You are viewing the content for Monday 27 February 2006

The blackbird whirled in spring winds

By Damien Enright
I THREW an apple core out of my work room window in the direction of the bird table and hardly had it landed when a hen blackbird fluttered out of the hedge, grabbed it in her bill and shot back into the hedge with her prize.

Blackbirds love fruit, including berries; it comprises 80% of their diet. Thrushes, their cousins, eat only about 20% fruit, and are 60% carnivore.

While the blackbird eats the gardener’s strawberries, gooseberries, black currants and windfall apples, the useful thrush eats his snails. However, this is not to say that blackbirds are unwelcome in the garden. They are very handsome birds, especially the glossy black males, with golden beaks and orange eye-rings. Their mellow, fluting song is a joy to hear and they don’t repeat the same sequence of notes, like the thrush.

Seen in woodland darkness, the black plumage and golden bill lends the blackbird the aura of an interloper. When disturbed, it utters a hair-raising shriek and dives into the undergrowth like a villain fleeing a crime. Austin Clarke made it the subject of his poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn, presenting it as a symbol of pre-Christian Ireland, its song calling upon the monks in their dark cloisters to leave "God’s own shadow in the cup now" and come out under the pagan sun.

The verses were, it seems, a translation of an early Irish poem in which Oisín, bard of the Fianna, debates with St Patrick the merits of paganism over Christianity.

Perhaps it was to bring the pagan bird into the embrace of the church that a 7th century tale told how St Kevin of Glendalough was praying with hands outstretched when a blackbird flew down and laid its eggs in his palm. The good saint kept his arm outstretched until the eggs were hatched and the brood had flown.

In hard winters, some blackbirds arrive here from central Europe, and return there in spring. At present, this is news we would prefer not to hear.

The bird flu pandemic is moving ever closer to our shores, indeed, dare I say it, before this article is published it may have arrived. The especially hard winter in Russia has brought fresh flocks of wild swans to Germany, Austria and Denmark.

There is concern that some may arrive in Britain and Ireland. The main migration is in autumn, but bitter weather has driven the swans that remained in Russia before it.

The swans that come to Ireland from afar are Whoopers, from Iceland and northern Europe, and Bewick’s, from Siberia and Russia. Bewick’s swans are smaller and more delicate than the whoopers, which were, probably, the birds Yeats describes in The Wild Swans at Coole: "The trees are in their autumn beauty", and the swans scatter on "clamorous wings."

As a result of our warming climate, these islands now play winter hosts to birds from Central Europe which, a few decades ago, would have flown to Africa. Increasing numbers of blackcaps and chiffchaffs, arriving from continental Europe in spring, lately over-winter here.

Health officials tracking bird flu now have the spring migration to worry about. Vast numbers of swallows, martins and swifts, wheatears and cuckoos will be arriving from Africa, along with small passerines (birds that perch, rather than swim or wade) from mainland Europe.

Meanwhile, the recent weather has been lovely, the days sunny and cold, with cloudless blue skies - European, rather than Atlantic weather.

Spring is slowly emerging - a few celandines and primroses, a hibernating tortoiseshell butterfly waking in our bedroom and beating its wings against the window, a dead badger on the road, the blood-chilling scream of a vixen fox at night, followed by three or four sharp barks of a dog fox answering.

An experienced Dublin duck- watcher tells me that there are ducklings already swimming in the Grand Canal. Six mallard ducklings were seen on February 17.

Here in West Cork, every morning I do something for my wife and the environment. I wash the breakfast dishes, soap-free. As I have said before in this column, I stand, hands in the warm water, vacantly looking out over the rabbit field where all the little bunnies are jumping and humping at this time of year.

Never mind the eco-friendly detergent; I use no detergent at all. Older readers may recall an ad for a certain washing-up liquid that said "the hands that do dishes can be soft as your face."

With my method, my hands may not be as soft as my face - which is no longer so soft - but they are as my head, certainly!