Brief Lives: The Aesthetics of Bird Watching

Brief Lives: The Aesthetics of Bird Watching

Inspired by a random encounter with a Goldfinch, architect Richard Porch writes about the discovery of the joys of bird watching from his home on the site of a former steelworks.

If books can be said to furnish a room then the same may be said about birds and gardens.

City and town environments provide us with experiences and facilitate encounters in lots of ways, some we have a hand in bringing about – some we don’t. The physical components of them can be considered as ‘hardware’; think of buildings, roads, or bridges, etc. But there is a ‘software’ element too that can enhance your experience of the spaces between buildings and infrastructure. Think of complete intangibles like the music produced by street musicians, the freep-freep of car alarms, or (more rarely) birdsong.


Which brings me to wildlife in the built environment. I’m thinking particularly about garden birds in particular. I live on the site of a former steelworks that was originally the brownest of brown field sites. It was demolished a few years ago and re-landscaped for use as a housing estate. The end result is a perfectly serviceable domestic housing estate of the modern kind with the almost obligatory postage stamp-sized gardens to the rear. When we first moved in our garden was very immature and consequently we had little in the way of bird activity.

There are two upbeat aspects to encouraging birds into one’s garden; firstly one is supporting a fellow living organism and that’s almost unequivably a good thing. Secondly one gets to see multi-coloured creatures of surprising variety animating the mundane background of a British garden. I’m not sure what we’re expecting to see; possibly a few elderly Sparrow’s coughing amongst the trees; however, we were genuinely surprised at how many species we were able to attract. This aesthetic dimension nicely counterbalances the train-spotterish aspect that makes people want to ‘collect’ sightings of birds like car or train numbers. I can understand that but it is not the thing that interests me most. It is the attempt to try and attract living creatures of varying colour, size and behaviour patterns into your garden that makes the whole exercise so (a) creative and (b) worthwhile on almost every level. For, bird-watching is – I would contend – an aesthetic experience. The joy (not an overstatement) resides in the satisfaction one gets from enticing them into your garden and having them respond to your efforts. We initially put out scraps, the sort of stuff destined for the food waste box and recycling. Then we started to put out different seeds specifically to attract individual species of birds. If, as we did you start from the lowest of low base points (i.e. few birds at all) then anything that shows up is some sort of reward.

Bird-watching has parallels to fishing, in that there is a lot of waiting involved. The dénouement however does not result in the capture or death of a wild creature rather an affirmation of its existence. Nothing is trapped, nothing is interfered with and (best of all) nothing dies. In fact a creature is fed, watered and encouraged to live another day, predation by our two cats notwithstanding. We are rewarded two-fold; we have contributed to a fellow creature’s well-being, indeed its very survival. And secondly it has entered the restricted loop of our lives. That the average garden bird (depending on the species) lives between 1 -3 years is a poignant counterpoint to our relationship with them. They lead short, brutal existences predicated entirely on finding food, reproducing themselves and avoiding predation. On freezing winter’s nights when we are tucked up in insulated homes, in warm clothing and with the central heating turned right up, they languish in trees or bushes as the frost forms in a cruel parody of floral patterns on car windshields. Protected from the freezing cold by only a thin layer of feathers and the proximity of other roosting birds these fragile beings survive on the coldest of winter evenings. Then they have to shake off the frost and go looking for the food that will generate the heat and energy for them to survive another day. Only very, very infrequently does one get to handle them and usually when they are brought in dead by the cat.

Stunned Goldfinch

A few months ago I was sitting in the conservatory when there was a soft ‘whump’ as something hit the glass of a window pane. It sounded as if someone had tapped on it with a gloved hand. Seeing no-one looking back at me I got to my feet and looked out. I saw a beautiful Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) lying in a flower bed on its front with its wings splayed out and twitching in spasm. Its head and neck was arched until it reached its back and its big white seed-eaters beak opened and closed soundlessly. It had flown from an adjacent bird-feeder and stunned itself by crashing into the window. I picked it up very, very gingerly and was amazed at the lack of mass or weight in this strikingly coloured creature’s body. They weigh about the same as a £1 coin. I’d never seen one close-up and the brightness of its yellow wing bars together with its sheer weightlessness in the palm of my hand was a guilty pleasure. It was breathing rapidly because it was in shock and I placed it in a shoe box lined with tissues and hoped that it would recover. The collision with the glass had evidently failed to damage either its neck or wings because four hours later I opened the shoebox and it flew quickly out of the garden. I imagine it must have had the mother and father of a headache.

We have a ‘charm’ (the collective noun for them) of six Goldfinches that visit our garden daily ever since my wife began putting out Nyger seeds specially to attract them. They arrive stealthily; take their food quietly and without fuss. That’s unless another Goldfinch tries to intercede and then there’s flurry of feathers and a furious rasping sound indicating that one is getting ratty with the other.

This brings me to bird song which is often described as a “querulous piping” whatever the frick that is. The hard, unromantic reality is that it is simply the creature staking out its territory by means of a loud (often unremitting) vocalisation. Any attempt to describe individual bird song inevitably has one reaching for similes. You are in the same boat when trying to describe wine. The taste of this or that wine is usually only described by referring to something outside it i.e. like chocolate, berries or fruit. Bird song varies from bird to bird and can vary from a metallic ‘veep-veep’ with Chaffinches to a noise like someone rotating one of the old timber football rattles which signals a Magpie’s alarm call. Blackbirds have a manic yodel which they deploy when flying away from a garden to signal departure. By contrast they have a mild almost inaudible cluck which they use to demonstrate where they are in relation to a partner. We have at least 20+ Starlings that call every day; a species in decline that arrives en masse to peck and squabble with each other for every pointed yellow beakfull of food. I had very little time for them as they were so fractious; until I saw one scooped up right in front of my eyes by that great predator of the domestic garden, the Sparrowhawk. Very occasionally we can add a House Sparrow, once the most commonplace species of my childhood and now a rarity. Their population has nearly halved in the last 30 years due to (among other things) loss of nest sites and fewer insects due to the use of pesticides in gardens. ‘Aderyn y To” (bird of the house-top’) in Welsh have been known to live and breed in coal mines. We are very occasionally favoured with a visit by a Jay; the latter is so exotic in its colouring that it is (like the Goldfinch) hard to believe it is a British garden bird. It looks like a psychedelic Crow.

Norwegian Wren
Norwegian Wren

Perhaps the most bizarre bird we’ve ever seen in our little garden was a male Blackbird with a bald head. It was sitting apparently unperturbed on the garden fence regarding the world as garden birds normally do with a mixture of interest and with half an eye on predation. It had a completely featherless head but its plumage was intact everywhere else, it was a surreal sight in the truest sense. Its vivid yellow beak no longer glowed brightly against a velvety black background and the circle of yellow feathers that ring each eye – which are normally invisible without field glasses – were absent too. The poor dab looked utterly freakish. More knowledgeable folk than me said that such baldness was often brought on by the stress of mating (i.e. failing to find a mate) or by the sheer physical demands of feeding a nest of recently-hatched young. Isn’t it fascinating to think that we can have something in common with male Blackbirds?

Birds ornament our drab little gardens with their flashes of colour and the kinetic vitality of their lives. We very occasionally get a Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) which is the smallest British bird and a tiny thing to behold. It resembles nothing so much as half a mouse with wings and its movements are so rapid the eye can barely follow them. I saw one In Norway recently. Two thousand metres up in the mountains and with 3 ft. of snow on the ground even in April, I saw this miniscule creature out in the early dawn air looking for food. These animals are inspirational on so many levels and they are an aesthetic treat to boot. In my lunch hour I have to walk across a pedestrian footbridge and then through some surface car parking to gain the shops for a sandwich. Running around looking for scraps of food are numerous Pied Wagtails (Motacila Alba). These are a small bird with a dark blue and white plumage and a fascinating bobbing tail movement; hence ‘Wagtail’. They run around frantically from place to place on the improbably spindly little legs that all birds possess. When a Wagtail puts its head down and scurries across the ground its legs turn into a Futurist blur of motion that Giacomo Balla (think of his ‘Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash’ painting of 1912) would have been delighted to capture in paint. Although, strictly speaking I don’t think garden birds quite fit in with the manifesto aims of speed, technology and violence that so energised Futurism. Birds tend to be inelegant at walking; but that’s the price they pay for being able to decide when gravity will apply to them and when it won’t. The gift of flight still amazes. I watch little Wagtails scoot around the car park then run up onto the Leisure Centre bridge’s ramp before stepping off into space above the traffic. They don’t pause; they just walk out into the void and a blur of black and white wings bears them off. From the diffused red of a male Chaffinch’s breast to the vivid red and black ‘ski mask’ that Goldfinches have, birds are a treat for the eye. By putting out this or that food you can attract a variety of birds into your garden and by default make aesthetic decisions (like the idea or not) about what species are drawn in.


The ‘science’ behind garden birds is fascinating although (for me ) it lags behind the aesthetic aspect. For example; we now know that the bright blue head cap of the Blue Tit gives off ultra-violet light which only other Blue Tits can see. It is something to do with giving them a recognisable sexuality which might not otherwise be visible to the naked eye. Useful for Blue Tits though one imagines. Robin’s can actually see the earth’s magnetic field and pigeons use miniscule iron particles in their beaks as a compass. Birds don’t need science – they are made of it. In an idle moment Alan Turing the computer genius, worked out the maths behind the vectors needed to explain the flight path of bumble bees. He also did something similar to explain the apparently irregular pattern of daisies in a garden lawn. Why? Some things like the erratic path of a butterfly jinking its way merrily through one’s garden are better left unexplained. Maybe the butterfly is using some arcane algorithm hard-wired into its DNA via evolution. Maybe it’s just got bad eyesight – actually it hasn’t – but that’s for another time.

We must do more to protect our indigenous bird population – in fact garden wildlife in general. It is so rewarding – put out more food!


(All photos by the author)