Not a Dicky Bird
Last month, an advert came on telly for the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Henry, who has never previously shown much of an interest in wildlife, surprised me by saying, "I want to do that! If you phone up, they send you a pack to count the birds! Can we do it, Mum?" Of course we could do it, I told him. I’d phone up and get us the pack.
After a longer than anticipated call to claim our free pack, where I tried to justify why we weren’t about to sign up on the spot to become RSPB members for a year (‘I’ll see how we go with the Big Garden Birdwatch, Karen, then take it from there’), a pack was on its way to us with all the info we needed to take part. The Birdwatch was taking place over the weekend of 26-28 January and to join in with the survey, we simply needed to make a note of the number of birds we could see in an hour of our choice during that time.
There was lots of excitement from both Henry and Jude in the run up to Birdwatch Weekend. Where would we sit to count the birds in our garden? Who would hold the pencil? Could they have a pencil each?! I, too, was excited. It felt like a nice, wholesome activity for the boys to do, away from playing video games or watching other people play video games on YouTube.
I have no idea what we were up to on the Saturday of that weekend but the day came and went without us remembering that it was Birdwatch time. Most of Sunday also whizzed past, with the pack sitting unloved on the kitchen counter, until Henry said casually at 4:30PM, just as it was starting to get dark, "When are we doing our birdwatching then?” Shit. I knew we still had a third day, the Monday, to take part but he would be at school for most of it and I’d be at work until 5PM. It was a ‘now or never’ scenario so we decided to go for it, though I had to delay the start by a further five minutes to stick some jacket potatoes in the oven.
We chose the boys’ bedroom as our watch-spot as it has the best view of the back garden. They made themselves comfy on Henry’s bed and I handed over pencils, explaining what we needed to do. It was quite simple. We needed to count the number of birds we saw, of each type, on our scrap paper. At the end, we’d write the final totals on the form and I'd enter those results online. We had a beautiful leaflet with pictures of the different birds on it to help us identify what we were seeing and for the first thirty seconds it was lovely watching the pair of them scan the garden, pencils poised.
It was from there that it all went a bit downhill, really.
The biggest and most fundamental issue was that there weren’t any fucking birds. Not one. I had read that in terms of the survey results, even a zero-score would be helpful data but it’s not helpful when you’re six and four and have been excited about counting birds for weeks.
The lack of birds was, at least in part, my fault. I hadn't managed to put out anything by way of bird feeders in advance to entice the buggers in. I imagine birds fly over our garden talking to their birdie mates, saying, ‘fuck all down there, Barry, you're better off heading to number 25.’ It was also getting increasingly dark and we were squinting to see. I suggested we widened the search outside of our own garden, to include our neighbours’ gardens on both sides and those gardens we could see in the distance, which at one stage got very exciting until we realised the ‘blackbird’ we’d spotted in a tree was, in fact, a dog-poo bag that had been slung high up into the branches.
I gave words of encouragement about not giving up and the importance of persevering for the hour, sensing their fidgeting, then I asked them to keep a close watch while I quickly went downstairs to check on the potatoes.
Quite remarkably, by the time I’d returned, I was informed that there had been a flurry of bird-based activity in the garden (in the dark). They’d seen five blackbirds, a wood pigeon AND a collared dove! Henry also thought he might have seen a long-tailed tit and Jude pointed at the goldfinch picture to tell me he’d seen two. What a busy two minutes!
As I tried to explain the importance of being precise about what we’d seen and not recording things we weren’t certain of, we ended up with a slightly scaled-back total of three blackbirds and one wood pigeon, which I still suspected were about as likely to be found in our dark, barren garden as a unicorn but I could hardly tell them I thought they were making it up.
As I later recounted the experience to James ("a collared fucking dove!"), I wondered if it had been a waste of time. It had certainly felt like a bit of a pointless exercise and I’d no doubt screwed up our chances of success by failing to put food out and not encouraging the boys to get up at the crack of sparrows to see some actual sparrows.
However, a few days later when they heard someone mention the Birdwatch, Henry and Jude were quick to say, ‘We did that! Didn’t we, Mummy? Mummy sent in our results*’ and I realised it hadn’t all been in vain.
We had a go. We tried.
All right, the reality fell way short of the expectation, as it so often does, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. We joined in and who knows, next year, if I get a bird feeder sorted, we might see some actual birds that aren’t dog-poo bags in trees. I'm glad we tried. I hope the boys remember it.
*I did submit our results, as I promised them I would. However, if anyone from the RSPB is reading this, I would suggest reducing the overall total by three blackbirds and one wood pigeon.