In honour of the storm currently battering the shore and uprooting my garden:
whip creak of bare tree branches
old chimney wolf howls
In honour of the storm currently battering the shore and uprooting my garden:
whip creak of bare tree branches
old chimney wolf howls
The art of medieval garden birds:
The Sherbourne Missal is a (15th illuminated religious text that features the most beautifully painted and realistic depiction of forty-four British birds, which are named not in Latin but in Middle English.
The Sherbourne Missal (formerly the Alnwick Missal) is now part of the British Library collection, but was originally used for celebrating Mass at the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary’s in Sherborne, Dorset.
The principal artist was John Siferwas and the principal scribe was John Whas, but they were assisted by an unknown number of unnamed and uncredited assistants, at least one of whom must have been a keen ornithologist.
You can see more of the beautiful naturalistic work online here or buy hard-copy prints from the British Library.
Drawing and painting the birds involves close scrutiny of detail, and I’ve become much more aware of the leg colour of the wee birds than I was before I started painting this set or garden bird portraits for the RSPB
#BigGardenBirdWatch. Six birds so far, more to come. Not to scale when viewed as a set! And they all began as pencil sketches on wood.
With an audience:
When I’m stuck indoors, like just now, I watch these birds for most of each day. I’ve noticed that when I’m too ill for visitors or for talking on the phone, the company of these birds is more significant than ever. Folk wonder why I keep the bedroom wide open in the icy depths of winter, well I have a fever and a duvet so I’m sorted for warmth, but it means I’m not completely walled-up, and nature is not completely Out There, Away from me. Drawing, painting, photographing them is a form of engagement in itself, and then I can share my work here…
The great tits, robin and blue tits often potter on the windowsill, eating the squirrel peanuts. They peer in at me with what seems like great curiosity. Raspberry squirrel scatters monkey nut shell over the duvet, squirrels I don’t know peering in wondering what’s going on. Instead of every day being the same indoors, or the same pain, there is a different sky fragment, changes in the trees, recognisable silhouettes in the trees, squirrel acrobatics, even the bird plumage changes. One of the dunnock has a slight limp, and the robin has some wayward white underarm feathers.
The detail of these birds is fascinating. I’m currently obsessed with bird feet. They look like tiny dinosaur feet.
The sounds of nature also keep my thoughts outdoors instead of inside my body: the constant sparrow chatter (or the unsettling sparrow silence…) bickering goldfinches on the nearest feeder, virtuoso blackbird and robin arias, crows and magpies calling causing surprisingly loud wing flaps of startled wood pigeons. This and more keeps me part of the outdoors. I am part of something bigger and better, something vast and timeless, something I don’t need an invitation to belong to, I just need access to it, or at times like this, a window onto it.
Obviously I’d prefer the wall was entirely window, French windows so they could all be open, floor-to-ceiling, with a smooth path from my bed right down to the low tide line so the sea swans could waddle up to me when I wasn’t able to, er, waddle down to them… It sounds like luxury but being able to see the sky and be immersed in nature is a vital and irreplaceable component of health, wellbeing and sanity.
And of course, even at the smallest window there’s always something unexpected to stare back at. Last time, it was a certain limping crow. Now she had amazing dinosaur feet. And a dinosaur beak. You don’t have to paint the details, you can paint the feral feathered energy.
This crow, in fact:
The RSPB big garden bird watch weekend co-incided with the ivy berries ripening, so there has been an acrobatic feeding frenzy on the old wall at the bottom of the garden. Most of the birds have feasted on the berries, two wood pigeons have spent several dedicated hours a day to hoovering up the berries and even the squirrels have been spotted dangling by one foot trying to reach some unstripped bunches.
I lost a couple of days to fever during the worst of the lurgy. Having the flu when you’re already ill is a little harsh, so I hope that’s it for the season. Fortunately even from bed there was a bit of blue sky visible, some sunbeams, and a garden full of birds feeding and singing, with squirrels taking turns to peer in through the closed window. It’s gone quiet now that its icy dusk.
My tally for the RSPB birds (and others) survey is:
0 crows (could only hear them)
0 sparrow hawks (fed in a neighbour’s garden this weekend)
2 wood pigeons
2 collared doves
5 feral pigeons
1 pair of blackbirds
1 song thrush
1 pair of magpies
12 house sparrows
1 coal tit
3 great tits
8 blue tits
7 female grey squirrels (including Raspberry)
1 black cat
And that cat did her persistent best to reduce the number of live garden bird sightings throughout the weekend. No collar, no bell, invisible in shadows, and her favourite pastime is maiming birds then leaving them to slowly die. She doesn’t seem to eat them or play with them or take them home to her owner as gifts.
She’s a beautiful cat and very friendly with humans. I love the company of cats, and of course on a farm keen hunters like this one are the best for protecting the chooks and catching mice, but in an urban wildlife area where birds are being encouraged to feed and breed this particular cat can be a bit of a liability. If her most casual average is only 3 kills a day, that’s 21 kills a week, 84 kills a month, 1008 kills a year. But someone loves her, and she might be their favourite person in the world.
The coal tit only visited briefly, but the feeders were swarming with blue tits for most of yesterday. Bluetits will take peanuts from the windowsill even when the window is open and I’m sitting beside it.
An even larger group of goldfinches were in residence. Each seems to have a favourite feeder but only a couple are confident to wander away from the flock. So far none have ventured onto the windowsill, which is just as well today because I’d sneeze on them.
That’s it for now, the lurgy has won. Going to lie in bed and listen to the birds – there’s quite a racket out there!
Sketching the birds at the open window today for the RSPB big garden birdwatch. Squirrels were the first to notice me, closely followed by the robin.
Great turnout at the various feeders (and windowsill) so far today, including the return of starlings, which is entirely down to the mealworms I’ve been putting out for the blackbirds and song thrush these past few days. I’ve missed them, its good to see them again. It is raucous out there now, what a sparrow-chirping din.
Time for some Scottish lurgy medicine before I paint up these wee sketches . Hot soy milk with turmeric, black pepper, ginger and whisky. Just the cooking whisky, I’m not putting single malt in with all that lot.
Back later with more from this Edinburgh windowsill’s #BigGardenBirdWatch
#BigGardenBirdWatch has arrived. It seems appropriate that the day is launched with the celebration of our garden’s most abundant bird, the house sparrow.
We have herds of the little fiends, and some days they are deafening. They have a variety of calls, some of which are tuneful. It’s their silent days which are most unsettling.
I’ve always loved sparrows. It was the first garden bird I ever drew from life, and observing it so closely made me see and appreciate the full range of colours in its ‘brown’ feathers. And while they may look alike, there are some distinctive characters in the flock.
A house sparrow was also the first garden bird to obligingly hand-feed. Just the one, a male. He took food from my hand quite calmly when I was sitting in the garden until that seemed perfectly normal. I forgot to mention this to anyone else so the next person in the garden did not expect to turn round and find a sparrow standing right behind them, gazing up at them expectantly, or to then be followed round the garden while they worked. In the summer the sparrow brought his partner and offspring with him, who watched him with (engage anthropomorphism) seeming horror as he came up to me to get food then called back for them to join him. To their credit they came pretty close and very nearly copied him.
As well as being caged as a pet and/or eaten in a pie, the sparrow has been a victim of unprovoked prejudice and rumour over the centuries. Chaucer, Shakespeare, the ancient Egyptians and Chairman Mao had much to say against them. The fairy tale Der Hund und der Sperling* by the Brothers Grimm features a sparrow as its antihero:
*not for the fainhearted!
Der Hund und der Sperling
Once upon a time there was a man who starved his dog, and treated it viciously and cruelly. Unable to take the abuse and hunger any longer, the dog ran away from home.
As he walked up the road, the dog met a sparrow, who asked him why he looked so unhappy.
The dog whimpered sadly: “I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in days”.
The sparrow felt great sympathy for the dog, and told him, “Come to the town with me, and I’ll get food for you”.
They travelled to the town together, and there they found a butcher’s shop. The sparrow pecked at some meat hanging in the window display until it fell down to the dog, who devoured it hungrily.
The sparrow led the dog to a second shop, where the bird again pecked at a display of meat until some fell down to the dog, who ate it up. The dog was happy now, but still felt hungry.
Next, the sparrow found a baker’s shop, and pecked at some bread until it fell down to the dog, who ate it up too. But afterwards he was still hungry.
So the sparrow led the dog to a second bakery, where again she pecked at bread to feed it to the dog.
This time the dog felt full. He suggested they go for a walk outside town in the sunshine.
After they had gone a short distance the dog said: “I’m tired now, I need to go to sleep.”
“Go on then”, said the sparrow, “have a nap and I’ll watch over you from that tree branch.”
The dog lay down and immediately fell asleep. While he was asleep a wagon drawn by three horses came into view, heading towards them. The sparrow noticed that the man was heading for the dog, looking straight at the dog and aiming his horses towards where it slept. She called out a warning to make the man stop in time.
But the carter laughed, and deliberately drove his wagon over the dog, so that the dog was crushed to death beneath the wagon wheels.
The sparrow shouted: “Your cruelty has caused my friend’s death, and you will pay for that with your wagon and horses.”
“Hah”, mocked the carter, “I’d like to see you try”.
The sparrow flew down, landed on the wagon and crept under the cover. She pecked until she got the cork out of a barrel and all the wine ran out without the carter’s noticing it.
At last the man turned round and saw that the bottom of the cart was soaked in wine and dripping onto the road. He checked the barrels and discovered that one of the barrels was empty. He whined “This isn’t fair, I am so unlucky!”
‘You’ll have worse luck still,’ said the sparrow, as she perched on the head of one of the horses and pecked out its eyes.
The carter grabbed his axe and tried to hit the sparrow with it, but the little bird flew up high, and the carter only hit the blind horse on the head. The horse fell down dead. ‘Oh why am I so unlucky?”!’ he cried again.
“You’ll have worse luck yet,” said the sparrow, as he drove away, leaving the dead horse. She crept back under the covering again, and pecked away at the cork of the second barrel, and all the wine poured out on to the road.
When the carter noticed the new stream of wine and another empty barrel he called out again: ‘Oh why am I so unlucky?”
But the sparrow answered: ‘Your bad luck is not over yet,’ and flying on to the head of the second horse she pecked out its eyes.
The carter jumped out of the wagon and seized his axe, with which he meant to kill the sparrow; but the little bird flew high into the air, and the blow fell on the poor blind horse instead, and killed it on the spot. Then the carter exclaimed: ‘Oh why am I so unlucky?”
‘There’s more bad luck coming,” cried the sparrow; pecking out the eyes of the only remaining horse.
The carter furiously threw his axe at the bird; but once more she dodged the blow, which instead struck and killed this final horse. Once again the carter called out: ‘Oh why am I so unlucky?”
“It’s not over yet” said the sparrow, “because now I’m going to take vengeance on your entire home”.
The carter raced home as fast as he could, leaving his wagon, empty barrels and dead horses on the road. As he reached the front door he yelled to his wife that he was home, and that his wine had gone and his horses had been killed, and it wasn’t his fault at all, he was just unlucky.
His wife stopped him there. The sparrow had reached home before him, and had told her that all the birds were going to join together to eat every grain of corn in their barn because of what her husband had done to the poor dog as it slept on the road.
The man and woman rushed to the store, where they found thousands of birds eating the grain, and in the middle of them all sat the sparrow. When he saw the sparrow, the carter wailed, “Oh why am I so unlucky, I haven’t done anything wrong”
“Not unlucky enough if you still haven’t learned and you’re still not sorry,” answered the sparrow. “At this rate your cruelty and lack of conscience will cost you your life.” and with that she flew away.
The carter was depressed by the loss of all his worldly goods, but still wasn’t sorry for killing the dog. The sparrow sat on the windowsill behind him, out of sight, and listened to the man dwelling on his misfortune and plotting ways he could punish and torture the sparrow.
Then the carter heard the sparrow on the windowsill, turned, and grabbed his axe from beside the fire. He threw it at the sparrow, and missed, smashing the window instead. He ran to retrieve his axe, then chased the bird round and round the room, chopping at it wildly with his axe. He missed the bird every time, but kept on chasing and chopping, until he’d accidentally destroyed all of the furniture in the room.
Just when he was about to give up, the sparrow flew too close. he lunged, and caught it with his bare hands. His wife cheered, and offered to wring the bird’s neck for him.
But the carter thought that would be too quick and easy a death for such an evil bird, so he declined his wife’s helpful offer, and held the sparrow fast. He soon had an idea. He’d eat the sparrow alive! That would be a terrible death for the sparrow, so it would cheer him up enormously.
The man stuffed the sparrow into his mouth and swallowed. But she fought and struggled in his throat and climbed back into his mouth. The little sparrow pecked the man until he opened his mouth, she stuck her head out of his mouth, and she told him that this time, she’d make him sorry for killing the dog who was her friend. His life was forfeit, said the little sparrow, as she perched on his teeth.
The man, his mouth full of sparrow, managed a muffled command to his wife. She must strike that bird with the axe, and kill it once and for all!
So the woman grabbed the axe, swung it, and chopped hard at the bird sitting in her husband’s mouth. The axe struck the man right in the face, and killed him dead. It missed the sparrow though, who flew away.
The countdown to the RSPB
#BigGardenBirdWatch with the garden ruddock. Currently flying solo, our winter garden robin just appears near wherever I sit, and if I’m just at the window, he’ll venture through the herd of squirrels to come up for food.
There’s a rival male encroaching on this territory, so this afternoon featured a battle of harsh song, one from either hedge, our defending robin puffed up to spherical levels.
I was in the ivy nook at the bottom of the garden photographing ivy, so he flew in to see what I was up to and if it involved spare juicy earthworms.
In a past home the resident garden robin fed from the hand, and if the back door was left open he’d come in to the kitchen to help himself, or at least draw attention to his food needs. One day I found him perched on the sitting room mantlepiece, quite relaxed, just observing. Wasn’t sure what to do with him. Seemed rude to ask him to leave.
My countdown to the RSPB
#BigGardenBirdWatch brings us to the flock of Carduelis carduelis which appeared in the garden last year and have never left. I’ve never seen them in a garden before, and never so close up. They gleam like treasure in the sunshine.
This goldfinch is on my neighbour’s bird feeder, which is running out while she’s away.
Most of the flock are currently sitting in the tree nearest to it, willing it to refill, while the rest are at mine, scoffing seed as fast as they can before the others notice.
Only one of them feels able to use my feeders while I’m sitting next to them, so his bravery is rewarded, and I get to see those jewel colours up close.
Their burbly song is sweet, but their squabbling sweary fighting noise is more akin to tiny tooth drilling.
I’m not the first painter to be enthralled by these birds. The most famous is probably the (17th Dutch painter Carer Fabritius.
The goldfinch is shown chained to a perch. I admire the skill of the painter, but to me the image depicts sadness and loneliness.
The artist was killed shortly after painting this beautiful little gem, one of the many casualties of a massive, accidental explosion at the Delft gunpowder store in 1654. He was 32 years old.
A happy discovery in the trees at the bottom of the garden, just in time for today’s countdown to the RSPB
Low song thrush numbers have put them on the red list, so they need all the help they can get. This one is perched above the old ivy-covered wall, which is the main winter home of the garden snails, but I’ve just added a mealworm feeder to assist during this cold snap. I haven’t seen a throstle anvil in the garden, so it’s probably in the woods.