I've been thinking a lot about birds lately, although I don't know why. I have spent a good deal of time watching them through the French window, feeding on bread I had scattered for them: sparrows, starlings, even a couple of doves that have recently moved into our neighbourhood; blackbirds, crows, magpies. That, in reverse, is the pecking order they've worked out for themselves, or something like it.
I've seen few robins this year. A mother robin used to hop onto my sister's foot when she dug in the garden, ready to extract a wriggling morsel from the ground for the hungry brood nearby. But there was little snow this year, and perhaps they came to realize the Christmas-card stereotypes of them and left in disgust for whiter climes elsewhere.
Birds eat on the run, as it were, always aware of the possibility of predators, ready to take to the wing at the least excuse. Sparrows, the most common birds where I live, fear the uncouth crow and the deceptively clean-cut magpie - that waistcoated gangster of the bird world, ready to swoop on the young of other birds without compunction. The magpies have been the object of a recent spate of letters to the local press because of their unseemly noise at all hours of the day and night. A campaign to have them blacklisted was mounted (they are, for some reason, a protected species in my locality), their penchant for internecine atrocities being noted. But I think that was a propaganda ploy, as it were, a handy weapon to drag in support for the weightier accusation of keeping the populace from its beauty sleep. Suffice it to say that the campaign had no effect, for they still strut unmolested in gardens, the terror of their fellows in the bird world and even (surprisingly) of certain cats.
If the magpie is the Al Capone of birdland, the owl is its Socrates. With its large, unblinking, unsettling eyes, it seems to comprehend all knowledge and philosophy from the Greeks onwards - and not to think an awful lot of any of it. I knew someone who found a baby owl orphaned by the side of the road where he was living in Denmark, and brought it home for fostering until it was able to get by alone. Do you know how to feed a baby owl? I didn't, but apparently you give it bits of meat which you've rolled in the carpet. Its normal meal being of a furry nature (mice and such like), it will swallow the meat and cough up the furry remnants. Charming, I'm sure. But it did the owl no harm, for apparently it subsequently came back on occasion to pay visits to its former foster home. Perhaps Danish owls are more convivial than their westerly brethren. Certainly any I've come across have been distinctly standoffish creatures, nocturnal to the core, fitting companions for bats and moonlit ruins and areas where mystery abounds.
But of all the species of birds, the one that means most to me is the sea gull. I live near the sea, and the screams of sea gulls wheeling in to land are a reliable indicator of rain and storm to come. There is something peculiarly forlorn about the gull's cry, a hint of deserted foreshores with a curious object or two washed up from the sea's horde. There is something that speaks of the permanence of nature and the transience of man's works, the pettiness of human endeavour set against the great mysteries of life and the universe. There is something about these birds that lifts the mind above its everyday affairs. With the tang of salt and fish and loneliness they carry with them, they remind each of us of the ultimate necessity of sorting out, alone, our course in life. Perhaps, paradoxically, it is only by facing up to our unique and distinct individuality, untrammelled by the illusory force-field of the opinions of others, that we can really find ourselves at home in the universe. For ''alone'' really means ''all one.''
Birds, soaring in the great vault, remind us of our own possibilities of soaring above the petty hidebound concerns that mar our days. They give us an intimation of the possibilities of human freedom and attainment that stay hidden from our gaze as long as we remain rooted to the earth of everyday-ness. The freedom they have, and the great hope they embody, represent to us the possibilities of our own higher nature, a nature that longs only to be set free.