Since Anecdotage is on Christmas Day this year I’m posting a seasonal story on the blog. While it is a story for children it is also a parable of our times. The birds in our own garden seem to have definite characters, making them ideal fodder for fiction…
Goodwill to All Birds
Rowena Robinson was huddled on the spindly branches of the lilac tree. Her feathers were puffed up like a seeding dandelion while Roy, on the branch above her was filling the garden with a selection of his latest songs.
“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that rubbish!” Rowena nagged. “Nobody is taking any notice. It won’t get us any nearer to the peanuts; not with that rabble hogging the bird feeders.”
She jerked her beak at the bird table across the lawn. The Starling family, all seven of them, were feasting there, tearing into the peanuts and the suet as if it was their last meal on earth. Shreds of food rained down upon the grass. Rowena shook her head. “Their manners are terrible! Look at the mess they make! No wonder their chicks are so badly behaved, with the bad example they set. And why do they have so many children? Three or four is enough for any bird, surely?”
Roy hopped down to join his wife. Cold and hunger was making her bad tempered.
“They are hungry too, my love. Perhaps we should call them the Starvling family! And if they drop scraps on to the grass it’s easier for some of the smaller birds like Jenny to pick it up. Wrens prefer the ground for feeding after all. Stevie and his chicks will be done in a minute then we will get a turn at those nuts. We’ll need some supper. It’ll be dark soon.”
Sure enough a light came on in the house, illuminating the garden and prompting the Starlings to rise up like a cloud and swoop away over the fence. As the Robinsons prepared to fly over to the bird table a door slid open on the patio and the giant figure of a girl chick stepped out. Rowena turned back with a squawk of alarm as her husband landed on the stones next to the girl’s feet. He bowed several times in front of the enormous figure, who stood still and murmured to him in her strange tongue. In her hand she held a bag and now she shook it over the stones, peppering the ground with delicious seeds, nuts and mealworms.
Roy called to Rowena, “Come on over, dear. There’s enough food here to feed a flock!” But she shrank back into the tree, trembling.
“Roy! Get out of there! It isn’t safe.”
He hopped over and looked up at her. “Dear, the people won’t hurt us. They like us. They are the ones who put all this food out. We must show them we like them too. When we gather around them and sing they keep feeding us.”
He coaxed her from the tree, leading her on to the stone slabs to where the girl, Millie was standing.
Later, feeling well-fed in their cosy roost as they prepared for sleep, Roy was explaining about the family in the house. “That one you saw, the one who served us the meal; that was a hen-chick. They call it a girl in human language. I don’t think she lives in the house but she visits quite often”
“Girl” Rowena murmured.
“Then there’s an old hen. She lives there all the time. They call it a woman.”
Rowena yawned. “How do you know she’s old?”
“Well her feathers are all white and straggly. Of course, the poor things only have feathers on their heads and they can’t even fly.” He turned to his wife but she was asleep.
The next morning, after a quick preen and a beak wipe they peered out to see Mark and Mandy Magpie strutting around as if they owned the place and making their usual racket. The other birds hung around at a distance listening to what sounded like pistol volleys. Rowena sighed.
“Not much chance of breakfast any time soon, then.”
“No-but they are the only ones who can keep Squirrel at bay, so they have their uses! What do you think that is?” Roy indicated a bedraggled, grey mound of feathers on the slabs by the door. Rowena stared, aghast. “Oh Roy! Do you think that dreadful cat’s been here again?” She shuddered, remembering the last time the fearful beast had terrorised the inhabitants of the garden.
“I’m going to take a closer look.”
“Roy you can’t! It isn’t safe with the Magpies there!”
But he’d already taken off. He flew over to the patio and perched on a window ledge above the feathers, ignored by Mark and Mandy who were squabbling and squawking over a fat ball they both wanted. Rowena saw Roy bend towards the feathers as he chirped at it then was astonished to see the feathers move! A bedraggled head appeared and peered up at her husband.
Just then the door opened and Millie stepped out. Mark and Mandy screeched and rose up grumbling to retire to the nearest tree but Roy stayed where he was, watching. When the girl-chick spotted the heap of feathers and got down to look at it Rowena gasped, for the heap of feathers did not get up and fly away or even try to move. The girl-chick went back inside the house and Roy glided back to his wife.
“It’s a pigeon, Row. His name is Preston. I know pigeons aren’t very clever and they’re a bit common but he’s in a bad way. I think his wing is injured. He says a car hit him. Look-the girl-chick is coming back out.”
Millie returned. In one hand she held the peanut bag they all knew so well, in the other a saucer of water. She knelt by the pigeon and placed the water and some peanuts next to him. Then withdrew to the other end of the patio. Preston raised his head to stare over at Roy.
“It’s alright” chirped the robin. “The girl-chick won’t hurt you. She helps us all.”
“Shush, Roy! You know we don’t talk to pigeons! They come in here from miles away and take all our food and water!”
Roy cocked his head to one side. “My love, we are lucky to be very well looked after here in this garden. Does it really matter where this poor bird is from or who he is? He may not be like us but he is a bird all the same. There is enough to go around, whoever needs it, isn’t there?”
“I suppose so. But he won’t stand much of a chance if he stays there anyway. Fox will get him.”
She was right, thought Roy.
The next morning Preston wasn’t there and in his place was a box. Millie stepped outside and poured some nuts into it. “Is it some new kind of bird feeder?” Rowena asked and Roy went to look. “He’s in the box, Row! Preston is in there!”
“Don’t be daft, Roy. Have you been eating those rotten apples again?”
“It’s true-go and see for yourself.”
She took off and made a cautious circuit over the patio, peering down at the box before returning to their branch. “He seems a bit better today-more perky and he’s tidied himself up a bit.”
Two days later they woke to see Preston standing on the slabs tucking into a saucer of peanuts. Roy called to him. “How’s it going? You’re looking much better.”
The grey wood pigeon took a few wobbly steps towards the edge of the slabs. “Since the girl-chick gave me food and a safe place to sleep my wing is starting to feel less painful. I might try a few exercises after breakfast.”
“Take care, friend,” warned Roy, “The Magpies can be very rough and we sometimes get Fox here in the garden, too!”
They watched as Preston hopped around the garden, flexing his wings and wincing then propelling himself half a metre into the air in a series of leaps whilst flapping. At last he flopped on to the slabs for a rest.
“He’s persistent. I’ll give him that.” Rowena glanced sideways at her husband.
Preston got stronger every day until one morning they woke to see him flying around the garden and making experimental landings on branches and the grass. He stopped on the ground flower bed below them and squinted up with one beady eye.
“I’m off this morning. I’ll say Cheerio. Might be back some time. Thanks for all your help.”
Roy flicked his tail. “Take care friend. You know where we are.”
Preston bowed deeply before making an ungainly ascent, circling once and then heading west. They watched in silence until he became a tiny speck. The patio door slid open and Millie stepped out, looking about her and into the box, which was empty. She called something into the house behind her and a short, old hen-person came out to stand by her.
Roy took off, calling to Rowena. “Come on!”
“What are you?…” Rowena spluttered but flew to join him on the patio next to the two humans. “Sing, my love. Sing with all your heart!”
The Robinsons perched together on the edge of the bird bath, serenading the hen and girl-chick as they stood smiling outside the door. Millie clapped her hands. “That was so beautiful. Thank you. I expect you’re hungry after all that singing!”
She sprinkled a liberal helping of peanuts on to the slabs in front of them.
“There-you see?” Roy nodded at his wife. “We are so lucky. We live in the best garden in the world.”