This is the story of four blackbirds who share our lives in Richmond. One was the source of conflict; two helped resolve the difference; the fourth was a present given to mark the resolution. The conflict, which although important to me may well appear to others as trivial, centred around a full-sized painting of a male blackbird. The two helpers were a blackbird couple who were feeding in our garden; the gift, a life-size blackbird statue in tin.
My wife, Rohan has a penchant for birds. She has a large collection of owls, loves blue tits and has a particular soft spot for blackbirds. For me it was only the smaller birds that were endearing. Seeing robins, chaffinches, blue tits and even the tiny wren flitting in and out of the bushes or eating seeds on the ground has always been a delight. Recently, however, in an unexpected conversion, my love for these smaller birds has been displaced by a closer feeling for blackbirds, especially the one in that painting.
It came as no surprise when, eight years ago, Rohan bought the blackbird picture. I tried to dissuade her; apart from it having a most unusual subject, I saw it as quirky, overpriced and with little aesthetic appeal. She, however, had fallen for it and home it came. Occasionally I have repeated my original concerns but the picture has remained prominently on display.
One of our main rooms at home is a glass-panelled conservatory. It protrudes into – almost takes over – our tiny back garden. Sitting there at breakfast allows a panoramic view in which birds can have few secrets. It is from there that I have been wowed by their behaviour.
Everything centres on feeding – ours and theirs. Several weeks ago and during our breakfasts, a male blackbird began to fly into the garden. Every day he would stand on our garden table and look at us through the window – later sometimes even standing at the door – with what became a customary demand for food. Soon, before sitting down for our breakfast, I would go out and put a row of raisins on the garden table. If he had not yet arrived, I whistled my version of a blackbird song to bring him in. In response to my song it was not long before he was appearing within minutes. If he was already in the garden my ‘tune’ was more of a greeting whistle. In time and in response to demand, raisins were being put out several times a day. It was also the case that he was joined by a female partner.
It was soon clear that these two birds behave very differently. Typically, ‘he’ perches cautiously on the garden wall, then flits to the garden bench, flies to the table, hops gingerly across to the raisins and, after much decision-making, takes one from one end of the line. Next he flies off to one of either two flower-beds, plays with the raisin and swallows it bit by bit. After that he takes a drink from a flower pot base, cleans his beak and goes back for a second, sometimes a third. Once, as he was eating, two wood pigeons landed close by, no doubt wanting some pickings. In response, he ran headlong at them with his beak out stretched. They took fright and left.
‘She’, by contrast, typically lands directly on the table, walks quickly to the raisins, takes one from anywhere along the line, and flies off swallowing her prey whole as she goes. No dithering; no drinking; no cleaning for her. Once she knocked a raisin on to the ground. She immediately looked over to see where it was, and within minutes came back, landed under the table and collected the dropped morsel.
It was by watching their behaviour and by identifying with their quasi-human ways, that my attitude has changed; now the once-disliked picture gives a very different message. Converted, I will sit and stare at it with pleasure and affection. His yellow beak and a real, black-feathered tail, both of which extend out over the sides of the frame and which I once saw as excessive, I now see as cheekily amusing. His body and head, brought into relief by means of papier-mâché, which I once felt were not the stuff of art, I now see as bold. The pale blue background dotted with clouds arranged in feint lines created by a musical score by Gabriel Fauré, which I once saw as trivial, I now see as whimsical. I love it all; its very quirkiness is ingenious, its original price a bargain.
It was to celebrate my conversion that the blackbird statue was presented to me by some friends. By representing approval, his presence is important too.
Once again, through changing my mind, my life has been enhanced. Who would have though that two blackbirds could do that?