During a week in June, my approach to birds changed radically. For years my interest in birdlife had been limited to garden visitors such as robins, wrens, chaffinches and blue tits. Rarely had I bothered about those further afield. Indeed, during walks in the countryside it is ‘disinterest’ that would have characterised my approach; field birds were invisible. Over seven days everything changed as Jeni, our house guest in Tréguennec, opened my eyes, ears and mind and made me see birds as essential viewing.

This was Jeni’s second visit. On the first occasion her overriding interests were travel, politics and learning languages. Now she had a new passion – she has become a committed ‘birder’. Jeni insists that she is not a serious ‘bird watcher’, nor a fanatical ‘twitcher’; she is simply someone who loves to look at, listen to, and if possible identify, the birds around.

After breakfast, each day starts with a short walk. On our first morning, the extent of Jeni’s passion was soon obvious; she saw or heard birds everywhere. They could be in a nearby bush or in the sky so far away that I could see nothing; no matter where, we would have to stop to take stock. Birds close by she identified by naked eye plus hints from the song and the behaviour. Those in the sky or perched in a distant tree, would require binoculars and after a moment’s observation there would be an announcement. Early on one went: ‘From the shape of its beak, tail and wings and from the way it flies, it’s a buzzard’. A bird that moments earlier was non-existent, had become a named living entity that could not be overlooked.

Throughout the week Jeni remained enthralled. Moreover, the pleasure she got from birding was contagious. One afternoon she returned to the house flushed with excitement and hardly able to contain herself. After an hour in our garden enjoying the sounds and sights of various warblers, an adult male bullfinch (see illustration), with its magnificent red chest, suddenly appeared in a thicket. Spotting him so close gave her such joy that she repeated the story again and again. It was difficult not to share her pleasure.

It was with similar enthusiasm that, on one of our longer walks, she smiled with delight as she saw a dozen or so swifts flying just above us. We were on the edge of an escarpment and they were looking for insects. Normally swifts hunt 50 – 100 metres up, feeding on the wing. A trick of the topography meant they were flying unusually low. And there was more excitement to come. Suddenly they swooped down into the valley below, so now she had a unique aerial view; never before had she looked down on the backs of wheeling, swirling swifts.

In all this birding, her enjoyment was infectious, but it spread further than just looking at the birds themselves, she also recruited us into noting their songs, calls and behaviour. I soon found myself listening out for their songs to summon up a mate and to establish territory; or calls to warn off or alert others to predators or to reassure young nestlings. Often Jeni could hear songs that passed me by and in this there was some irony. She uses hearing aids and by tuning them in a particular way, she was able to pick out the various higher pitched songs with relative ease.

At the end of the week, by which time we were entirely hooked on birding, there was a moment in which we saw bird behaviour ‘in tooth and claw’. Jackdaws are incessant chatterers, but this time above us was a flock of around fifty jackdaws shouting. Before Jeni had a chance to say that something must be seriously wrong she pointed to an intruding bird of prey in the centre of the flock being dive-bombed by one jackdaw after another. The intruder was unwelcome and had to make a quick getaway. Working together, the flock of jackdaws, each half the size of the raptor, had won.

As I became increasingly caught up in her birding fever, she told how changes in the environment were threatening nature everywhere. How the traditional balance between birds and other species is being dangerously thrown by herbicides, insecticides, damaging fertilisers, changing agricultural practices and the destruction of traditional habitats such as trees and hedgerows.

Over the week, Jeni identified over fifty different species. In addition to the buzzard, the bullfinch and our everyday garden visitors her haul included bee eaters, skylarks, a range of warblers and buntings, other raptors, ringed plovers and a yellowhammer. Importantly, with all this, she opened my eyes to a world I had chosen to ignore and in so doing she has enabled me to break my bird barrier. How could I have overlooked them for so long?

The illustration shows an adult male bullfinch.

For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.

12 thoughts on “Through the Brain Barrier

  1. Dear Prof.,
    I’m amazed that it’s taken you so long to discover the joy provided by our little feathered pals.
    I sleep with bedroom windows wide open so that I awake to the symphony of the dawn chorus. If you provide food and resting and residential habitats for them, you soon begin to identify individuals from the same species. It’s very comforting and therapeutic.


    1. Dear John,
      Many thanks for your comment. Like you, I greatly enjoy the dawn chorus and love seeing the ‘domestic’ wild birds when they appear in our garden. It was the discovery of so many birds flitting around in the countryside in my erstwhile blind spot that was such a revelation.
      PS Yesterday a friend in France asked me what song I normally sing to cheese to improve its taste!


  2. Cher Joe, il y a des gens comme toi, et comme Jeni, dont j’ai eu le plaisir de faire – mais trop rapidement- la connaissance, qui nous ouvrent les yeux et les oreilles sur une sorte de contemplation jubilatoire de la nature, en nous faisant entrer en elle, en nous rappelant que nous en faisions partie, que nous en sommes un élément. Tu te souviens de votre champs de coquelicots à Tréguennec ? Depuis, chaque fois que je vois chez moi un bourdon, je l’accueille joyeusement : salut Bourdon ! Bienvenue dans mes coquelicots! dis à tes copains qu’ils peuvent venir aussi ! merci Joe, merci Jeni ! je vous aime !


  3. Dear Joe,
    you have indeed encouraged me to listen more and look up to the sky to catch sight of our feathered friends. Thank you Jeni,
    Love Grace.


    1. Dear Andrea, Many thanks for your comment. How lucky you were to spot bull-finches in your garden. Odd though it might seem, it was the idea of discovering a new world that was very exciting too. It must mean that there are hundreds of other new areas just around the corner. All very exciting. Love, Joe
      PS I will have a go at listening to the BBC Tweets when I get back.


  4. Tweet tweet Joe: ‘Lovely blog Joe’ … really enjoyed reading about another, amazing wonder of your surrounding world you’ve discovered.


  5. A late comment, Joe – sorry – but as you know I read and much enjoyed the blog two weeks ago when you posted it. I feel privileged to have been the inspiration for one of your blogs. It was a truly lovely week with you, Rohan (and the birds of Brittany) and some of your inspirational friends who I met. I am so pleased that your interest in your avian neighbours was piqued during my visit and promise to send you my full list of sightings when I next put fingers to keyboard. Thank you again for a fabulous holiday – your hospitality and friendship are always hugely appreciated. XXX


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