Friday 23 August 2019

Lay of the Land: Sweet bird of youth and all our years

'there is something endearing about these so familiar yet still mysterious creatures and their earnest and vibrant song'
'there is something endearing about these so familiar yet still mysterious creatures and their earnest and vibrant song'

Fiona O'Connell

Those sweet symbols of summer, the swallows, are soaring and swooping over the river in this country town once more. But you can rely on one feathered friend to make the world sound sweeter all year round, as well as uniting city and country by warbling in both.

For the blackbird is everywhere on this island and has been forever, or so it seems.

Certainly, I was aware of them as a child growing up in a city suburb, metaphorically as well as in matter, thanks to my older brother playing Morning Has Broken repeatedly on his recorder, with this ubiquitous bird featuring in the opening lyrics. Decades later, not just morning but also my sleep is regularly broken by a blackbird belting out its exquisite song at the first inkling of dawn.

But blackbirds have a dark side; I watched in fascinated horror as a blackbird bashed the brains out of another male a couple of years ago, birds chirping incongruously in the blue sky above. For all's fair in love and war when it's time to make blackbird babies.

Though blackbirds seem permanently bothered, whether rustling in the undergrowth or flitting across country roads emitting their distinctive alarm call. Reminding me of the little white rabbit, as if they are likewise driven by some impossible deadline.

So maybe opposites attract, for 7th Century Saint Kevin, who loved wildlife, was praying one day, his hand outstretched towards heaven, when a blackbird flew down and laid her eggs in his palm. Talk about having the patience of a saint. Cool and compassionate Kevin remained still until the eggs had hatched and the brood flew the nest. Giving a miraculous new meaning to the saying "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush".

Especially if it's a blackbird, for there is something endearing about these so familiar yet still mysterious creatures and their earnest and vibrant song. Who hasn't felt moved by the poignant lone figure silhouetted against a darkening sky as it sings its heart out, as if performing a piercing elegy to the falling evening?

Certainly, their haunting homages to the passing of time prompted the Celts to believe the blackbird was one of the three oldest animals in the world, the others being the trout and the stag. They were said to represent the water, air and earth respectively.

Little wonder they have also been associated with reincarnation and even regarded as messengers of the dead. Indeed, blackbirds were once whispered to hold the souls of those in purgatory until judgment day. It was said that whenever the bird's voices were particularly shrill, those souls were parched and calling for rain. And rain always followed.

So it must be coincidence that blackbirds typically like to sing after rain. Or is that the reason why they seem a perpetual presence in this country? But one thing is sure; swallows may come and go like the summer, but the beautiful blackbird belongs here forever.

Sunday Independent

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