The Secret Blackbird

2012-05-01, , , , Comments

What a treat, to be back at the zoo education centre for the launch of Geraldine Taylor and Dru Marland’s new book, The Secret Blackbird — the alarming case of the missing birds! The book investigates the summer-time absence of garden birds, but before considering this central mystery Geraldine posed some other puzzles.

Why do herons fly overhead when a ground mist covers the downs?

Why do more long-tailed tits fly out of a bush than flew into it?

Why do pied wagtails run in circles round lamp posts?

I’ve never counted birds in and out of bushes but I reckon I know the answer to the second one: by the time you notice a tit fly into a bush there’s probably a few others in there already; and you watch them all fly out. Geraldine suggests the discrepancy is always one — the lone anchor bird which discreetly reconnoitres the bush before giving the others the OK to proceed. So you see, the mystery is all about point of view.

The same goes for herons. When the downs are covered in mist Geraldine looks up more. Have you noticed, she added, the way wood-pigeons dive in and out of the mist, like a dolphin? Why do they do that? Lubrication, to stop their wings creaking!

Crowded nest

The pied wagtails in our garden do run in circles but not around things and not right now, they’re too busy feeding five hungry fledglings. I’d assumed it was a courtship display. Geraldine had no definitive answer either. By now, the audience was involved: where do swifts sleep, and what happens to swallows in winter? The swifts fly up high in the evening and wake lower down in the morning, still on the wing. The swallows conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.

Dru read a haiku. Deborah Harvey read two poems from Communion.

The birds, it turns out, aren’t missing, they’re moulting. Low on energy after the nesting season and barely able to fly due to lack of feathers, they lie low, avoiding predators. In the summer of 2010 Geraldine watched a blackbird — the secret blackbird — go through this process, and now she retold the story, reading from her book. Dru signalled the part of the bird using a set of semaphore flags.

Some more poems, the final one acted out with a soft toy and a star.

It’s a very fine book indeed. Dru has surpassed herself with the illustrations, which mix avian character studies and cartoons.