We gathered together the broken mess of suet and seeds and brushed it onto the chopping board. The shattered tumble of ingredients bore no resemblance to the solid, cake-shaped cake we’d watched Tony Soper make just the week before on the telly; we didn’t have a video then and were doing this entirely from our memories of Blue Peter or Magpie or Animal Magic. It’s fair to say we may have got it almost completely wrong.
Out the kitchen door and down the passageway along the garage to the back garden. On the left, the nest box, a couple of blue tits rearing a dozen chicks, blind, frog-like faces, turning up as you opened the lid, lemon curd yellow mouths agape and wobbling toward the light. We stood in the centre of the big lawn and scattered the awful concoction as evenly as we could. An uncertain, heart jumping anxiety that we’d done something wrong; that sick and flighty terror of the child for making a mess or wasting precious resources.
Brushing the last off our hands we ran inside, thought about tidying there and then, but because children are capricious empty-headed monsters instead we just dumped the board and headed into the dining room, which looked directly out onto the back garden. I can hear it now, see it, it is always the first thought that blunders into my mind when I think of them; Starlings, dozens and dozens and dozens of them, whooshing with furious intent into the garden. A torrent of birds, cascading in over the high hawthorn hedge at the back, and onto the lawn. It sounded like a wave back-washing from a shingle beach, a gloriously textured and palpable sound. The grass vanished, you couldn’t see a blade, lost in a blanket of petrol-sheened squabbling birds.
I’ve loved Starlings ever since. We think of them as common, but like Sparrows they’re declining. Across Northern and Eastern Europe (from where the winter migrants flock, seeking us out for a respite from harsher conditions) their numbers are dropping. They’re now red listed, due to the severity of that decrease.
Dull at first, ordinary if you cannot see it, but close up they are jewels – “a black body crammed with hot rubies” Ted Hughes called it – and more than jewels because they change colour in the right light, iridescence shimmering as they shake their collars, stellar white diamonds scattering across the breast. Ignore the winter gloom, in the light they are exceptional creatures. Driving home one low-sunned late afternoon before Christmas, I saw across the fen a half-hearted attempt at a murmuration, that blissful otherworldly phenomenon when hundreds or, more often, thousands of them flock and dance in a careening sway before roosting for the night. A straight and empty road, left glancing, nerves flooding back from doing something I shouldn’t. The sun was dying, its light, the colour of cantaloupe flesh, thick and rich, and in it, a personal swarm of birds, waltzing and oscillating to their own rhythm.