Sunday, 18 November 2012

Bird Totems

I have been bird watching this week, or in some cases just bird listening.  It struck me as I observed just how totemic some birds are for people.  Not only signature birds but totemic spirits for ages, times or just frozen moments.

Each morning, at about 5.3,0 I sit in the studio room.  The window faces the garden with a hedge, bramley apple and black elder right outside the glass.  First to sound is the blackbird; they come to feed at the base of the apple, where the windfalls are left for them.  I was lucky enough to have a mistle thrush some years ago but the blackbirds have staked their claim and shooed them away.

After that the chaffinch, sparrow and great tits start to vie for the bird feeder.  They sound like a group of school children: arguing, laughing and running together in chattering groups.  Some time later the wren will come along the hedge; chickering and shouting to them that there are cats here.  Finally the robin (a triumphant victor who has finished off his rival) will sing out that the garden is his. Of all these birds the one who captures the morning spirit is the wren.  She is regularly to be heard patrolling the boundary and scolding all who are near.  I picture the pugnacious tail and sharp little movements as she harries and scurries about the garden.

These garden birds are the spirits of home and garden.  My work is haunted by others.  We finally have a flock of starlings, returning to the chimney pots and roofs of the area.  Long missed, I have mourned the demise of the spiv of the bird world.  These cocksure and noisy characters were part of my childhood. I have strong memories of watching their wheeling dancing clouds as they flew over the fields near our house.
They are back, with all their exuberant posturing.

Rivaling these are the bigger blacker corvids, crow and jackdaw mainly, that use the fast food litter as a gourmet buffet.  These lovely birds live in the chestnut, oak and maple of our local park, The Forest, home of the goose fair (see birds imbue the spirit of Nottingham everywhere).  Their raking cry fills the air as I leave, in the darkening dusk; my signal that it is time to go home.

Home again and the night belongs to the tawny owls, who hunt the park and gardens of Sherwood.  We hear them call across the trees; we have seen them fly low over the roof tops and have been privileged to watch one sit on a shed roof less than 10 metres from where we were sitting.  This owl is the totem of the night; the flying spirit who softly soars across the night sky.  If we sit for long enough we may catch a glimpse and share a small moment of their world.

Sometimes the seasons are the herald of a spirit: Summer brings the scream and swoop of the swifts.  The joyous aerobatics providing the backdrop to our warm afternoons.  It is time to lie on the grass and watch the dance in the sky.  Autumn brings the geese from the north on their way to Attenborough, or one of the other wetland reserves.  We lie under a flight path to food and can watch the v formations as they pass overhead.  Winter is the turn of the fieldfare, come to share the blackbirds apple bounty on their way over from the Scandinavian farms.

Then there are the times when a bird embodies a moment, speaking in a way our voices can't.  Some years ago we lost a very dear member of the family in a short space of time.  In the moments of her passing (not yet known to us) I passed the rowans, that line the road, and looked up at the sound of birds.  Filling the trees were 30 or so waxwings.  Rare enough visitors but to a city?  Looking back I wonder if Kapi's spirit passed by, visiting on her path away from us.  The waxwing will be forever special to me as a result.
They are with us again, according to John at Hedgeland Tales this is a bumper year.  I hope you are able to share the sight of them.

I wonder if I am the only one to feel like this about birds? They embody so much and it is very easy to tie in our complex emotions to their fragile lives.  What ever I recommend you look upwards when you have a minute, see which spirit is following you.


  1. My goodness, i have missed so many of your lovely posts! I just enjoyed each one. Your bear and bird mugs and pitchers are charming as can be, such a lovely idea!

    Plus your experiences of the various birds was a joy to read and consider. My last owl, i found in the day time.... i live in an area where many birds leave or have left at this time of year. when they return it is always a celebration.

    Lovely week to you Charlotte.

  2. thank you for sharing the birds in your world, will have to look up what a waxwing is (have never been to England) & love your crow painting!

  3. Go to Hedgeland Tales and have a scroll through. John has been blogging the sightings of Waxwings in Lincolnshire and Northants.

  4. Those are beautiful words, Charlotte, and I love the crow. I too have often thought the passing of time is well marked by the birds; it was well put in one of my favourite books...

    “Grandmother walked up over the bare granite and thought about birds in general. It seemed to her no other creature had the same dramatic capacity to underline and perfect events -- the shifts in the seasons and the weather, the changes that run through people themselves. p.33”
    ― Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

  5. Lovely post Charlotte! Somehow,at this time of year I feel a deeper connection with land,and birds in particular.Crows always do it for me,the raucous cawing never ceases to send shivers down my spine.Three carrion crows come to our garden to feed,one is a juvenile and it's fascinating to observe the transition from yelling chick,dependent on it's parents,to self sufficient able to see off a pack of pigeons!

    Happy weekend,