I actually wrote this for the RSPB (not for money, you understand, just because we like the cut of each other’s jib). If you’d rather read it over there, then head this way. There’s tonnes of other good stuff over there too and they don’t seem to be suffering from a tiny-picture-crisis. But while you’re here….
“Birds” said the boy, pointing out of the bus window. I didn’t pay a great deal of notice, local birdlife in our area largely being split between pigeons with two feet, pecking in littered pizza boxes, and pigeons with one foot, hopping gloomily along the gutter.
But “birds,” he went on insisting, jamming a finger forcefully against the smeared glass. “birds! Birds! BIIIIIIRDS!” And that’s when I realised that they weren’t birds. Not in the real sense anyway. He was pointing at passing women.
I have NO idea where he picked this up. I swear, with hand on heart, that his father and I only ever refer to women in the most respectful of terms. But look, this is a boy growing up in the grimy East End of London where birds walk along the pavements carrying shopping or pushing prams, wildlife is on the telly and grass is a luxury, measured and marketed in feet by estate agents.
What’s in a name? And does it matter? My son is aware, after all, that there are real birds out there. And he knows that birds with wings and birds with bingo-wings are, for all the linguistic confusion, different species.
Besides, I, his mother, spent half of my childhood in the countryside. I love nature and I understand its value. But I couldn’t match a blue-tit to its name. I’ve never known the satisfaction of seeing a beautiful creature shoot past and saying, “Wow! There goes was a….”
On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that the world gives us toddlers for a reason. To test the limits of our patience and the depths of our drinks cabinet, sure, but also to give us a second chance to explore the world with curiosity.
There has to be an upside to the endless streams of “why?” after all. “Why is the sky blue?” Well… I’m not sure. A chance to go to the Science Museum and marvel at the space probes. “Why do chickens lay eggs?” An opportunity to visit the local city farm and speak to the experts.
And so to birds. I may not have learnt the different names during my own childhood, but maybe I could do it this time, through Johnny’s. So, in the spirit of discovery, I thought we’d spend the weekend in the countryside at the boy’s grandparents and make some bird feeders. And then we’d camp out with a book on birds, binoculars and biscuits and see what we could spot. Just like Bear Grylls.
In the end, we got a little over-enthusiastic. ‘Some bird feeders’ turned into a bit of a bird-boarding house. Because it was SO. MUCH. FUN.
Do you know what was truly brilliant about this project? And what, actually, would make it an ideal half-term project? It’s totally multi-generational.
Our team consisted of me (in possession clueless enthusiasm, some Pinterest guides and the RSPB recipe for bird-feed-cakes) Grandpa (in possession of real ornithological awareness and a fantastic hoard of empty crates, egg cartons and twine) and Johnny (in possession of short-bursts of enthusiasm and a passion for binoculars).
It involves lots of different activities (cooking the feed-cakes, building, painting…) each taking only a short amount of time so able to hold even a truculent two-year-old’s attention. They could easily be broken up and spread up over a few days, too. And it would, actually, have been even better with some school age kids on board to help with the more complicated bits of painting, baking and assembly. On the other hand, it could be scaled up or down to suit any gang.
It’s free (if you’re the collecting sort who tends to have old boxes and things lying around ‘just in case’), fun and full of fresh air.
With breaks for naps, lunches, diversions etc etc, it took us all day. Then we strung up our creation in a tree, sat by the back-door, armed with our bird guide and Grandpa and ate some digestives while gripping our binoculars. We may only have identified, so far, some blue-tits and a robin. But it’s amazing what a thrill it was to see them, eating the seed cakes we made and sitting in our orange-crate palace.
As for the naming of things, the boy may only have got as far as “blue birdies”. But I’m pretty sure he knows, now, that the winged ones in flight are just as exciting as their pavement-bound namesakes.
BON APPETIT BIRDS! (What? They migrate, they’re international…)