There is more to spying than international espionage. Forget the events that forced Edward Snowden to take up residence in Moscow, Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London Embassy, or the conversation that led to a Richmond spy’s confession [Secret Newsagent, Greyhares blog, 9 April, 2014], in reality spying or being spied upon is a mundane, everyday affair. Spying or snooping is part of the human – indeed the animal – condition. And while sometimes it is necessary for survival, mostly it is a way of passing the time of day and even having fun.
Just a week ago I realised that we, or more precisely our garden, was under surveillance. The spying was aerial and the leader was… but more of that later! We had recently arrived in Brittany and for the first five days there was not a bird to be seen – not a robin, not a chaffinch, not even a sparrow. It was spring and, while we could hear their chirping, seeing nothing in our trees or on our slate-tiled roofs was most odd; in fact eerie.
Perhaps the birds could be lured back with seeds. The packet we brought, which was labelled for ‘small garden birds’, contained some larger sun-flower seeds but the majority of the grains were no longer than a few millimetres. Before filling our bird table and the flat top of a tree stump, my wife and I starting taking bets on who would arrive first and how long the victor would take. In fact, betting soon stopped as we both agreed that it would be a chaffinch, and after around fifteen minutes. Why a chaffinch, and a male at that? Well, apart from being one of our favourite birds because of its blue coloured cap and its beautiful unshowy, coppery-pink, fading into rusty-red chest, I see it also as alert and inquisitive and daring but careful and sensibly prudent. To put things into context, part of the reasoning for the fifteen-minute delay was that there could have been no expectancy – no seeds had been put out for at least two months.
We sat and waited for the first arrival. We were right about the species – the winner was a chaffinch; but very wrong about the timing – it took around thirty seconds. And soon the chaffinch was joined by others, which now included some aggressive green fiches. Moreover, with daily seed refills their visits have continued unabated.
The alacrity of the ‘winner’ reveals much about the spying of chaffinches. It must be that they are continuously looking out for sustenance. Unbeknownst to us they are flying or perching overhead with eyes skinned. As soon as they see their quarry, here some tiny grains, they fly down, inspect, check for danger, move up close, taste and swallow. Then it is off to let others know about their find so allowing them to follow suit. It is clear that birds are spying all the time.
My own spying is of a rather different nature. Perhaps some might see it as more nosiness but whatever the name, I have enjoyed doing it for ever, and the results can be heart warming. For most of my working life I cycled to work. During the 1980s my route took me along Earlsfield High Street in South London. The street is lined by small shops interspersed by modest houses. Most days at around 8.30 I would pass a short three house terrace set back a little from the street with poorly attended front gardens occupied mainly by dustbins, bicycles or prams.
From my hundreds of fleeting images gathered over around ten years, I pieced together three-minutes in the life of the portly man in the middle house as he was setting off for work – or so I imagined. He would come out of his front door, turn round to lock it, and then walk slowly to leave by his front gate. As he closed the gate he would turn back again and wave goodbye. Despite years of looking I never saw to whom he waived. Then, on just the one occasion, the lace curtain in a top floor window parted and a face came to the widow. What I had always assumed was his wife was in fact a tabby cat. Here was a companionship of a specially close nature!
Unlike for the chaffinch, where spying was a matter of survival not just for him but his nestlings, my nosiness and the resolution of the mystery of who the man left behind each morning, gave enormous pleasure. Perhaps that is the main reason why we humans do it.