Thursday, June 2, 2011

Emperors of the air

It is late May, although the air feels uncommonly cold, gusting through the open shutters of the bird hide in which I am hunkered.  We are waiting for red kites, which come every day at two o’clock to this place where they are fed.  Although we arrived early, there were several jinking and bucking on the southerly wind, riding the air like teenage surfers, ranged on the lines of invisible breakers above us.  They coast the broken contours of this marginal land, their magnificent forked tails tilting and twisting in movements too subtle for us to understand; adjustments as instinctive as those we make to control our balance.

When the feeding starts, the kites gather closer, bobbing and turning at the edge of our vision before diving to pick pieces of meat off the ground in a single, precise movement.  One after another they come, in a mesmeric flow which fills the air with their shrieking call.  It is a sound until recently forgotten from our landscapes, and a reminder of the talismanic property which kites have; they are the bird of revival, of regeneration.  A phoenix for our times.
I came late to birds in my life.  They were always there, their rippled wings flickering at the edge of my vision, but I never learned the lexicon of their brief lives.  Only later, learning slowly from my children what their agile, bird-like minds could grasp in an instant, did I take the time to watch birds, to learn their names and calls.  What appeals to me, as I watch my children darting their vision from tree to bush, catching the ‘jizz’ of movement much faster that I, is an appreciation of birds which are common and often overlooked.  It is not for me the single sighting of a rarity which thrills; it is the spectacle of birds and the unfolding of their daily lives.
Our fascination with birds is founded on two great mysteries; two facts which have always soared above our leaden, earth-bound imaginations.  The first is flight, that state we can attain only in our dreams; the ability to leave behind our terrestrial concerns for a purer, clearer medium.  We can only imagine how the world looks to a bird; not a flat, two-dimensional world laid out before us like a map; more a three-dimensional space in which food or predators appear above or below, in which movement is possible in every direction.
The second mystery is that of migration; the dizzying fact of improbable journeys, told in notes of unfamiliar song from willow trees or hedgerows.  Migration marks our turning of the seasons, the almost painful hope that this year, once again, they will appear.  We might now laugh at the idea that Linnaeus and Gilbert White believed that swallows hibernated underwater, but surely it is easier to believe in special aquatic adaptation than to face the impossible fact of journeys beyond our dreams?  With their hollow bones and compass brains, their scent for the changing of the moon and the pull of ancestral journeys remembered before they are taken, birds are far more magical and mysterious than we can imagine.

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