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Our Bird Teachers

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Why do birds sing?

The first day of February marks the traditional Celtic festival of Imbolc and is recognised as the start of Spring. Imbolc falls half-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox as the days begin to lengthen and the sun rises ever higher in the sky. For humans these cosmological changes are imperceptible – it still feels like winter – but our other-than-human brethren know that the Wheel of the Year is turning.

This morning as I went out into the garden, I was stopped in my tracks by the birdsong. It was as if a switch had been flicked between the last day of January and the first day of February, and the birds knew it. All around me were myriad beings flitting and flirting – a song thrush, a male and female blackbird, a male chaffinch his slate blue and rose gold plumage glowing in the sun’s rays, a pair of robins, a veritable charm of goldfinches, a dunnock whose song I adore, and a wren somewhere in the undergrowth, heard but not seen. I was astounded by the variety, vibrancy and volume of their songs. What do they know? So, I looked up the meaning of birdsong. The scientists tell us that they begin to sing when it is time to find a mate and to stake out their territory; and apparently, to ‘sing off any excess fat’ so that they can escape predation. I find that last supposition less credible than supposing that they are singing for joy and the coming of Spring.

We have befriended a robin in our garden. He (or she, it’s hard to tell), will fly onto my outstretched hand and take a suet pellet and down it in one. Of late he will linger on my hand and take a couple of pellets at a time and has even been known to extract one from the lips of my partner, Robin, who is well-named to have such an intimate relationship with our feathered friend.

Yet when he has had his fill, he will sit on the maple tree opposite our back door and burble the most delightful song, looking us in the eyes, just as if he is communicating with us, trying to tell us something. He’s not burning off fat, that’s for sure. We burble back and tell him that we love him, and we feel an authentic, deep connection with this wild creature who has found a way into our hearts. We would never put a slug pellet down, nor spray a weed in case it adversely affected him, or any of the biodiversity in our garden for that matter. This interspecies relationship constantly teaches us compassion, respect, trust and humility.

And most of all, he teaches us about tenacity and resilience. I see him in the pouring rain fluttering about the garden, scattering the mulch under the hellebores looking for a tasty morsel, and my heart goes out to him. How does he survive this constant wet? I worry for his wellbeing. Then just as the light fades and I look out of my window one final time before darkness encroaches, I see him dunking himself in the birdbath, splashing the water under his wings and all over his body and I can hardly believe he’s doing this just as night falls, without hope of the sun warming and drying him. But it is then I realise he has a different relationship to rain than me; he doesn’t resist it, he surrenders to it, he is in relationship with it just like he is with me. This little bird is my guru.

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