All through the early summer I watched blue tits flying in and out of the nesting boxes, one fixed to the wall among the rambling roses in the garden, the other next to the apricot tree in the orchard.
First, they seemed to be just visiting, maybe to check out the site: was it dry? too much in the sun or too shaded? safe from cats? After a while they started flying to and fro with straw, wool and other bits and pieces to build their nests. I had to be quick to see them, as they would flit to the box from a perch some distance away and slip through the hole in no time at all.
There was a bit of a pause while, as I imagine, the eggs were laid, incubated and hatched. Then came the busy time. In the garden two adults flew back and forth with grubs in their beaks, popped through the hole, then out again immediately to fly off on a never ending food hunt. If we humans were too close, they would hop about anxiously in the rose branches until we retired to a safe distance. When all was really quiet, our ears might catch a soft flurry of wings; sometimes, we fancied we heard the click of claws clutching the edge of the entrance hole.
I was not aware of baby birds fledging and flying off – maybe I was away at the critical time – for suddenly, around midsummer, the busyness stopped.
In the orchard, after the initial nest-building time, there didn’t seem to be so much activity. I thought maybe there was only one bird coming and going, although it was difficult to be sure. After a while, visits to the nestbox stopped. And I thought little more of it.
It wasn’t till the end of summer, late August, when early signs of autumn became evident, that I thought about the birds again. The apples had turned red, their weight drawing the branches downwards; squirrels were attacking the unripe hazel nuts, dropping the broken cases on the ground along the path; the jackdaws that nest by the chimneys, their number swollen by this year’s youngsters, flocked around the rooftops every evening before roosting. I was securing the summer’s growth of the apricot to the wall. While I had the steps out I thought to slip the lid off the box and look inside.
The bottom of the box was packed with straw and dry grass. In the middle was beautifully round indentation, such that I could almost feel the pressure of the bird’s breast that had formed it to just the right size and shape. It was lined with finer material: wool, a few feathers, bits of moss. I was reminded of John Clare’s many poems about birds’ nests, their loveliness and the intimacy with the natural world that his writing reveals:
…dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair…
In the bottom of the nest were eight tiny eggs, off-white, speckled with russet brown. And as I saw them there, abandoned, I caught my breath and let out sigh, feeling both some incoherent sense of sadness and the privilege of touching something so wildly other.
Leaving the nest as it was, I put the lid back and carried the ladder through to the garden to check the other box. I found a nest there too, but no eggs. There were no eggshells, either, to show that there had been chicks – but I knew that many birds take the shells out of the nest once the chicks had hatched to confuse predators. So it seemed that one nest had hatched, the other had failed.
I remained strangely touched by the image of abandoned eggs in the nest. I wondered if it was too close to where I had been trying to grow vegetables, my presence too disturbing. Maybe it was too much in the sun, maybe a sparrowhawk had caught the adult, or maybe tending the nest was too much for the lone bird. I knew that many nests fail, for all sorts of reasons. I knew that some males mate with two females and leave one hen to rear the chicks alone. And of course, I knew that many more eggs would be laid than hatch, and many more chicks fledge than would make it to adulthood, for that is the way of the wild.
One afternoon in late December I walked up to the orchard to catch a bit of winter sun. On impulse I fetched the steps from the shed, climbed again to the box. This time, I carefully lifted the nest out and carried it back to the house. It is sitting on my desk next to me as I write; it has lost some of its neatness and it beginning to crumble. Every time I look at it I am touched by its loveliness and saddened by the failure it represents: it is not a huge grief, but a poignant noticing of the vulnerability of life.
In these times of accelerating species loss, and as the numbers of wild birds continues to decline at an alarming rate, the living world needs all the successful broods it can get. But there was more than a rational calculation. It seems a bit of a cliché to say that this nest and those eight little eggs found a place in my heart. Yet it offered me a very direct connection with the more-than-human world that carries on around my urban life. For that, I am grateful.
About the Contributor
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy - Michael McCarthy
Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and joy (London: John Murray, 2015) tracks the ‘great thinning’, the loss of beings in the more than human world. In particular he details the loss of butterflies: he tells how as a child he was mesmerised by the profusion of coloured gems on the buddleia in his parents' garden. The ‘moth snowstorm’ of the title refers to the sticky mass of insects that would adhere to a car’s windscreen on a warm summer evening’s drive in the countryside. The extraordinary reduction of insect numbers means that only the boomer generation will remember this phenomenon. McCarthy goes on to argue that we will only stop this devastating loss once we rediscover the experience of intense happiness, of joy in our encounter with the world about us.
More from Issue Six:
- Give Sorrow Words by Anna Vaught
- Pull me in by Melissa Fu
- Variations on Girl with a Red Balloon by Tessa Torgeson
- Written in Advance by Nathan Fidler
- Mrs Fox by Marian Womack
- Tomorrow by Vivienne Burgess
- The Kulaks Of Chelsea by Tadhg Muller
- Some Kind Of Happiness by Heidi James
- Dust Covers and Margins by Jennie E. Owen
- Sitting, Standing, Mending by Alison Jean Lester
- Ghosts by Catherine Mitchell
- And I was filled with such delight by Catherine Edmunds