Modesty matters before birds go courting

The birds were being modest for good reason, writes Damien Enright

Grey wagtail in winter plumage. Picture: Damien Enright

THE birds are back, and the sudden thrill of a robin from a branch can startle one in the, hitherto, silent back garden. The robins are putting their hearts into it, singing for territory, impressing on other cock robins that they are kings of the jungle — for jungle, it, indeed is — telling old rivals and young upstarts that their valour will match their voice should there be any contention. Theirs is the dominant song — and females should also take note.

For months, while the moult was on, they were there, the birds, but so invisible that one might think they were gone forever from our small patch of West Cork. Actually, they were being modest for good reason. Firstly, with feathers falling, and out of condition, they were in no great shape to dodge or outfly the local sparrowhawk, should she spot them; secondly, if one were to ascribe human concerns to these innocent creatures, what bird would want to be seen at its most dowdy and unattractive, half dressed?

So, it was better to stay hidden, skulk about in the undergrowth, remain unseen — so unseen that every year I have moments of concern when I fear that they have deserted the patch altogether and we will not have the blue tits, coal tits, great tits and long-tailed tits, the goldfinches, greenfinches, siskins and, sometimes, blackcaps, dangling decoratively at the peanut feeder beyond the window, brightening up one’s ruminations over breakfast or lunch.

Old heron — I mean, the young fowl that has haunted our yard and garden for five years going on six (I see that the photo labelled “Heron when first found” is dated March 30, 2011) has looked a pale shadow of the glorious self we see every February, March, April, and May.

He is grey as a cowl, almost skeletal (despite the usual copious diet of by-catch now supplemented by the occasional oily fish, plus live sand eels fished personally.) He looks a positive wreck, spending most of the day close to home, despondently plucking feathers out of his chest. There is almost always a flutter of powder-down attached to his beak tip from the latest breast-minings of the tiny feathers that insulate and are used for cleaning and preening, because herons do not have the olfactory gland of cleaning fluid above the tail as other birds do, to be dipped into with the beak and spread over the plumage.

Fine flight feathers, 8in long, spiral down from his perch high on the balcony pergola. I could go in the quill-business if I pared the ends, split the calamus that runs down the centre, and sold them with some organic inks at an organic market stall.

Perhaps, meanwhile, the reason he hangs around the house most of the day, five days a week, is because he doesn’t want to be seen in the state he’s in by the females whom he will begin wooing a few weeks after Christmas, approaching them with suggestive nesting sticks in his beak.

Birds are creatures of habit, possibly more than humans. One of our prettiest harbingers of the return of birds and birdsong is the pair of grey wagtails that arrive to forage along our stream bank every year about now: My wife was first to spot one, his tail bobbing as he paced out his old territory, and then, days later, I spotted a second, possibly the same mate as last year: They are monogamous but may not pair for life.

They look lovely, but do not sing. They are often mistakenly called yellow wagtails because the predominant colour is yellow: in fact, yellow wagtails are the continental version and very rare here, although individuals do turn up, notably in Co Wexford or West Cork. We see them in Spain and the Canary islands.

The grey has a black bib extending from beneath the beak to the highest point of the breast, which is vivid yellow: The yellow wagtail does not have this patch. Both species are very striking, with yellow, lovat grey and black plumage, slim and elegant build and very long tail. The regular bobbing and tail-wagging become more rapid when feeding, signalling that that stretch of waterside is occupied so, competitors, please keep off.

From wagtails to pond life. Readers may remember that earlier this year I gratuitously diagnosed Donald Trump’s environmental threats to the planet as a symptom of his narcissistic personality disorder. Unfortunately, he did not seek help and, although his campaign is “dead in the water”, continues to lie. He lies, he evades, and he looks like a cartoon character. Surely, he deserves to be called Donald Duck?

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