WATCHING, WAITING The sparrowhawk’s garden visits are fleeting, yet terrible.
Country Sights and Sounds
With the world all up in a heap I’m giving up on mainstream internet news pages. They should call it the Bad News, and have a shorter, more simplistic page called Good News. The truth is, this lockdown has me at something of a loss and in need of a new project to take my mind off the world’s burgeoning troubles.
Conversations are mostly digital now, and meetings always Zoomed. The recluse I have patiently become is struggling to remember what human contact was like. Is it really nearly a year ago that people used to shake hands, or even embrace? What was that about? And when did we last see the face of a stranger? Social interaction is now limited by the compulsory surgeon’s dress code imposed upon us, with everybody masked and treated with multiple doses of alcoholic rub each time we find our way into town.
Even the hare that frequents the field behind the house has changed. There was a time this creature was tolerant of my presence and happy to maintain a respectable distance between the two of us. Fifteen meters wasn’t too much of a problem – about the same as humans on the street; any closer and Leprus timidus hibernicus, to give her proper name, would demonstrate an impressive turn of speed and move 50 paces distant before stopping, bolt upright, to watch my reaction. For her it was only a playful skip – her kind are known to top speeds of 40mph when such is needed. Now she merely turns her back and lopes miserably away the moment I appear.
So I sit at home and feed the birds, which quickly come to tap at the window when their supply of nuts is running low. There is bread and a biscuit for the blackbird as well. An attempt to tame him had been made. I had thought his plumage rather fitting, a dark metaphor for our times. His beak had lost its golden sheen, as is the case each autumn, yet still it seemed a promise of brighter days ahead. It would shine once more in a few short weeks, and I would feed him and watch him and enjoy his lifting song in spring.
Now murder has been done. I feel partly responsible. If I hadn’t fed him atop the wall he wouldn’t have been there day after day. I was witness, if not to the very act, at least to the intention. The poor bird came crying from the hazel and crashed into the ivy at the gate in an attempt to hide within, with a sparrowhawk at his tail. The first strike missed its target – I saw the yellow, flailing foot and uncompromising eye of the hawk, and saw the blackbird flee with a shriek, across the road and into the beechwood where no refuge could be found. I know if I go I shall find feathers in a clump, and if I walk as far as the dead alder at the lakeside, which is the hawk’s favoured plucking post, there will be more frittered and scattered in celebration of the hunt.
I struggle with the balance. The hawk must eat as well. Encouraging prey species like tits and finches to congregate provides an easy target. The moment the hawk calls by is brief and fleeting, yet terrible. It is scarcely ever seen but soon after first light, new feathers on the grass tell me he has been, and is fed. At dusk the same bird waits for the starling flock that roosts nearby, and night after night picks his supper from their ranks.
I want to encourage more than birds. I asked a naturalist friend for advice. “What would be the best bait for fox or badger?”
His answer surprised me a little. “Get a tin of dog food,” he told me, “and stir it into a large saucepan of hot water. When most of it is dissolved pour it onto the ground around your chosen area.”
I didn’t fancy the smell of hot dog food in the kitchen. “Couldn’t I just throw it out, straight out of the tin?”
I could, he said, but it would just be eaten by crows or a cat. Spreading it out in liquid form would be much more effective and would have the added benefit of keeping a hungry animal in the area for a while.
Would it? This might be interesting.