Adverse Camber has just enjoyed – if that’s quite the right verb – a spell of sub-zero weather. The Met Office wittered on about a polar vortex, a plunging something-or-other and a wobbly gulf stream, or possibly jet stream, and spoke blithely of a ‘cold snap’. What that meant in real terms was that for several mornings in succession, the inhabitants of the Camber Valley woke to a beautiful, frozen world, complete with lethal roads, broken central heating boilers and a stark divide between those who found it all enchanting and photogenic (who were, in the main, people who didn’t have to leave the house) and those who found it a monumental pain in the backside because they had a living to earn and ‘the ****ing gritting lorries haven’t reached the ****ing back roads yet and what do we pay our ****ing taxes for?’.
I’m basically in the former group, in that if I DO have to be anywhere, it’s generally in the village and within cautious slithering distance.
I have a different problem.
I have birds.
Anyone who knows me, even slightly, knows that I’m very fond of my garden birds. So fond, in fact, that what I spend on bird seed every year would be enough to feed an entire developing nation for at least a couple of hours. My argument is that I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I eat deeply boring food and I pay £10 for a haircut only when I start walking into things – so all the money I save by being what I like to call ‘frugal’ (and you may call it what you wish) is spent on suet blocks, sunflower kernels and those dinky half-coconut shells filled with fatty, seedy gloop. Other women go misty-eyed over shoes and handbags. I salivate over niger seed feeders.
Once upon a time, ‘feeding the birds’ was a matter of scattering a few breadcrumbs on the patio and – if you were feeling really pioneering – buying a small box of ‘Swoop’ wild bird seed to give your feathery chums a little treat. You start out with the intention of keeping it all low key … a little bird table, with a half coconut, some peanuts and a two-port seed feeder. Then you see goldfinches in your neighbour’s garden, and you think ‘I’m having some of those’. So you buy thistle seed, which needs a special thistle-seed feeder. Next, you realize you’re getting through a lot of seed, so it makes sense to buy it in bigger quantities … and those suet block feeders look good … and – oh look – six birds at a time can feed on that seed hopper … And before you know it, puce-faced delivery men are staggering to your door with 25 kilo sacks of sunflower seeds and whole cases of fat balls and demanding to know how many golden eagles you’re feeding in your back garden.
Needless to say, the local bird population knows where the food is and you soon realize that you’re on their daily feeding route. They turn up at the same time every day to clean you out completely – stripping the suet feeders and emptying the seed hoppers while fighting noisily over the sunflower seeds. Blackbirds shriek false alarm calls from the fence in an attempt to frighten other birds away, rapier-beaked nuthatches cold-bloodedly try to skewer all-comers on the peanuts and coal tits employ hit-and-run tactics, zooming in from the shrubbery to grab a suet pellet before fleeing to safety again. All human life is out there – in bird form. They get a free lunch and you get a floor show. It seems an equitable arrangement.
But then you notice something. They not only know where the food is, they ALSO know how it gets there. They know where it comes from. They know which door you come out of and where you stand to watch them feeding. If they had little avian mobile ‘phones, they’d have your number …
Whenever you go out in the garden, the robins scream at you from three feet away while the starlings line up on the eaves of the cottage, tapping their claws impatiently. Your life is no longer your own. Everywhere you go outside, dozens of pairs of accusing, beady eyes are following your every move.
Then the hammering on the window starts. You tell yourself they’re pecking at insects, but when you look, they’re just tapping the glass … and the feeders are empty …
On the first of the frozen mornings, I woke to a positive volley of tapping on the windows, and when I looked outside, the world had turned white. Those feeders that weren’t empty were frozen solid and the bird bath was a block of ice – and all around the garden, birds sat on the fences, the shed, the greenhouse, the washing line … just waiting.
‘Oh, poor things ….’
In slippers and dressing gown I went out with hot water and bird food. I thawed the bath, I freed up the frozen seed and I filled the feeders – and all before getting my own or the dogs’ breakfast. For a couple of hours thereafter, peace descended. Then the tapping started again. I looked out into the garden. The feeders were empty and ice was forming on the water again.
Twice more this pantomime played out before darkness fell … and the following three days followed exactly the same pattern. I spent my days dancing (careful) attendance on the birds.
This morning, I woke to silence. No tapping. On looking outside, I saw a grey and wet world, devoid of frost and ice.
Now, I KNOW you’re going to say that I’m paranoid and imagining things: that the birds are only pecking at insects and simply hanging around where they know there’s a regular supply of food. Perhaps you’re right … but just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.
So, would you do me a favour? If I don’t appear here next week – send bird food?