Abode with birds

One of the first things a stranger might notice in our village is the close fraternity between man and bird, and how the seasons are marked for us by birds. In spring the cry went up, "The swallows are back!" as a flash of russet, blue, and white skimmed over our grey rooftops. "All the way north from Africa!" the schoolmaster exclaimed, and continents and oceans to reach our small green corner of western Scotland.

Among the bird watchers in our community was gingerheaded Tam, a Scottish Tartarin de Tarascon, whose tall tales became part of local legend. He strutted through the village looking like a wily fox, wearing, summer and winter alike, a Kilmarnock bonnet tilted rakishly. In early February he burst excitedly into the inn. "I've heard the first cuckoo!" he cried.

"Aye, with the snow still on the dykes. Nae fiction, Tam," the schoolmaster retorted. Fergus was a Highlander who had a way of fixing Tam with a fierce, dark eye. along with his love of literature went one for ornithology and above all for the truth. He looked down on us lowlanders, especially Tam, as being what he called leears.m

His stern gaze made Tam waver. "Onyway it was the same shapem as a cuckoo." Every other week he claimed to have seen fabulous creatures. "It must have been an albatross, a muckle great bird with wings 20 feet across." Under the schoolmaster's eye he would retreat. "Well, 10 feet. Aye, it might be nearer 6 ." "Nae mair of your Lowland lies!" Fergus commanded.

One of the most ardent bird watches was Tommy the postman, who always carried along with his mailbag another bag full of scraps, oatmeal, cheese, suet, and nuts, to be laid in the boles and hollows of trees, especially in hard winters.We called in vain after his fast disappearing figure, "Tommy, whaur's my mail? Leave the birds alane and bring me my letters!" If he had spotted a gold crest or a woodpecker, nothing would bring him back.

Sometimes he pulled from the mailbag, not letters, but a bird with a damaged wing, an abandoned fledgling, once a sparrow hawk. "Haud it carefully, keep it warm. I'll be back for it as soon as I've seen to the midday delivery."

We would never dare disobey him, and meekly accepted his scornful criticism of our nesting boxes. He has a network of village children working for him, digging up worms, watching nests, scaring off cats and magpies, and keeping an eye on his pet owl that perched on the wardrobe.

Farther down the street was the old grey-tiled village school. Sometimes a shout came from the classroom, and the schoolmaster came swooping out, his coattails flying, which gave him an oddly avian appearance. His pupils darted after him, delighted by such diversions. He had heard the harplike twanging of swans' wings flying up from our small loch, or the far-off honking of geese. He pointed up at the grey spiral flickering across the sky. "Winter's not gone yet if the wild geese fly this way," he would say, adding, "Shakespeares' Lear,"m so that by combining literature with ornithology he could justify these incursions into the playground, not strictly in the school curriculum.

Yet another bird lover, the minister, would sometimes weave his sermons around texts like "I am as a sparrow alone upon the housetop." Tam sat in his pew looking thoughtful and squinting along at the schoolmaster. As he left the church he would remark slyly, "That's something out of the ordinary in Psalm 102 . A pelican of the wilderness! An owl of the desert. You can't call thatm a lee when it's in Holy Writ!"

We like to reminisce about famous characters among our birds. "Mind Speck the Jackdaw? And Auld Reekie the Corbie? And Rodrick the blackie wi' half a beak who held out for five years!" We would praise their heroism and endurance and skill in escaping the cunning of cats, remembering Rodrick's golden eye peeping through the window, hi imperious thumping on the pane if we overslept on winter mornings and he starving for his porridge.

Sometimes the schoolmaster, weary of the Lowlands and of us lying Lowlanders, would vanish off into the woods to keep an appointment with birds. We came on him once, unawares, standing among the birches, so still that he could have been taken for a bird or a birch himself. To the rustling and quivering of the leaves was added another sound, the ruffling and whirring of wings, and one by one the birds flew down to perch on his arms, drawn by his very stillness. "You need only to sit still long enough is some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns," he had often read aloud to us from Walden.m

The seasons pass, whaups and peewees and larks fill the air with sound, cushy doves call from the heart of the woods. Some villagers set their alarms so as nost to miss the dawn chorus. "Tape you bird!" Tommy calls out at haymaking time as the corncrake's harsh krek-krekm comes from the deep grass. "He's becoming rare." And he goes off down the bed of the burn in quest of dippers and wagtails.

Tam swaggers by, his bonnet more rakish than ever. "I've seen a strange sight the morn," he begins. The schoolmaster stops him before he can go any further. "You're aye seeing wonders, Tam. Are the birds themselves no' wonder enough! Nae mair of your tales of albatrosses and whippoorwills. Just listen to that thrush up there!"

Autumn comes. "And gathering swallows twitter in the skies," quotes Fergus. The moment for the flight southwards to the sun out of our mist and snow has arrived. As long as our village remains an abode of birds we are never likely to forget how much there is of the miraculous in life.

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