This Christmas I got an early present from my boyfriend, a little bird to go on our tree. He bought it for me because I’d previously mentioned a similar tree decoration that I’d had as a kid. It was a similar sized little bird with wire on its feet to attach it to the tree, but the decoration I remember from my childhood was a robin (as far as I can tell this new bird is an as yet undiscovered species – my bird book doesn’t have any promising leads either). In fact, I remember picking out the robin. We’d driven out to a farm to buy our tree, I must have been about 9 or so, and there was a little shop on the farm with a selection of decorations.
I chose the robin because I wanted it to be real. I wanted my own pet bird. Not a caged one that lived in the house, but a real, wild bird that lived in a nest, but that would come to visit and play.
In fact, the robin wasn’t my first imaginary pet bird. A few years earlier (or maybe it was after the robin, it is frustratingly difficult to set childhood memories in chronological order), whilst playing in the trees at the end of my best friend’s garden, we found an injured bird. Except that it wasn’t a real bird, it wasn’t even an object that looked like a bird, it was a scrap of thin air, completely imaginary. We decided to rescue the bird and take it to the vets (i.e. my best friend’s garden shed), where she proceed to play the role of vet (I was the assistant, fetching whatever garden tool was needed). We named the bird Merit and somehow decided that it was a he, though to my mind at least, he looked like and was about the size of a female blackbird.
After Merit’s recovery, he became part of our games. He even flew around above our heads as we played British bulldog and Grandma’s footsteps in the school playground. He also took it in turns to visit us in the evening at our houses. It was these visits that eventually brought about Merit’s downfall. One day, I mentioned to my friend that Merit had visited me last night, to which my friend responded that he had in fact visited her last night. And just like that, the illusion crumbled.
I have since (I hasten to add) grown out of believing that a robin or a blackbird would make a suitable playmate. Part of me is saddened by this. I look at my new Christmas decoration and though I’m fond of it, I can’t imagine pretending it is real, I’m not sure I could pretend even if I tried. On the other hand, it is probably a good thing (not least because such behaviour is frowned upon in adults – except, strangely enough, when that adult happens to be a writer, which is perhaps just another way of being a kid again).
In Field Notes From a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson, the author mentions a letter she has seen in the newspaper from a man asking why the birds he feeds and attends to in his garden won’t approach him and seem so distrustful. Woolfson suspects that there is a deeper meaning to the man’s question, that it hints at a desire many of us have to be accepted into the lives and emotional ambit of other creatures. But, as Woolfson points out, gratitude isn’t part of the bargain. Small birds avoid humans precisely because such behaviour ensures that they survive, to expect them to behaviour otherwise and admonish their behaviour is to head down a very slippery, anthropomorphising slope. Even robins, which are known to get very close to humans (I have enjoyed this experience myself), can behave very viciously towards other robins. But that is the point that Woolfson is ultimately trying to make – by projecting certain qualities on to small birds, and other animals, we fail to see them for what they are, so we call pigeons ‘rats with wings’, whilst we adorn our Christmas cards with cute robins.
What dark and savage thoughts lie behind those bright eyes then, little bird?