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7 December 2022

Winter Reflection: Fellowship of the flock

The pied wagtails delight in urban environments, and display a communality during the darkest, hardest months of the year.

By Helen Macdonald

There’s a moment every year when I feel an anticipatory shiver of delight and realise Christmas is coming. And despite my absurd love for the trappings of festive consumerism – foil-wrapped reindeers, glass baubles, Santas holding court in tinsel-decked sheds in shopping centres, ridiculous high-end perfume adverts on TV – none of those things has ever provoked the feeling. It always happens the first time I go shopping, in the late afternoon after the clocks go back, just as I emerge from brightly lit stores into unexpected night. I must have been aged four or five when I first noticed that shops can be open in the dark, which astonished me. It still surprises me, somehow, every single year.

A different kind of surprise has, through luck, become caught up in my Christmas city-centre memories. I first experienced it back in the 1990s. I was walking down a pedestrianised part of the town centre in Carmarthen, west Wales, just as dusk tipped into a cold December night, when I heard a barrage of high, sharp, strange notes like the echo of coins dropped upon metal. I blinked in confusion as I made my way towards the source further down the street.

There, around a small municipal tree, perhaps a cherry, I saw an eerie, ever-moving halo. White dots looped around it like snowflakes, orbiting electrons, vanishing into the darkness before returning to its branches. As I approached, I saw the tree was full of what I assumed were unlit Christmas lights, whitish blobs strung on its branches. But when I moved closer, I felt a gestalt switch of sudden ­recognition and stared at the tree with delight and wonderment. These weren’t bulbs. They were birds.

In the late 1940s the American ecologist Aldo Leopold borrowed the Kantian term noumenon to describe species that seemed to him to be the essence of particular environments. For Leopold, the ruffed grouse was the noumenon of the woods in north-eastern North America. Though the grouse might be only a millionth of the mass or energy of an acre of woodland, subtract the grouse, and “the whole thing is dead”, he wrote; “an enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost”. And on that night the birds in that municipal tree became for me the noumena of Christmas city centres.

[See also: Instead of insulating from winter, I have decided to expose myself to it]

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The birds were pied wagtails. You’ve probably seen them: small, slim long-legged creatures with a black hood and gorget, a bright white mask and a round, dark eye. They move like restless clockwork toys, tails quivering incessantly as they run, halt, and run again, snatching spiders and insects from expanses of asphalt and concrete. They delight in urban environments, thriving on the rooftops of shopping centres, municipal precincts, retail developments and supermarket car parks.

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Unlike pigeons, they’re unobtrusive creatures, existing in ones, pairs or small family groups, right at the edge of vision. But in winter, they change their behaviour and gather in throngs, assembling in city centres to roost in loud, exhilarating flocks. When I stood under that tree in Carmarthen, my heart lifted with something very much like love, as I saw how each of those unlit bulbs was a pied wagtail; some were alert and staring out into the night, others puffed into spheres with their heads tucked into their covert feathers asleep, while others wheeled about the tree, seeking the perfect twig or branch for shelter.

That tree was a marvel for many reasons: the sheer surprise of finding it; the way the wagtails perfectly mimicked our festive human desire to decorate branches; the way it drew other people in to stare, gaze and grin.

I came across another town-centre roost in Reading, some years later. Another at a hospital in Surrey. Two years ago I found a smaller one, around 40 birds in a ragged birch under a haze of lights at a motorway service station. And this year? I might be able to track one down through social media – I’ll keep an eye on Facebook, for people often remark on wagtail roosts – but perhaps I won’t look. Some things are better encountered by accident, giving them the quality of miracles.

[See also: The natural world is vanishing before it has even reached our eyes]

I’m thinking of these roosts a lot at the moment. Partly because this is the first time in three years that I’ve been among proper shopping crowds in town centres. Being in them gives me a vertiginous sense of the passage of time from before the pandemic to now, an intuition that makes the most ordinary things from pre-pandemic times seem newly wrought and strange.

But the roosts are in my mind for other reasons: the dismantling of the structures around social care, and the cost-of-living crisis, which has led to an increase in efforts by organised labour to fight for a living wage. These difficulties make wagtail roosts more than heralds of winter festivity to me. For these individual birds are coming together during inimical times for mutual benefit.

While wagtails still roost in more natural environments – reedbeds are a particular favourite – it’s far warmer in city centres, a boon for birds seeking to survive bitter winter nights. Brightly lit city streets also deter predators, and many open eyes grant a flock far better vigilance against owls than a single pair.

Yet, most of all, these avian congregations are crucial information exchanges. Wagtails that have fallen on hard times will look around the roost, locate the birds in the best physical condition, and follow them from the roost the next morning to food sources they’d not previously discovered – sources that can be up to 12 miles away – before returning to the roost the following night.

That’s what I’ll notice most, if I encounter a roost this year: not a strange mimicking of human Christmas cheer, but a display of communality and mutual protection during the darkest, hardest months of the year.

[See also: In drought-struck England, I have a moment of connection with another living creature]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special