Me, I love birds. All last week I was entranced by a cuckoo calling in the woods above me, and I potted on my tomatoes to the sound of fledgelings chattering above a trough of sweet peas. This past month I’ve often paused to rest my weary arms on my shovel and crane my head up to watch the swifts screaming across the sky like Harrier jets. And up until this week my heart has twisted at the sight of a six foot pile of twigs and horsehair in the barn that has been carefully but uselessly posted through a hole in the wall by a pair of jackdaws intent on building a luxury penthouse.
But now my heart has hardened. I have realised the empathy is one-sided. I have remembered that birds are close relatives of the bad boy lizards that once walked the earth in Cretaceous times. I don’t need any evidence to know that velociraptors had feathers. Their descendants are here, in my garden, laying waste to my crops, and I need all my wits about me.
You expect bad behaviour from slugs and snails – they’re called gastropods for good reason being that they’re little more than walking stomachs with a gourmet taste for a tender seedling. If you were to look at my table of garden equipment you would quickly come to the conclusion that growing plants is far more about annihilation than it is about germination. Yes, over here are the seeds, the compost and the pots, but over there spreading across the rest of the table is the vast tub of wool pellets, the copper rings and the home made patent slug traps. Gardening, frankly, is one part growing to two parts warfare.
But I expected more from the bird world. Had I not admired all spring the symbiotic presence of a clever blackbird who, as I, day after day, shovelled dung and compost into a wheelbarrow, stood next to me intently watching for worms, at times so close I could have put out my hand and touched him?
So when the first peas and beans seedlings, lovingly transplanted into the soil from their pots and trays, disappeared almost overnight I blamed the molluscs. I shook my fist and I stamped on the ground. I called them every name under the sun and I called to every thrush in the land to avenge me. I re-planted, laid out my arsenal of slug repellent and returned the next day. Gone again. And then like Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark, I realised that there were no silvery trails, no passages of slime, no slugs in the trap, no telltale shells, nothing whatsoever to indicate a mass gastropodish invasion. I scratched my head, bemused. And then I stopped looking down and looked up.
And there was the culprit. I had rejoiced when I’d heard his throaty call one morning in February as a sign that winter was loosening its muddy grip and spring was on its way. But now here he was, peering down at the empty bed of soil with its mocking wigwams of now bare canes and there was a look of confident expectation on his face. He had the same expression as children at a lunch table in the moments before a pot of spaghetti bolognaise is put down in front of them. I swear I saw him lick his beak. If wood pigeons had hands and table settings, he would have tied a napkin round his neck and picked up his knife and fork.
And so my vegetable plot has been transformed. The birds cannot be allowed to win – the kitchen at the Ox needs its French and runner beans, its courgettes and its squash. Gone are the Pinterest-perfect no-dig beds with their perfectly symetrically placed poles and structures. Gone are the subdued colours of the quiet pastoral kitchen garden of my dreams. The setting now is less Monty Don … more Mad Max. Here are the rusty old grids bent into tunnels protecting the peas from aerial bombardment. Here is the vile neon green netting spread over and around the runner beans. Here are the old Sunday supplement CDs spinning and clattering against the beanpoles, and the garish seaside windmills whirring noisily in the wind. Even the greenhouse has had to be adapted. I’d opened the door to let in the bees but a brazen collared dove treated this as a generous invitation to snack even while I was in there. So now I have a mesh security door to let bees in, keep birds out. I lie in bed at night thinking up new avian repellents for I know I cannot be complacent. Birds, unlike snails, learn quickly; they fear a scarecrow one week but sit on its head and preen themselves the next. I fear I will soon have to put an entry code on the greenhouse mesh door. Fingerprint recognition will follow soon after. Birds are smart.
My love of birds will return. In August I will note that the dawn chorus is not what it was earlier in the year. In September I will look anxiously at the telephone lines for the swallows and watch them massing to depart for warmer climes with a sinking heart. I will hear the honk of the geese and the ducks and I will shiver at the thought of the nights drawing in once more. I will forget my temporary enmity for all things feathered and long once more for the sweet tirrup of the blackbird and the phoo phoo of the dove.