I came late to a love of birds

by Naomi Racz

I came late to a love of birds. So admits J.A. Baker in the opening of his book The Peregrine. It’s a strange thing to admit just seven paragraphs in to a book about a bird. Perhaps he was pre-empting his critics who accused him of making up parts of the book or of misidentifying the peregrine, because Baker claimed to have observed peregrines behaving in ways they had never previously been observed behaving. I don’t believe Baker made anything up, and besides, I don’t care if he did. Baker could have written a book about the Lesser-beaked Whistlefozz and I would have read it with just as much devotion. I came late to a love of birds. I loved that sentence the first time I read it and it has lodged itself in my brain. I too came late to a love of birds.

Like many children, I grew up learning the names and sounds of common farm animals and certain charismatic exotic species, such as elephants and lions. I visited the zoo and saw sheep and cows on trips to the countryside. One year I got a nature spotting kit for Christmas that included a pair of binoculars. I took up birding for one afternoon, but I quickly gave up when the only thing I spotted in our garden was magpies. Magpies were evil birds that ate other bird’s eggs and, when spotted alone, could bring bad luck and sorrow into your life. Other animals I commonly saw also had negative baggage attached to them. Pigeons were rats with wings. Squirrels were rats with bushy tails. Which I guess makes rats the lowest of the low.

The Peregrine keyed me in to the world of birds again. And I learned to stop saluting lone magpies when my American husband first set eyes on one and fell in love with their smart black and white suits and their iridescent tails. In Corvus: A Life with Birds Esther Woolfson writes about the various corvids she has rescued and shared her home with over the years, including a magpie whose intelligence and mischievous ways inspired yet more admiration. In The Secret History of a Yard, Leonard Dubkin writes a love letter for the yard outside the hotel he lives in. He writes about sharing the yard with his young daughter and about its many non-human inhabitants, including ants, spiders, robins, and Nutsy the squirrel. The Public Life of the Street Pigeon by Eric Simms showed me that common street pigeons are fascinating birds – they feed their young with milk and can suck up water through their beaks. Rats by Robert Sullivan taught me to admire the rodent’s tenacity and strength – they can chew through concrete, have one of the world’s fastest reproduction rates, and have learned to thrive in some of the most heavily urbanised places in the world. Any comparison to the rat should inspire admiration, not revulsion.

She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain. I spent most of my life not really noticing animals, or only noticing them as part of the background – cows in a field, a bird in a tree, the pigeons in the city square. Slowly, through books, I started to notice them more.

***

Six years ago I moved to Nottingham and started birding again. I was partly inspired by The Peregrine and partly by the fact that I was living near Attenborough Nature Reserve. Attenborough is a former gravel works and the land is still owned and worked by CEMEX. Once an area is completely worked out, the land is flooded and restored. It is a watery world, interlaced with green pathways, and dotted with perfect spots for watching the many birds that pass through or call it home.

At weekends I would cycle down to Attenborough on an old steel-lugged bike. I imagined myself as an heir to Baker, who also explored the countryside by bike, and Attenborough was my peregrine country. Instead of peregrines I saw great crested grebes, cormorants, egrets, and herons; I saw common waterbirds: mute swans and Canada geese and mallards. But my favourite spot was a flock of 150 lapwings. I never saw anything extremely rare, but I was not a good birder. I had to carry a copy of Collins Complete Guide to British Birds with me. I was constantly frustrated by my binoculars, which I could never seem to focus properly. In some ways I was impatient, not committed enough to track down rare sightings, in other ways I wasn’t impatient enough. I could spend a whole afternoon in the same bird hide, watching herons and Canada geese.

My life list is short, though I was lucky to spend four years in the Netherlands after Nottingham, where I saw spoonbills, storks (in my local park), and bluethroats. Now I live in Toronto and I’ve had to replace my copy of British Birds with a guide for North America. My life list is already growing, just by placing a bird feeder in my back garden and watching the common birds that land there to feed. Others take advantage of the bird feeder too: chipmunks, black squirrels, and raccoons.

The black squirrels were the first animal I spotted in my new home. I was waiting for a friend in Chinatown when I saw one disappear into a hole in the lid of a bin. Back in the UK squirrels weren’t an animal I paid much attention to, but after four years in the Netherlands, which only has a small population of red squirrels, I realised I had missed them. I missed their acrobatics and their flickering tails. I missed their defensive chatter and their constant furtiveness, never letting their guard down even while munching on a nut. Despite the fact that they have taken to my capsicum coated, anti-squirrel, bird seed with gusto – even attempting to gnaw down the bird feeder – I still watch them, and the birds, with equal pleasure.

The raccoons made an early appearance in our garden too. Just a few days after we moved into our new house, I was sat by the back door when a raccoon walked along the decking and down the steps on the other side. I immediately felt as though I had moved into the raccoon’s territory, and not the other way round. A few days later I spotted two raccoons, a mother and baby. My husband took a picture of them and posted it on Instagram and a Canadian friend commented that they looked hungry. I recalled how she had told me that people in Toronto hate raccoons because they are pests. Raccoons have also recently been identified as carrying rabies. But I was excited at the prospect of sharing my new home with these creatures. Then again, my first impression of raccoons had been formed years ago by Anne Matthews’s Wild Nights, a book about nature in New York City.

In the book Matthews recounts how, as a child, she rescued a baby raccoon from a research lab and named him Shadow, or Shad for short. On his first night with the family, Shad is locked in the basement, where Matthews thinks he will happily sleep. Instead, Shad bangs at the door. When she goes downstairs, she sees a small paw reaching out through a gap. She places a finger to the palm and the raccoon grasps firmly and falls asleep still holding on. Eventually, Shad is allowed to sleep in her bedroom and adopts various sleeping spots, including her sock draw, the canopy of her bed, and her pillow, from where he rests his paws on her eye lids, feeling her dreams through their flickering. Shad sounded like the perfect pet to me. His prehensile paws enable him to interact with the human world in a way other pets cannot. He rummages through the fridge, able to pop open jam jars, and switches between channels on the television set until he finds a show he likes. But Shad is also free to come and go, spending time away from humans in the woods, and Matthews describes him as ‘infinitely other’.

One morning I woke in our new home in Toronto to find the bird feeder on the ground, surrounded by bird seeds. The feeder is a perspex rectangular prism with a small metal roof, attached to the prism by a piece of metal wire. The prism and its seeds were on the floor, but the metal wire and the roof were still hanging from the tree branch. Removing the feeder from the metal wire is a dexterous task and I immediately suspected the raccoons, with their nimble paws. I should be annoyed, I thought, but I felt a thrill at the raccoons interacting with our world.

A few weeks later, I discovered that the raccoon’s method was slightly more crude. I was sat in the lounge one evening, reading, when I heard a sound outside. I turned on the outside light to see one raccoon at the foot of the tree and another one in a branch above. The feeder was swinging on its rope and I watched as the raccoon hauled the rope up, like a sailor hauling up anchor. I knocked on the patio door and the raccoon let go of the feeder. My husband went out on the back deck and banged on the garden furniture, but the raccoons stared back at us, as though stunned by the crazy intruders. The next morning the bird feeder was on the ground again, its contents spilled across the lawn. I realised they were probably lifting the feeder up and then dropping it, until gravity did the job for them. Little buggers. I was half annoyed at the spilled seed, half impressed by their problem-solving skills.

***

I spend a lot of my time sat at a desk in front of a computer. I go to nature to relieve my mind, when it starts to feel like chewed leather. In Manchester or Amsterdam or Toronto, I head for the nearest park. The park is calling and I must go. Nature is good for us. In Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace Sue Thomas even analyses the benefits of spending time with digital nature. But this idea has also been criticised because it treats nature as a means. In an article in Nautilus magazine, author J.B. Mackinnon wrote a critique of nature therapy, or the medicalization of nature. The article argues that the stacks of research extolling the benefits of nature for human health are actually bad for nature, since the kind of nature people find soothing doesn’t tend to include dense forests or arctic tundra. Mackinnon writes of the resistance in the Netherlands and the UK to attempts to rewild areas of land with forest. People don’t feel safe in these closed-in spaces, which induce anxiety instead of relaxation. Yet, spending time in wild, or even semi-wild nature can increase confidence and self-reliance.

The first time I felt afraid of nature was on a camping trip in New England. It was the long summer between university semesters and I was visiting my husband, then boyfriend, for a few weeks. His friend invited us to go hiking and camping with him in the White Mountains. We hiked up Mount Garfield and then spent the night at a large camp site by a mountain stream. I was used to British camp sites, which are usually open fields, but this camp site was a series of pitches carved out of the forest. It felt closed in and when my husband warned me about black bears, I imagined them lurking behind the trees. That night we packed all our food into the car, including our toothpaste, and went to bed. I woke several hours later, in the middle of the night, desperate for the toilet. I didn’t want to leave the safe confines of the tent for fear of those lurking bears. I tried to go back to sleep but the need to pee won out. I scanned the woods around me with my torch as I walked to the toilet block. Once inside, I checked all the stalls for bears, before doing my business and rushing back to the safety of the tent.

For the last four year, I lived in the Netherlands, a country that has been tamed and shaped almost entirely by humans. It’s a country that was reclaimed from the sea and where land is at a premium. Yet there is also a strong Dutch rewilding movement and the country is home to wild horses, wild cattle, and bison. Bears in the mountains of Romania makes sense. Wolves roaming the forests of Germany makes sense. I can even imagine the lynx in the Iberian scrub lands. But these animals are spreading their range, they are approaching the Netherlands, and some are being encouraged and introduced by organisations with a vision that is both forward looking and ancient.

From my apartment in Amsterdam I commuted by train to jobs on the other side of the country. These train journeys took me through cities, towns, farmlands, and along neat, tree-lined canals. I never saw anything I would consider wild or untouched by humans. That was, until I took a train from Amsterdam to Lelystad. The train line between the two cities skirts the edge of the Oostvaardersplassen (being able to pronounce this word is perhaps one of the bigger achievements of my time in the Netherlands). The landscape I witnessed that day was vast and flat, unbroken by canals, rows of trees, or clusters of little houses. Instead the winter-dead grass stretched out as far as I could see, and dotted in the grass were the skeletons of stunted trees.

The Oostvaardersplassen is a 56 square kilometre nature reserve, bordered on one side by the railway line and on the other by a large dyke across the Markermeer. Dykes, along with pumps and sand dunes, are how the Dutch control their watery land and keep back the sea. I like to imagine what this vast wetland would have looked like before the Dutch moved in and started draining and farming and raising cities. I imagine a vast stretch of water full of porpoises and giant carp. I imagine a land of long swaying grasses and reeds appearing from the water, and all the animals that live in that half-water-half-land zone. And I imagine peatlands full of soft, spongy sphagnum mosses and rich earthy soils. Across the grassland roam wild horses, deer, and large cattle. The same animals that now live in the Oostvaardersplassen.

The herds of animals were introduced to the area to ensure that the grassland remained open, which was why I saw so many dead trees from the train that crisp, winter morning. The animals are considered wild, they are not fed, though the management organisation does perform culls from time to time when they consider an animal might be experiencing a painful death. The culling started after the harsh winter of 2005, when news reports were filled with images of deer, encased in ice and slowly dying. The debate went all the way to the government and it was decided culling would be a more humane approach to the animal’s management.

I had the privilege of going on a guided tour of the Oostvaardersplassen (most of it is closed off to the public) and seeing the animals close up. Coming face-to-face with a wild horse transformed the way I think about wild animals. Earlier that same day I’d been on a tour of Kennemerduin National Park, an area of sand dunes that is home to a small herd of wild bison. Rangers used tracking devices to find the animals and we watched them from just a few metres away. There were two adults and a calf. They munched on the grass and barely seemed to notice us. But the wild horses were different, they were curious.

In Beyond Words Carl Safina writes about how animal behaviourists are reluctant to ascribe consciousness, thoughts, and feelings to animals for fear of sounding unscientific, of anthropomorphising. There are good reason to avoid anthropomorphism. As Safina points out, we’re not always able to assign the correct thoughts and feelings to other humans and trying to do so with animals is even more difficult. However, Safina feels that the calls of “anthropomorphism!” have gone too far and have in fact led to anthropocentrism and the belief that humans are somehow different and special. Yet as Safina points out, humans inherited their bodies, including their nervous systems, from somewhere and we can trace that evolution. Human bodies are animal bodies, and human emotions are animal emotions. From observing elephants and their group dynamics it is possible to deduce, for example, that elephants don’t experience romantic love – family groups are led by a matriarch, whilst adult males wander alone. But why doubt that an elephant that seems happy is happy?

I only spent half an hour with the wild horses of the Oostvaardersplassen, but the fact that they approached our group and stared at us made me confident in ascribing curiosity to them. Remember, they’re not fed by humans, so they weren’t expecting food from us. Unlike the bison, they didn’t ignore us. The smaller, younger horses hid behind the older horses but some were braver, more confident, and slowly approached to sniff our outstretched hands.

As well as wild horses, deer, and bison, there have also been recent sightings of wolves on the German border and the organisation Wolven in Nederland is preparing people for the possibility of a Dutch wolf population. When I spoke with Glenn Leleveld from Wolven in Nederland, he told me the Netherlands could support 200-300 wolves. It seemed like a high number for such a small, highly developed country. But the Netherlands is also home to the Veluwe, a 1,100km2 ridge of hills, much of which is covered in forest. Initiatives such as animal highways have helped connect up previously fragmented sections of the Veluwe, and there has been a push to connect it to the Oostvaardersplassen and forests in Germany. There has also been talk of re-flooding areas of the Veluwe that were once wetlands, but were drained to form heathlands. Glenn mentioned this possibility and the opposition: people like what they know, they grew up with heathlands so they think that is what is natural.

As it turns out, the town I worked in, in the east of the Netherlands, is part of the Veluwe and the office building was surrounded by some of its forest. I walked in that forest almost every day for over two years. Most of the time I stuck to well-trodden paths and passed many other walkers, most with dogs. I had a fixed route and some days I arrived back at the office, having barely noticed the forest, deep in thoughts about work or life. On other days I tried to pay attention to my surroundings, to the trees and the light, the birds and other living things. My favourite time of year was always mushroom season, when the forest came alive with strange forms that were there one day and rotting away the next. One autumn, the forest floor was littered with the bodies of dead beetles, a strange phenomenon that never repeated itself. Sometimes I explored further afield and one day I discovered a wildlife passage under a road. The walls of the passage were lined with murals of animals – deer, squirrels, wild boar. A colleague had once pointed out evidence of wild boar near the office. It looked like a patch of roughed up soil, but I took his word for it. I sometimes felt afraid of being a lone woman in the woods, but I had never considered the possibility that wild boar, or wolves, could be roaming the area.

Glenn reassured me there was nothing to worry about. He told me he’d visited the areas where wolves have been sited, that he’d cycled around them. Were you scared? No, he replied, all animals do is risk assessment, they don’t know us so we’re a risk, they stay away. Part of me wishes I’d seen a wolf – perhaps it is the part of me that once longed to be Mowgli. Part of me still clings to the other stories I heard as a child – The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood – and shudders at the thought of being stalked by a wolf.

***

Winter is almost over now in Toronto, ending months of snow and ice and -13°C. Temperatures have risen and storm drains gurgle day and night with melt water. The creek behind our house is flowing again, pushing ice break-up onto the creek’s banks. The squirrels remained active, but the raccoons have spent most most of the winter holed up, sleeping. The birds have reclaimed the feeder. Bright red male cardinals – I think of them as Christmas birds, they’re present all year round but they stand out against the snow – black caps and chickadees. The geese are returning, honking in flight. The hungry time of year is almost over. I think of the deer in the Oostvaardersplassen, trapped behind the train lines. I think of Baker, stalking that harsh winter of 1962-63, hungry for peregrine sightings. The long cold winters are part of what drew me to Canada. It was The Call of the Wild – a book I’ve never read, but whose title always makes me think of harsh, wild winters that never end. Winters that stretch out with snow and ice from November to April. Winters so long the animals turn white, in hopes of eating or avoiding being eaten. This winter hasn’t been quite that harsh and besides, I live in a city, in the most populous part of the country. I might see wolves, coyotes, and bears one day, but for now I have black squirrels and red cardinals, and I have the return of the raccoons to look forward to.

Naomi Racz is a writer, originally from the UK and now living in Toronto, Canada. She writes about nature and place and her work has appeared in The Real Story, City Creatures, and The Learned Pig. Naomi has an MA in Writing, Nature and Place from the University of Exeter.

Photo of Oostvaardersplassen horses by Naomi Racz.