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1 April 2020

Spring reflection: Learning from the birds

An exotic, acquisitive bird-watching trip on the other side of the world already feels like an artefact of another age. Now the creatures in my garden are helping me to think about the nature of community.

By Helen Macdonald

As the Northern Hemisphere slipped towards spring and cases of coronavirus began to blossom horribly across the map of Europe, I was in Costa Rica on a wildlife-watching tour. For two weeks I shared a minibus with a group of retired British folk whose main aim was to see as many birds as possible: we met every evening to tick off the species we’d seen that day from a ready-printed list.

We saw quetzals, trogons, potoos, cuckoos, hawks, a whole cavalcade of tiny neotropical warblers, hummingbirds that snapped and buzzed through the air like animated electrons. We slept in wooden cabins on the edge of the Pacific where mouse-sized green katydids twitched their long antennae on the insect screens below the lights, in hotels in lowland jungle and high-altitude cloudforest, in rooms overlooking volcanoes with gardens of jimsonweed and arum lilies and wet, red earth. We went on birding walks, we clambered out of the bus onto the verge to train our binoculars on whatever we had seen that had been interesting enough to make us pull over, and a couple of times we took to boats, puttering low along rivers and mangrove swamps.

It was on one of these early-morning boat trips that I started to get the fear. We had been moored in a dim green backwater for a few minutes and were gazing at a screen of mangrove leaves while our Costa Rican guide – a man of extraordinary natural-historical expertise and commendable patience and commitment to the whims of his human charges – played the call of a mangrove warbler on his phone in order to tempt one out so we could see it. Other boats passed us, mostly filled with retired Americans wearing the same shades of khaki and stone that we wore and carrying the same kinds of scopes and binoculars that we carried. As we waited, and people pointed at a flicker in the shadows above the water that might or might not have been the small bird in question, I thought for the first time ever: why on Earth am I watching birds? It was a peculiar and unpleasant sensation, as if I was looking at a person I had loved my entire life and found them not only unrecognisable but unaccountably repellent.

The feeling wouldn’t go away. It was an existential slippage in which previously unshakeable and self-evident meanings had begun to disappear; even with its shattering impact attenuated to the news on my iPad screen, Covid-19 was working on me. The novels I’d brought to entertain me in the evenings seemed like dispatches from a world already gone; I couldn’t concentrate on them. Instead, I grew absorbed in an ebook of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, where I read about 19th-century animal-hawkers: street sellers of birds’ nests and live sparrows, adders whose fat was sold to cure disease, hedgehogs sold for domestic pest control, yellow-bellied frogs sold for food, live sparrows for children to play with, newts from London ponds sold to gentlemen “for curiosity”.

I thought of all the opprobrium being directed at wild animal markets in Wuhan. I thought of all the reasons we value animals: for food and for their beauty, as medicine, as toys, as things to entertain us.

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What was the value of the birds we were watching in Costa Rica? The next morning I overheard two of our group in animated conversation. They were dividing the expense of the tour by the number of different bird species they had seen so far to come up with a figure, in pounds sterling, of how much each bird had cost them. It was quite a large sum per sighting, one said, but it still wasn’t as expensive as non-feathered birds, by which I assume he meant women. And once my fit of silent fury had subsided, I realised that this trip was disquieting me because we weren’t learning anything much about the birds we saw: we were identifying them, ticking them off a list, and moving on, caught up in a hungry and expectant apperception of the world in which the lived reality of the creatures that flew and sang around us seemed almost entirely obscured by the triumphant, costly light of seeing them.

Already the thought of flying thousands of miles to watch wildlife seems a luxurious artefact of history. But for the last couple of weeks, the ability of nature to provide solace during the pandemic has become a familiar talking point on social media and in the press. Much of this talk is unhelpful – solitary walks in the countryside to improve one’s mental health is not a useful suggestion for those with limited financial means living in close quarters in urban environments. But it has made me think about what we were doing in Costa Rica, and how it differs from what I am doing right now as I confine myself to home.

The birds I am seeing in my small garden aren’t special. Mostly they are pigeons and sparrows. Their lives continue unaffected, their habits unchanged. I value them for their ubiquity, their familiarity, their squabbling sociality, their uncomplicated continuance, their sweet obliviousness to our human concerns, all of which work against anxiety and dislocation.

It was a treat to see the dusty feathered jewels of Costa Rica, but now my attention is fixed upon these ordinary creatures because they seem tutelary spirits for a time when the unshakeable assumptions of late capitalism tremble with strange new precariousness. Valuing their small and local lives doesn’t seem to me an act of political quietism or nativism, but instead a rejection of self-interest and acquisitive accumulation as a source of human joy.

As the familiar structures of our lives fall away, those who are not on the front lines, toiling to keep us healthy and fed, have been given space for introspection and deliberation, to think carefully about what we should now value, and why. The birds in my garden are helping me to think about the nature of community; of how things fit together and, in the future, what our place in that might be.

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021