One of the characters in my next novel is an eagle who escapes London Zoo to roam the city, causing havoc. Creating her has revived my childhood interest in anything avian, from poetry and biology to watching, unreasonably fascinated, while pigeons poke around in dustbins outside my office window.
As a kid my dad took me bird watching on the Essex marshes and we spent hours crouched in a salt-beaten wooden hut looking out on the mud flats, listening to screaming gulls and watching flashes of movement: buzzards above the marsh, tiny wading creatures lifting knobbly legs out of the reeds.
Now I’m a more urban bird-enthusiast: scraggly sparrow bodies in neighbours’ gardens, crows lingering on park benches, the chirping of birds merging with London traffic in the morning. I’ve spent some time in London Zoo, as well, peering at what could be illustrations in a book of nonsense poetry: Eastern white pelicans, bright-feathered Hyacinth macaws, hunched Griffon vultures, Harrier hawks, and crazy-haired Rockhopper penguins.
But however much I watch, it’s difficult to grasp what it feels like to be a bird. They are such very odd creatures. I want to know whether healthy pigeons mock lame pigeons, if crows are irritated by raindrops, if magpies make friends. And then I saw Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird on a bookshop table.
“What does it feel like copulating for a mere tenth of a second, but over one hundred times a day?” Birkhead inquires on one page. “What is it like to be a male re-capped manakin in a Central American rainforest, displaying like a demented clockwork toy in front of an apparently uninterested female?” And perhaps best of all: “What is it like to be a flamingo sensing invisible rain?”
These are undoubtedly some of the best questions ever asked in the history of questions, and the answers don’t disappoint, either. It’s a compellingly written investigation into how birds feel, exactly what I wanted to read before putting the finishing touches to my fictional eagle.
To make it a truly great book, though, Bird Sense ought to have come with a poetry section, including Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, and Gerald Manley Hopkins The Windhover. It should have several pages devoted to Ted Hughes and his miraculous knack of clambering into bird-consciousness. If my fictional eagle could even hint at the majesty of Hughes’s hawk in Hawk Roosting, I’d be ecstatic. “It took the whole of Creation/To produce my foot, my each feather:” Hughes writes, and the words make me oddly tearful each time I hear them. “Now I hold Creation in my foot/ Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly -/ I kill where I please because it is all mine./ There is no sophistry in my body:/ My manners are tearing off heads”.