Here’s how Blackbird and I developed our relationship and how she passed on that knowledge to her fledglings. I can only imagine, through human eyes, how the conversations went. I sometimes listen to the chattering of birds, the clicking, the tweeting and whistling noises they make, and I mimic them.
Unlike starlings, blackbirds are very tuneful. They have an elegant presence in the garden, and even in open spaces they don’t seem to be too nervous around humans. They are similar to robins in this respect. Both birds soon learn that gardeners digging the earth means worms for tea.
Things to ponder, thoughts to incubate and consider, while I tell the story of getting to know Blackbird.
This summer I believe the birds and I have learned from each other. How rude we humans are about our feathered friends sometimes, in our flippant use of language. We use the term ‘bird brain’ as a derogatory remark, yet on observation they are hugely intelligent and learn very quickly. To have ‘gone cuckoo’ refers to someone who has lost their mind, a cuckoo human is a drug dealer nesting in other people’s homes. Someone who is ‘flighty’ is inconsistent and unreliable. Yet the owl is imbued with being ‘wise.’
Blackbird built her nest in a large, deep bush safely hidden from cats, in a huge garden, at the top of a hill that leads down to a big river. No dogs or cats spend time in the garden and in all the time she has been nesting, there she will rarely have seen a human. Neither in the garden nor the house. The house is up for sale.
Very occasionally, she will have seen humans wander around inside and step into the garden. Then they go and all is quiet again. It provides a very safe space for her, but there has been very little gardening done, so not a lot of grubs or worms to feed on. Last year the owner used to put out bird food, but she is rarely there these days.
On her search for nourishment for her brood in the spring, she began to visit the gardens of the houses across the road where I live. The long Victorian terrace of tiny houses was constructed tightly in a line, swooping down to the Severn. Newnham was once a bustling port.
She flew up from her garden, over the high wall and perched on rooftops, watching what was happening below. She rarely saw anyone in the garden of no.1, though she knew people live there as she occasionally heard a young woman singing. The people in No.2 very rarely go into their garden. But the woman in no.3 (me) has been busy outside this year. For a while, there was someone here removing the wooden floor and gravelly surface, then turning the soil. Blackbird kept her eye on that and popped in for the odd worm when he had gone.
Eventually the work was finished and I started to plant things in the ground. Blackbird learned the sound of the back door opening and quickly flew down and crept up behind me, close to my feet. She tried to keep out of sight, hopping about like a shadow, because she needed to take every opportunity to grab worms for her fast growing fledglings in her nest. Sometimes I alarmed her.
“Ooo! You made me jump, hello little bird!”
She has never been scared by me, maybe because I sometimes passed a worm her way. I learned to recognise her as she has a thin line of white feathers around her neck. I’ve seen other birds bully her for this difference, so she is cautious about keeping a low profile. But she’s definitely not hiding from me.
Blackbird visited regularly as I replanted the garden. I brought in some well rotted horse manure, a perfect worm factory as all birds know. She enjoyed digging them out, alongside small plants, scratching out the soil with her feet, and kicking it, and the seedlings, out onto the slabs.
Her sleuthing skills developed well too. Every morning she listened at my window, and when she heard me visit the bathroom she dropped down onto the wall outside the window and called – ‘tut tut tut’. I replied from the window, looking down at her, “tut tut tut, good morning little bird, I won’t be long”.
Then one day I went into the shed near her back door, to fetch something. She hopped across the corrugated roof, making a loud pitter patter sound, and peered down at the entrance, waiting for me to emerge. I looked up at her and said ‘tut tut tut’. She cocked her head in wonder and responded ‘tut tut tut’. After we had repeated this exchange several times I scattered a handful of mealworms on the ground and went back into the house, closing the door behind me.
My first job of the day was always to go down and throw some mealworms out for her. She crunched and munched making a loud tip-tap noise with her beak on the concrete ground. She could hear her routine too – the loud clicking noise of the kettle, the clank of me washing up, water running, music and singing.
Once Blackbird was full herself, she gathered rows of mealworms, holding them across her beak and clamping them firmly in place. She then hopped up the twelve concrete steps one by one until she got to the top, where there was a clear flight path to her nest.
Up into the air, over the other gardens, high over a rooftop, then back down into the garden across the road. She did this round trip about four or five times a day, until either the mealworms ran out, or she was too exhausted to return. Her well fed fledglings got bigger and bigger until one day, the strongest was ready to learn to fly. After a few trips in the nest garden, she brought them to the feeding ground on a hunting trip. It’s easy pickings and the young need to learn not to depend on humans, but it is a safe place to start. They also need to navigate the predators and bullies.
Blackbird knows she is safe here, because I have been a reliable source of food for weeks. There have been a few days without, when I have been away, but rarely long until they are delivered again. She trusts me.
We have worked together to develop a safe space for her to eat. Throughout the summer the backdoor is left open. If there is no food outside, Blackbird hops into the house to remind me. I sense her arrival. When I look up from my book or computer I smile and talk to her in a sing-song way. She pauses and listens, then I stand up and go to fetch the mealworms. I usually feed her immediately, but sometimes if I was busy on a phone call I chased her out. Once she began to go upstairs, felt nervous when I caught her, pooed on the carpet, and nonchalantly went down again and casually hopped outside.
Things were going along fine, apart from Blackbird being occasionally attacked by other female blackbirds trying to get a look in, or males playing power games with her. I came up with a plan to help. When I put the food out we chatted a while before she ate. I leant against the doorway and watched her eating and occasionally the predators would hop into the area. I would call ’tut tut tut’ and talk to Blackbird in a reassuring way. The other birds were terrified by me and flew off rapidly. I watched over me until she had finished.
We must retain some boundaries.
The starling family presented more of a problem to her mealworm munching routine. They are raucous annoying birds that are pretty neurotic too. They act as one, a cloud of noise and aggression flying in all at once, scattering the mealworms with their crazy flapping wings. The wind they produce sends the food to the edges of the feeding area, underneath plant pots, trays and buckets. Stupid birds. They land and look baffled by the disappearance of the food. And the noise! Clicking, screeching and scrapping!
They are scared of me, I just have to clap my hands, or look out of the window and whoosh, off they go, bumping into each other, panicking. Blackbird stays put and eats calmly, knowing the I will keep the starlings at bay.
This sounds like a one-way deal, but it isn’t. She makes me happy. She chatters to me and tut tut tut’s. I always respond. Sometimes I sit down on the ground close to the mealworms and take photos, make films. Occasionally, when she enters the feeding area there is what must look like a one-eyed thing in the middle of the feed. It is my 360 camera. It makes no noise, doesn’t move at all, just sits there. There is a tiny light on its side that flashes, but it doesn’t worry her. Because I am nearby. And it is never there for long. Blackbird does look a bit baffled when she hears the videos on playback, relistening to our conversation.
It’s been a long summer and Blackbird successfully produced several fledglings. I didn’t see her for sometime, but the youngsters carried on visiting. From plump fluffballs to almost adult blackbirds, their feathers changed colour and became more glossy. Some have fine patterns in pale gold, others more orangey and bold. They all have just a few white feathers, some on their neck, like their mother, others just under one wing. One black male who has gained his deep black sheen quite early, has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing – very distinguished!
I wrote this in September, today is 24th December. There has been a male blackbird visiting this week. I have restarted the mealworm ritual.
He isn’t scared of me and comes closer when I tut-tut-tut.
He has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing.