with me for less than a year before being hit by a car. I vowed not to get another cat while in this house. In all fairness to Theo, he had to go to the road side of my house because the neighbours’ big ginger tom cat ruled the back garden.
About two years ago I succumbed to the fact that really, I’d like a dog. I have always had dogs living with me. Born into a house with one, throughout my child-rearing days I had two cats, two dogs and two kids. I have always joked that my mother, when calling my sister, brother and I used to shout “Stephen, Susan, Sarah (dog), Whisky (cat) and (finally), Carolyn – come here!”
I don’t think I did that to my kids, they always came first, both of them. But the animals were never far behind.
Come the pandemic I have been unable to find a dog companion. The fence I was having put up just before March 2020 was delayed for a year. Now that is done, dog prices have gone sky high. They are being stolen from gardens, imported from far and wide and bred unscrupulously. I look patiently and hopefully at the dog homes, Facebook pages and other sources. I am morally confused by the worry that I may be taking a stolen dog, one from a puppy farm or imported for profit. And my house is small, very small, I need a suitably small dog, but not so small it has bladder control problems.
Enter Blackbird. I have not fed garden birds much before, mostly due to not wishing to serve them up to the ginger tom cat. Or my ex-cat, who was big on birding and ratting. Feeders tended to be unvisited and subsequently emptied of mouldy food, washed, and put away. But this year is different, partly because I travel far less, so I can top up feeders regularly. And that includes throwing handfuls of mealworms out for the ground feeders.
The regular feeding brought regular visitors, including adult birds with families. Blackbird was amongst them. She has mild albinism, which apparently can result in the others victimising them. She is smaller than the other females, less fluffy, and always looks a bit scratty. But I soon became aware she is very cheeky. Frequently I would hear one ‘peep’ and would look down to find her nearby. Not at all scared by me, unless I moved suddenly. I made sure she got a fair grab of food and gradually began to protect her from the aggression from other birds. They flew off as soon as I moved, but she took no notice of me. Apart from, I am sure, a little nod of her head and eye contact as she showed her appreciation.
It wasn’t long before she began to appear on the wall every morning when I got up, announcing her arrival with a loud fluttering of wings followed by her loud peep and a perky cocked head. When I leave the garden door open she nonchalantly hops up the step and comes looking for me. If I tell her to get out, she poos on the floor. I am not impressed by this. She is, I think, expressing her contempt at being ignored. Like a bolchy teenager. Note – no, my children didn’t do that, in case you were wondering.
So, finally, I shall tell you why this story is relevant to my art practice.
Wind back about three years, when I acquired a 360 degree camera. I explored ways of working with it and one output was a series of walks made circular using special software. A selection came together as a film: 12 Circular Walks.
I could have used the 360 to make immersive environments, but soon realised that wasn’t for me. Whilst I enjoy that experience, I much prefer the real world and being in it.
As Blackbird now trusts me, it wasn’t difficult to bribe her to do a circular walk for me, by placing the camera in the centre of a ring of food. The challenge was keeping the others away and preventing territorial fighting, in case they knocked over the camera. At one point, as I watched, the feeding birds all froze and looked up to see a huge dove about to launch off the wall. Whilst it momentarily occurred to me it would make great footage, it occurred to me simultaneously that if that dove flew down it could break my camera with one beat of a wing. So I intervened to save the day. And my camera.
Blackbird and I are rehearsing regularly now. I joked about me training her to walk in circles, but the truth is, I suspect she is training me to feed her. And she has done it very well.
It is so easy to slip into the humans-are-all-seeing-all-knowing perspective, proposing that non-humans, by their definition, are lacking what we have. But maybe it is us that is lacking? Maybe humans should be described as non-animal? But that wouldn’t work, as being ‘animal-like’ is used as a derogatory term. We need to rethink this, I’m not convinced we are worthy of holding dominance over other creatures, or, indeed, material objects. Look at the mess we have made so far.
A plump fledgling sometimes joins Blackbird and is equally unphased by me. I wonder if this is a risk, that her young might become dangerously fearless of humans? As they need to be. We are a perpetual danger to ourselves and others.
I have looked up how to hand train wild birds. I don’t feel that is wise. Being wild is important. Whilst researching blackbirds I discovered that in America keeping wild american birds in captivity is illegal. But they can keep european birds, including blackbirds as caged pets.
I feel privileged to have this trust from her, but don’t want to damage her by making her dependent on me. But she is very hard to ignore now!
Getting a balance between the human relationship with the non-human is a tricky thing.