When I went blind one of the many things I had to deal with was not being able to see birds anymore.
When I was young, I paid no attention to birdlife. I lived in a city, and there were only three types of birds– sparrows, blackbirds and birds..
Sparrows were the soundtrack of my childhood, and blackbirds sat on the roof and tv aerial on warm spring and summer evenings. I still remember Wimbledon and children playing improvised tennis in the street when I hear the song of the blackbird.
The fluting blackbird’s song and the cheerful chirping of sparrows were the signature birds of my childhood in the streets of Leicester.
In the summer, the family would go on the bus to Bradgate Park, a large country park outside the city, and the ancestral home of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey. The park was our countryside, and consisted mostly of bracken heath and rocky outcrops of pre-Cambrian granite. There would have been lots of birds there, but the only ones I remember were skylarks, singing high above the heathland, and jackdaws “chacking” from their rocky ledges.
These were the signature birds of open country.
Later, when I was in my twenties, I would roam the lanes of Nottinghamshire, where I was pretending to be a hippy and where I was consciously setting about learning the skills I would need in the commune we would set up in the wilderness when capitalism totally collapsed or when we had managed to survive the nuclear winter after the inevitable conflagration.
Learning to recognise birds was part of my preparation, and the signature bird for the landscape of fields and hedges was the beautiful lapwing, or peewit.
Later still, in my thirties, I started to get hooked. Yorkshire was my new landscape, and I bought some binoculars (or “bins”, as we in the know call them!), and I started what is called a “life list”, which is a record of the species spotted and identified in your life as a serious birdwatcher.
Beware nature-lovers with lists; after a while, they stop seeing the landscape and the birds and they start to see just the names on a list. For them, seeing the bird is good enough, but for me, I want to watch them, see how they move, how they eat, what they see or hear. With my list in hand, I was in danger of becoming a “twitcher”.
Then blindness put a stop to that. It was horrible, to lose that connection with the wild world around me, and it still is, when I hear a new song or I see a movement in the trees on the edge of my vision and I have no idea what it is that is singing or moving.
It’s so frustrating. Blindness takes away the natural world, because it is so full of risks and obstacles. The built environment is scary, too, of course, but, to an extent, it can be controlled and can be made to stay where it is.
But the loss of birds signified the loss of the outside, the wind and the weather. Birds can do something we can’t do, and not seeing them fly – thoughtlessly if a sparrow, magnificently if a peregrine, lazily if a heron – was the loss of my dreams, of the mysterious and unattainable.
If I couldn’t see them, I would have to learn to hear them. I had to start all over again and learn to recognise their songs and calls. My connection with freedom would have to rely on my not very good ears that had been ruined by loud rock music concerts and headphone music.
I will write occasional posts about how I set about doing this. It might give you some help in identifying birds by sound, but I will enjoy writing about my wild friends, anyway.
Happy Easter to everyone, especially to the wild ones who share our beautiful (for now) planet.