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15 May 2024

The drama and delight of chicks leaving the nest

I’m no birdwatcher, but I was glued to the garden, willing on the fledgling great tits like my own offspring.

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve spent the weekend crouched on the floor by our back windows, binoculars in one hand, iPhone set to video in the other, watching five baby great tits leave their nesting box and then try to navigate the outside world. Yeah, I know, it’s not really my normal thing, is it? These days I’m usually stomping round an art gallery, or hiding in a darkened cinema. Unlike Ben, I’m no bird expert, but for some reason this little drama of survival gripped my attention.

Two years the nesting box sat empty, with not even any viewings. We dropped the price a couple of times, but no takers. Then, last year, two great tits arrived with twigs, clearly nest-building. We were triumphant. Finally, the house had sold.

Later we heard cheeping sounds from within, and watched the adults dashing in and out all day long, feeding the brood. But we missed the moment when the fledglings left, and I always regretted that. Earlier this spring, I cleaned out the box as instructed by a YouTube video, and inside I found an intricate construction of twigs and moss, and, to my surprise, one tiny but perfectly feathered and preserved dead baby bird. I felt sad for this one who hadn’t made it. Perhaps that was the first stirring of my emotional interest in their lives.

This year, we again watched the great tits nesting, and on the one fine day of the bank holiday weekend, I looked up at the box – and saw a little head looking back out at me. I retreated back into the kitchen, and within a few minutes a tiny fledgling emerged to half fly, half tumble into the branches of the bamboo. I was reminded of Woody saying to Buzz Lightyear, “That wasn’t flying – that was falling with style.” Although, in truth, this wasn’t particularly stylish.

Still, it worked – the bird was out in the world, and soon to be joined by a second, and then a third. And that’s when my protective instincts kicked in. They were so small! Round, fluffy and helpless, they sat huddled together at first, then hopped a little. When they tried hopping and flapping at the same time they seemed as surprised as me to find themselves a few inches off the ground.

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Intoxicated with success, they flapped a bit more and ended up on the foot-high ledge outside our kitchen window. From there they launched themselves into the air, like miniature ski-jumpers, managing to fly for a couple of feet before hitting the ground. I was filming a lot of this, and trying to remember when I’d last been so delighted. It was a full afternoon’s entertainment, right there in my garden.

When Ben arrived home, he was frankly astonished to find me in my makeshift camp beside the window. “I am guarding them from cats!” I announced. “Just look at them! They are learning to fly!”

Given that Ben spends a proportion of every day in remote locations watching rare and interesting birds, and noting down very specific things about them, I can’t blame him for finding my sudden interest surprising.

Because the truth is, I am not a nature person. I connected during lockdown in a way I never had before – setting an alarm to hear the dawn chorus, digging a wildlife pond, learning to identify wild flowers on my walks. But as the city opened back up, it called to me with its galleries and cinemas and bars and theatres – more to the point, its PEOPLE. I have drifted back into being what I was before, someone far more interested in the human than the animal kingdom.

What had really grabbed me here was the family drama of it all: kids leaving home, parents trying to help them on their way but having to let them go, in all their vulnerability and frailty. I willed those little birds on like my own offspring.

By the end of the day, five had left the nest, and all had made it up to the relative safety of a higher branch. I put the binoculars away, and crossed my fingers for their continued good luck.

[See also: I had an epiphany. I had fallen in love with a café]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink