Wisdom, Knowledge, Birdsong

I'M sure I'm better at identifying wildflowers than birds. But all the same, that doesn't mean I could pass an exam on the botanographical divergences between figwort, cornish moneywort, and common cow-wheat, to name but a few (plants, that is).

Birds are even more baffling to me than plants. I just wish I knew a yellow wagtail from a gray one (it's not as simple as it sounds) or could at a glance tell a swift from a swallow in wheeling summer flight. Or could instantly identify a kestrel when someone says "Look at that buzzard!" I went on an Audubon bird-identification day once, but it didn't seem to dent me much.

On the other hand, Richards Adams of rabbit and "Watership Down" fame once pointed out that a walk in the country should not become a guilt trip just because you don't happen to know by heart the names of every last item of herbiage, insectage, birdage, or animalage that passes underfoot or overhead. Nomenclature is not an essential prerequisite of genuine pleasure felt for field and stream. All the same, I still am attracted to the notion of rather less minimal know-how, or know-what, rurally speaking.

The truth is I greatly admire, and even to a degree envy, those (generally tweed clad) personages who accost me with such murmurations as "Saw my first dunlin of the year this morning - just after dawn, it was, feeding well," or "I see the reed buntings are nesting in a marshy tussock down by the saltings, three eggs already laid." Such utterings leave me gasping with would-be delight at the mere thought that if I practice hard, one day I too might convincingly pull off a passing ornithological observati on with like insouciance. As it is, I feel tongue-twisted in the company of such rustic eloquence.

Ignorance, whatever they say, isn't automatically bliss. Or I would be a lot more blissful. But knowledge, I have long mused, is a strange creature. How come everyone else has so much more of it than I do? Was I the only person who, at 19 or 20, continually wondered how it could have happened that my peers had already read the entire works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Proust, not to mention Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, had completely understood Marxist-Leninist political theory, grasped Einstein's relativity , had had tea at Kings College with E. M. Forster, and rowed for Cambridge. Didn't they ever sleep, I asked myself. Where have I been all my life? Why is it that I am forever trying to catch up?

And it was the silent students that bothered me most. How much they knew! What storehouses of erudition they were! I remember one fellow in particular. He was a deep well of knowledge, even of wisdom. He spoke perhaps once a week. Words were for him a rare species of plant to be hidden in case some rash boot appear to trod on them. When he gave them public exposure, it was with scrupulous care and selectivity. The rest was silence.

It took me 20 years or so - since I have always been the archetypal empty barrel that makes the most sound - to arrive at sufficient skepticism to wonder if this profound youth had not, just possibly, been silent because ... he actually had nothing to say. Maybe we read into his vocal reticence a profundity that wasn't there at all. Who knows? Anyway, I have always preferred people who talk far too much about things they know nothing about - fellow travelers - to people who never breathe a word, never be tray an inner thought. They inspire nothing but self-doubt.

BUT back to birds. To me they are like music. I love Mozart, though I haven't the slightest acquaintance with sonata form or Kochel numbering. Handel - particularly the "Messiah takes me away with an elevated glory that half persuades me I am musical. I haven't a clue what key any part of it is in and am not too certain whether I am hearing trumpets or woodwinds, tenor or bass, at certain impressive junctures during its compelling surge of wonderfulness.

Birdsong is the same. I have walked among tall trees at midnight and listened as birds sing with an ecstatic liberality, a silver-sounding lucidity that invites shiverings up and down the spine. I have fancied they are nightingales. I have recited Keats. Later, I have been firmly informed they were just common, garden blackbirds who, because of the street lighting, were under the mistaken impression that sunrise was upon them. But I can still say, with due awe: "I have heard the blackbirds singing each t o each" or, in the immortal words of the Beatles, "Blackbird singing in the dead of night...."

Nightingale, blackbird, who cares?

Well, yes, I care. I would have been much happier if my nightingales had been the very thing, the true Luscinia megarhynchos. However, I do know an owl when I see one - and sometimes when I hear one too. Which kind of owl is a harder question.

In Britain it seems that the most common are barn owls and little owls. But I think there are more - tawny, long-eared, and short-eared for a start - and I wouldn't know which was which if I saw them (as I have some) in broad daylight balancing sleepily on a telephone wire.

Nevertheless, some of my happiest encounters with birds have involved owls. I used to drive across a lonely low moorland in Yorkshire to one of the local drama clubs' evening rehearsals. More than once, my passage was suddenly crossed by the flight of an owl - in this case, its whiteness suggested "barn owl." Clearly both parties - owl and human - were under the impression that this isolated area was uniquely theirs. No other cars were coming or going - and no other owls.

This owl was as surprised to see me as I was to see it. I knew this by the way it turned its whole head to the right in mid-flight to give me a thorough inspection. I imagined at this moment it was thinking Wow, wait until I get home to tell the brood: I saw a migrating human on the moor tonight. Y'know, with pollution and the ravages of pesticides and the greenhouse effect, you don't see them often nowadays in this part of the world. I suppose they can't get food." Head front again - on it flew, its eve ning definitively enhanced. I was more than glad for it.

Another time, as the dimness gloamed and I was standing outside the kitchen door relishing the cool evening air with its gentle tinge of fresh cow aroma and weary straw, an owl came straight at my head. Clearly it seemed to have thought it was a bat. And as it circled and dive-bombed on each wide-airborne swing, coming more dangerously close to me with its beak and claws, I suspected that it might not have the sonar-subtle nicety of a bat's judgment of distances - and that on its next lap it might collid e on my forehead. Politely, I retreated into the kitchen and left the world to darkness and to it. Battle, it seemed, had been joined. The invader had been repelled. Territorial rights had been reasserted. Owl is King.

Later, I was fascinated to read several diary-noted observations of owls written by 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White. He remarked: "Owls hiss round the Church in a fierce threatning manner: I suppose they are old ones that have young."

MY most recent owl experience was no less unexpected. It happened after I moved to Scotland and had become urbanized again. My wife and I drove out of Glasgow for a look at the countryside one sunny afternoon. Down a winding woodland lane I suddenly yelled "Stop!" Backing up tortuously, both of us stared incredulously at what I had glimpsed.

On an oak too young and small to be called a tree, sitting perfectly still as if someone had stuffed them, were not just two, not even three or four, but five owls. If they had been pigeons we wouldn't have looked twice. Starlings or magpies, never a glance. But never having seen more than one lonesome owl at a time, and that rarely, to see five was quite magical. They showed no sign at all of seeing us. They just sat there among the leaves as if they did so all day, every day.

I know so little about owls! Do they have a gregarious nature at certain seasons? I thought not. Was this perhaps a young family, not yet launched into the world? Perhaps they had been reared by man and released, and hadn't realized they were meant to hunt alone?

Whatever the explanation, that tiny oak tree overloaded with five immobile owls is an image I relish and can't forget.

A quality about owls that I am far from being the first to notice, is, of course, that they seem immensely wise. And immensely knowledgeable. Anyone who can sit as still as that and just stare, must be.

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