Using birds as characters – Elizabeth Kay

I think it was Alec Guinness who said that when he wanted a new approach to a character he was playing he often went for a walk around the zoo, until he came across an animal that he felt fitted the bill. I've written poems about birds as birds such as the questzal, in The Spirit Collection,
but taking an animal as a template for a human character is a good idea for writers as well as actors. I’ve found most of my inspiration has come from birds. I’m not a proper twitcher, but I do love watching them, particularly in my garden.
This year we’ve had great tits nesting, and watching the devoted behaviour of the parents, from the initial viewing of the nestbox to the fledging of the babies, has been an education. They didn’t rush their purchase. After the first visit we didn’t see them for another three weeks, during which time I imagine they were out and about, viewing other properties.
Once they’d settled on our box they did a very thorough survey. This took at least fifteen minutes, when both parents-to-be inspected every join in the wood, and paid particular attention to the roof. I’d like to see a human surveyor hang upside down from an overhanging branch to enable them to see an inaccessible bit.
Once the decision had been made they moved in. Twigs first, then this year’s must-have moss carpet, followed by great tufts of hair. Where on earth they managed to finds those is a mystery, and I’m not sure I really want to know. Mrs Tit then laid however many eggs she felt was right (between seven and ten, according to the books) and Mr Tit did the shopping. Watching him tenderly feeding her a caterpillar through the hole in the box was a heartwarming sight. Once the chicks hatched, of course, it was non-stop catering. We never expected to see any of them – nestboxes are usually full one day, and empty the next, but we were in luck.
We were sitting on the patio when one baby made its maiden flight, straight out of the nestbox in a downward trajectory toward the water butt. It skidded across the lid, and did an acrobatic plummet into a big tub that contains a dwarf apple tree, which was where I managed to take a photograph. We also spotted another baby on the fence, looking smug.

It was only when we decided to prune a small tree in the front garden that we realised goldfinches had been nesting in it. A very small fledgling tumbled to the ground, and made a flight six inches above the ground to the middle of the road. Partner Bob held up the traffic, and managed to catch it on the other side. He put it back in the tree, whereupon it toppled to the ground again. We thought it had a bleak outlook. But then supermum turned up, called to it from the tree until she pinpointed its location, led it to a more sheltered spot and then fed it a few times. After that she encouraged it to have another go, and baby managed a rather better flight into the lower branches.  Impressive stuff.
We had a flock of waxwings two years ago, something I’d always wanted to see, and in April a pheasant decided to spend a couple of days rooting around under the bird table. A couple of miles away we've had peregrines nesting, in plain view although very high up, and all that was needed was a good pair of binoculars. And then there was the parakeet that kept the squirrel off the bird table by dropping nuts onto the grass, and peering down to make sure the ruse was working.

Not all bird observations are as delightful. We currently have two wood pigeons who hate one another’s guts, and regularly try to kill each other on the lawn. I’ve had to go out more than once and shout at them to behave from two feet away.
This line from The Divide was inspired by a heron:

Tansy always reminds me of a stabber-bird, thought Betony, with her long nose and her snaky neck.

            And the eagle part of the character Ironclaw, also from The Divide, was researched at Banham Zoo:

There was something familiar about the shape after all. Something heraldic. That was it, he’d seen one before – but it had been in the garden of a stately home, and it had been carved out of stone. “You look more like a griffin to me,” he said.
            The brazzle looked thoughtful. “No, I’m definitely a brazzle. My name’s Ironclaw. And you’re a human being, you say?” It shook itself, and ruffled its feathers. “I feel awake,” it said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not dreaming, though. You see, I don’t believe in all that supernatural stuff. Very down to earth, I am – except when I’m flying.” It chuckled at its own joke, as though it were the funniest thing ever. Then it shook its head and said, “Human beings are mythical beings. They don’t really exist. They use science, for goodness’ sake. Invent vehicles that run on their own, and fly around in balloons. How ridiculous is that?”
            “Not as ridiculous as this conversation,” said Felix, and he laughed.
            “Aren’t you frightened of me?” asked Ironclaw.

            “No. Why should I be?”
            “I’m very fierce,” said the brazzle, with some pride. “All brazzles are fierce. They have to be, they guard hoards of gold. And they peck people’s eyes out. Only when necessary, you understand.”
            “Have you ever pecked someone’s eyes out?”
            Ironclaw looked sheepish. “No. But I could if I wanted to.”

And sometimes, it’s other people’s writing that provides the impetus. The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell has a section about a bird called a screamer that makes me laugh out loud, and helped me picture the newly-hatched Plume from a work-in-progress, Ice Feathers.

Its body was covered in damp speckled feathers that were already starting to dry out and turn fluffy. Its head was covered with little tufts of down, and its eyes were the biggest, most endearing eyes she’d ever seen. Its beak still had a little projecting egg-tooth at the end, and it had a slightly bewildered expression. Kura reached out a hand to stroke it.
            “Don’t!” yelped the stable boy. “Even hatchlings can draw blood!”
            But Kura left her hand where it was, and the chick didn’t peck her. It chirruped instead, the way it would have done if its mother had offered it a sliver of meat. Then it struggled out of the rest of the shell and staggered to its feet. The feet were clearly too big for it, and it wasn’t quite sure where to put them. It tilted its head on one side and thought about it. Then it looked directly at Kura and chirruped again, as if to ask her what it ought to do next.
            “Amazing,” said the stable-boy. “He’s a cock bird, too. He’s got the beginnings of a crest on his head.”
            “He’s gorgeous,” said Kura, totally captivated. “Can I have him?”
            Kura’s uncle laughed. “No, pet, he’ll grow up into something far too big and strong for you to ride. He’s a man’s bird. But you can name him, if you want.”
            “Plume,” said Kura. “I want to call him Plume.”

And now I must head off down the road with my binoculars to see how the young peregrines are doing…


Kathleen Jones said…
Lovely - I like watching bird behaviour too! In England it's herons, who guard the best fishing patches jealously. They have screaming fights with intruders and behave very indecorously. Watched one trying to eat an eel once, very puzzled by the fact that it wouldn't lie down and quietly allow itself to be swallowed!
madwippitt said…
Birds are definitely fascinating to watch: last year we were overrun by starlings, this year nary a starling to be seen, but a welcome return of sparrows. Plus a couple of magpies. And always a kite or two gliding overhead ...
But lucky you having a nest to watch as well.
Looking forward to reading The Divide - it's sitting waiting for me - sounds like it's going to be fun!
julia jones said…
We are currently swallow central. I just wish they'd get on and clear up all our gnats and mossies. I really enjoyed reading this post. Than you very much

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