By Lee Marlow
I’ve been doing it for years now; cajoling him, encouraging him, leaving bird books open at the pages of resplendent-looking Sparrowhawks, hopelessly trying to get my young teenage son Lucas interested in birds. I say years, but all this didn’t start with me and him. It started two generations before, with my grandad and my dad, then my dad with me. A love of birds has been passed down our male line like jowls and prematurely grey hair.
My grandad had a scar on his right hand, from the base of his thumb across to his third finger. “You know how I got that?” he used to tell me. A Little Owl at Bradgate Park. He’d put his hand in a hole in an old oak tree in Leicestershire’s 340-hectare country park, as a 14-year-old birds’ egg collector, and the feisty female Little Owl let him know precisely what she thought of that.
It scarred him, physically, for life. But not emotionally. It didn’t deter him. He passed that love of birds on to my dad. And then my dad, to me. My dad used to walk to work along an old railway line, big Hawthorn trees on one side, an overgrown bank on the other. You should go and have a look down there, he told me one day.
“I saw a Robin nipping in and out of that bank, and then, a few yards down, a couple of Yellowhammers building a nest.”
So I went, that night, after school. And there they were, similar nests in similar locations; tucked in behind tufts of overgrown grass, a Robin’s nest – a perfect cup of moss and horse hair – with five yellow feathered chicks, and then, a few yards further down, a Yellowhammer’s nest, with eggs which looked like they’d been painted by a mad drunk.
I used to see Yellowhammers all the time back then. I can’t remember the last time I saw one.
I watched them hatch and fledge. But not the Robins, even though they should have gone first. The Robin’s nest was ransacked, the chicks – almost ready to fly – taken. I can still remember how that felt. My dad reckoned it was a Stoat or a Weasel. They probably had young to feed, too, he reasoned. It didn’t make it any better.
It left me for a while, this hereditary love of birds, as music and girls and going out came in and took their place, but it returned when I had my own children.
Birds, like Christmas, holidays and big football tournaments, are always more fun when you have children of your own to share them with.
We’re surrounded by old woods and hilly fields where we live. It’s not great when it snows – this part of rural north-west Leicestershire seems to exist in its own microclimate – but when the clocks go forward and everything wakes up for spring, it’s glorious.
Come on, I’m always saying to him. Let’s go for a walk. Not just because it gets him off his Playstation or that he opens up and tells me about school, the cricket team, his friends, etc, when we go for a walk. But it’s a chance to be out with him, to pass it on, that love of birds which my dad gave to me and his dad gave to him. That’s the idea.
The reality is different, because he doesn’t really want to know. We had a pair of Goldfinches nesting in an old fir tree in our back garden two years ago. They were the finest thing in our garden, flitting around, feeding on the seeds of my wife’s lovingly-tended plants, a flash of gold and red and honeycomb brown.
I took to sitting outside every night, just me and my beer, watching them fly from the fence, onto the clothes’ line and into the fir tree to their nest.
When I finally found their nest – and what a nest it was – I got my boy on my shoulders and showed him. Look at that, I whispered, excited. Look at how she’s made it. It’s a work of art, son. Look how she’s lined it with flowers.
“Yeah, Dad”, he said. And that was that. And that’s how it’s been. Until last summer. Suddenly there was progress.
A collision of separate events changed things and this is what I realised:
1. He’s not interested in birds. He’s 13. But he’s interested in gore. In blood and death. So a few weeks ago, when surprising death visited us in the shape of a hungry female Sparrowhawk, his interest was piqued.
We might have seen a noticeable drop in Starlings, House Sparrows, Yellowhammers et al in our area but we seem to have more pigeons than Trafalgar Square, and as a result, the village Sparrowhawk is a regular visitor.
“Look at this,” my wife shouted one afternoon.
A female Sparrowhawk had swooped down on a fat Woodpigeon on our patio. Typically, my boy was so excited by the promise of bloody death that he rushed to the window too quickly and the hawk, momentarily spooked, flew off.
We left the dead pigeon there, hoping she’d come back. She didn’t.
2. On one of our walks, we stumbled upon a Jay ripping open a Wren’s nest. He’d seen a Jay before – but not this close, and not this ferocious. It was a sight to behold.
“What’s it doing, Dad?” Well, it’s looking for food. It will eat bird chicks. It will take them back and feed its chicks other birds’ chicks.
“Urgh”, he said. But he was interested.
3. But not as interested as he was when the Springwatch Stoat managed to squeeze into the hole of the Green Woodpecker’s nest, pulling out its grim looking chicks, one by one.
4. Boys are competitive about everything – so we started making it into a game – who could see the rarest bird, the biggest bird, the deadliest bird, etc. The Jay – not exactly rare in our parts, but shy – was a 70/100. He spotted it first. He got the points. My best that day was a female Bullfinch. 60/100. He won. He always likes that.
5. In an old quarry, not far from where we live, a pair of Peregrines have started to nest. He knows about the Peregrine. It was on the kids’ TV show Deadly 60, a round-up of the most deadly animals in the world, and they’d learned about it at school. So, we’d sit patiently and wait for the Peregrine to show.
We didn’t see it first time out, which I knew would be bad news. But we went again. And again. And although he griped about it, eventually, we saw it. A sleek, slate-grey bird, rising on the wind, soaring high above the quarry, away and then tucking in its wings to swoop on some unsuspecting prey.
“Did you know, dad, that when it flies like that it travels at nearly 200 mph,” he told me, and I smiled. “I didn’t know that. How do you know that?” “Because it said so in the Deadly 60.”
Right. We should come up here again, I said. OK, he said. And we have.
6. He plays cricket every weekend on the edge of an old wood. There are Buzzards nearby. They appear every time he plays, these majestic birds of prey with huge brown and white wings. “Are they Golden Eagles?” he asked. When we got home, we got the bird book down. They still look a bit like eagles, he said. When he was fielding one Sunday morning, I heard him tell a friend: “Look at the Buzzards, they’re a bit like eagles.” I was quietly pleased about that. Maybe, finally, it’s sinking in, I hope it is.