David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II has been attracting higher than expected viewers. Aside it being jaw-dropping brilliant television, one explanation for its success is that it has offered escape and therapy in troubled times.
Confused and troubled by world or personal events we want to seek reassurance, to anchor ourselves in the rhythms of nature and the comfort of landscape (even if there’s the paradox that we are collectively wreaking huge destruction on the natural world).
It is increasingly understood how nature and landscape can have a beneficial effect on mental health and happiness. A recent study has proved that regularly spending time in nature is good for our wellbeing.
In our garden, which is more a row of unkempt communal gardens mostly neglected by their tenement inhabitants, we don’t have Wilson’s birds-of-paradise showing off vivid iridescent colours for a mate. Nor do we have the madcap head-scanning comedy of the pink flamingos. Our view on nature is decidedly more mundane and urban British, our birds brown and dowdy give or take the red splash of the robin’s breast, and mute greens and yellows of a greenfinch. Our birds seem to like the semi-wildness of the gardens although they have declined a little since a secret, forgotten and inaccessible walled garden was absorbed into new student accommodation development. (Lest we forget that these old tenements also once displaced nature and habitats).
— Planet Earth 2 (@PlanetEarthShow) November 13, 2016
A year ago I spent £40 on a bird bath and a bird feeding station. You don’t need to spend this much to feed the birds but it was one of the best £40 I have ever spent. In fact I asked for them as Christmas presents much to the bemused ribbing by some of the family, and carefully positioned them in the garden so I could see the birds from my work desk.
There are writers far more expert and skilled at writing on nature than I am but what joy comes with a garden full of birds! We have all the usual urban suspects: wrens, robins, tits and sparrows. They bring life and noise and movement with their purposeful darts and swoops from branch to ivy to stone, and their thrum of wing. In the spring I am “enchanted by birds telling each other to f**k off” as a hilarious Daily Mash article put it, violent, furious threats disguised as birdsong.
Like Planet Earth the stories of the birds in the garden are not always happy as chicks fall out of nests and nature takes its inevitable cruel turn. Once I was watching some sparrows hop about the flower beds. As I turned there was a flash and pandemonium broke out amongst the birds who scattered, squawking in terror. I couldn’t be sure but I thought it was a sparrowhawk carrying off a sparrow. It was fast, sudden and violent. It was also ruthless and precise. The sparrowhawk probably had young to feed, it’s more difficult to stomach when well-fed domestic cats plunder a nest. For a couple of years a pair of blackbirds made mistakes with the siting of their nests and paid heavy prices by losing their chicks one by one. You could tell something was up when the garden was suddenly filled with the distressed cries of the parents as they futilely divebombed a cat padding off with a struggling chick in its mouth. Thankfully the blackbirds learnt their lesson.
Despite having to witness nature’s ruthlessness, imagine the still sadness of a garden without birds? I love the indignation of a thrush, so busy fighting off rivals to the food supply that she forgets to feed herself. I love the blackbirds scouring the lawn for worms when I have bothered to mow it. I love the flurries of seeds rejected by fussy blue tits, descending down to the deliriously excited pigeons gloriously strutting about with jerking heads and puffed pompous chests.
But it’s the energy of the sparrows that are most uplifting. It can be quiet for a while, then a flock of sparrows descend, with a life-affirming jabbering, scolding, squabbling cacophony. They take over the birdbath and the feeding station although their noise seems to bring in other birds who hop in and out amongst them. It’s difficult to avoid falling into an anthropomorphic trap but they seem to line up for the bird bath on a nearby railing, as if they are clutching tiny towels and bathing suits for a dip as they wait their turn and reproach the ones taking too long.
Stuck for a Christmas present? Worried about the age of post-truth politics and false news cottage industries? Spend £40 (or much less) and get the bird food in. You won’t regret it even when you have to wash the feeders because the birds have crapped all over them. If you don’t have a garden one neighbour hangs seed fillers on his second floor window and side-walls.
If 2017 is going to continue in the same vein as 2016 you’ll need our feathered friends to restore your spirits. They need you in turn to help prevent their decline.