Damien Enright: ‘How enchanting for humanity that we have birds’

Damien Enright: ‘How enchanting for humanity that we have birds’

A Courtmacsherry neighbour, Kathy Gannon tells me that when the tide is out, the vast acres of clean, grey mud of the bay reflect the sun in splendour in the clear, sharp air.

Sea birds, in flocks and flights, rest in the channels, teal, widgeon, mallard, roosting white egrets or grey herons, heads under wing or preening their feathers, pass hours in the silent glory of the day.

On the channels’ edges the small birds dart about, redshanks and greenshanks, named for the colours of their legs, and oystercatchers, dramatic in black and white feathers, with bright orange beaks and legs, and there are dunlin, knot, ruffs and their wives, ‘reeves’, and taller migrant whimbrel and curlew and, perhaps, a few golden plover that soar in small bunches so high that one loses sight of them until they come drifting back down like falling leaves to alight side by side on a spit of sand.

Toward the shoreline rocks and seaweed, small columns of turnstones industriously turn stones to see if a snack of ragworm, shrimp or sandhopper might lie beneath, and draw back the blankets of bladder wrack from stones as a housekeeper might draw a coverlet off a bed.

There are snipe too, but I’ve found you have to be up very early to espy them. Yesterday, Kathy said, thirteen or so Brent geese showed up and have made the bay their temporary foraging home.

When not feeding and on the move, they walk with stately stride and necks held almost vertical. Crossing broken ground, as they move, they sway.

Birds here, on this western island of the Canaries group, are equally a delight to see and to hear. There are, of course, the famous canaries in wild flocks, yellow and linnet-size but showing more yellow than linnets.

A local friend with a country house and vine fields puts out a seed feeder, and thirty or so of these little birds spend mornings in the almond, olive and orange trees around it. And they sing.

Their song is, of course, the classical canary song, but while we may hear single virtuosos in cages sing heart-stopping arias that pauses one in passing to enjoy, here there are many singers and interruptions and, in times of canary enthusiasm, competing cacophonies of song.

On a balcony near us in the village, there are two cages with a couple of canaries in each. Singing it seems in turn, their clear, solo arias every morning fill the street and square beneath them with rippling song.

They’re like performances to celebrate the return of daylight. If a La Scala opera singer gave such voice from his balcony, you’d swear he was drawing attention to himself and say how ‘very Italian’ it was of him.

But I think these birds are doing it because light through the irises of their eyes excites the brain and triggers the vocal chords and that’s all there is to it.

But what joy to hear them. How arresting, as one passes en route to the bread shop to get the morning loaf. It makes the urbane magic.

Damien Enright: ‘How enchanting for humanity that we have birds’

How enchanting for the world and humanity that we have birds.

“Oh, for the wings of a dove...” — the ending of Mendelssohn’s great anthem ‘Hear my prayer’ — is another bird-brained fantasy one might entertain when observing the African Collared doves, aka Barbary doves, common birds on this island.

They are everywhere, and often quite tame. But see them fly. And hear their wings whistle as they beat the air.

See any pigeon species fly and stop in wonderment, even overweight wood pigeons or scruffy, underweight Cork city street pigeons.

They fly like racers. It occurs to me that if common pigeons or doves fly at such a rate, what speed can selectively bred racing pigeons achieve?

On the cliffs beyond Courtmacsherry Bay and all along the Irish coasts, wild, independent rock doves make their roosts and nests over the ocean.

As one walks along the cliff tops, one may see them hurtle at sheer rock faces and in the blink of an eyelid disappear.

Their camouflage of slate grey feathers, ribbed with blue streaks, melds invisibly into the cliffs where they make their home.

Here, it’s the same. There are rock doves, too.

But here, also, are some of the rarest pigeons in the world, laurel pigeons and Bolle’s pigeon, endemic to the dense mountain forests of this island, La Gomera, and to neighbouring Tenerife, La Palma and El Hierro.

They are fat, blowsy birds, an adult as heavy as two aerodynamic rock doves, and they fly slowly, staying in the canopy, living on the black, olive-sized fruits of wax myrtles and drifting on broad wings from tree to tree.

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