Chirruping bullfinch a welcome visitor

LAST WEEK, hawthorn bushes covered in white flowers lined the bye-roads of West Cork, and the woods were bathed in deep purple with very few shafts of sunlight penetrating the thick canopy of the trees. Those beams that broke through spotlighted thick carpets of bluebells and mats of white ramsons on the forest floor.

On the roadsides, long acres of wild garlic, so called, nodded over the tarmac, and every sort and shade of wildflower lit the ditches. It was the blue haze of speedwell here, the delicate white of stitchwort there, with breaks of tall, golden buttercups beyond.

The first foxgloves stood taller still. Digitalis, they’re called in Latin, presumably because their tubular shape reminded Linnaeus, or whoever named them, of fingers, or of finger-stalls which would comfortably house a damaged digit. Even in their infancy this comparison holds good. When the flower tips first peep out of the green sheaths from which they will open they look like fingernails painted pink.

Our failure to cut the grass on the lawn paid unexpected dividends.

Primroses appeared like magic, buttercups, speedwell, bluebells, dandelions and wild garlic. Best of all, a bullfinch came to visit, a bird I haven’t ever here before and, as readers (at least, older readers) will know, is one of the handsomest birds of all that are resident in Ireland.

It was a cock bullfinch, and it was eating the seeds on dandelion ‘clocks.’ With rose-red breast, black beak and cap, grey mantle and white rump, it was magnificent. I didn’t see the hen but assume she was there: I didn’t dare go out for fear of scaring her mate, but called the family to see him through my workroom window. But, she was there, alright: when I went out later I heard the distinctive whistle of the male, a call I haven’t heard for years.

When I was young, we regularly saw bullfinches in the wild; one of the tragedies was that they were often trapped and caged. I remember a shoemaker in his dark, almost subterranean shop in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, who worked at his last surrounded by caged birds, canaries and canary mules, linnet mules, bullfinches, goldfinches and larks. A tiny man, he looked like a bird himself, with a bird-like skull, sharp nose and yellow, leathery skin, appropriate for a shoemaker. As he worked, he held waxed sewing threads between his lips, like a bird with straws for its nest.

I went there many afternoons after school to hear his stories, to hear the lore of birds and hear them sing, and sometimes also at night, when he worked by lamplight, the birds with their heads under their wings all around him, or waking to chirp a few notes before going back to sleep. Drawing the wax-ends through the leather, he would chirp to us, myself and a couple of friends, entranced by the Aladdin’s Aviary in Thurles, County Tipperary.

Since the demise of our poor dog I’ve had dozens of expressions of sympathy and heard various stories of mysterious canine disappearances.

One gentleman told me of a very ancient dog, 20 years old and almost blind that, all its life, had lived between two houses, only 50 yards apart, eating at the one, sleeping at the other: perhaps the householders were of the same family. Anyway, one day, it was seen to hobble off on its usual journey but it never arrived. Ditches and dykes were searched. No sign of it was ever again seen.

At my dentist’s the receptionist told me of a similar case involving a golden retriever. But, she said, didn’t I know that golden retrievers sometimes go off to some hidden place to die? A letter arriving via the Examiner recounted the experience of Mr Tony O’Connor who, as a boy living in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, managed to convince his reluctant parents to adopt a stray which, duly, became a family member.

Years later, when he was an adult and working in Japan, he got news that the beloved hound had vanished from outside the family home. “Stories circulated about a possible dog-napping. There was no sign of a hit-and-run: every foot along the roadside was searched for signs of trauma or, worse, a body. We think to this day that Dusty, who was getting on in years, simply went off somewhere quiet to die. My hope is she and your springer are together in a better place, swapping yarns about their lives in lovely Ireland ...”

I’m not entirely sure about a heavenly rest home for dogs or, indeed, humans, but I greatly appreciate Mr O’Connor’s and all other well-wisher’s efforts to console us. I had no idea so many readers would be so concerned about our dog.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

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