What is it about older folks and wild birds?

A male chaffinch keeps watch in a Sparty Lea garden

I suppose the wild bird thing isn’t exclusively the territory of older folks, but it’s certainly a truism that the two somehow go hand-in-hand. I wonder why that is? On Father’s Day, it does feel fair to wonder why ageing parents (we’re part of that group!) seem to develop a passion for the birds in their gardens. Especially fair to ponder because I’m pretty sure that numerous fathers throughout the country will be receiving a wild bird feeding station of some sort today from their beloved offspring. Is it all a trick foisted on us by the next generation, seeing us off into our dotage?

Not necessarily, and mostly because we seem to fall into the ‘wild birds in the garden’ territory all by ourselves. For us, as I may have mentioned in earlier diary entries, there’s only the expense of the bird seed, with no further upkeep, now that our extensive hedgerows are well established (thanks to David Oakley and Susie White!), creating lots of nice nesting habitat for the tiny sparrow-like birds which have flocked to our fellside cottage. No domestic fowl worries, really, just fling some bird seed around, and suddenly the bird world beats a flight path to our door. So that’s convenient, but is it just convenience that enthrals, or is it the sudden flash of colour: brilliant greens, sparkling golds, charming blacks and iridescent plumage, contrasting with the drab duns and homely appearance of the indefatigable sparrows. And then, oh then, there’s the enchanting bird song . . . Carrie has downloaded an app that quickly plays the song associated with each species of bird, or matches a recording captured on a smart phone to the right species. That capacity the app provides us to learn is certainly an unexpected delight.

Maybe it’s a simple fact of life that older people have that much more spare time to sit and contemplate, to watch out or listen for the birds as they flit from power lines to tree branches, moving down to shrubs and the grassy verge before plucking up sufficient courage to gorge themselves on the scattered seeds laid out for them.

I’ve had a photo project in mind for some months now: a unique ‘Birds of our Garden’ photo book to pass along to the grands, filled with the very best images I can manage. Ideally the photo book will include both male and female of each species, in good profile, and sure there’ll be a small section on our remaining domesticated fowl, just for completeness. But I wasn’t quite convinced that I could get the image quality I aspired to, until a couple of days ago when I took advantage of the remote focus/shutter release technology offered by my new camera. The birds don’t seem bothered by the static camera on its little tripod, which sits 2 meters away from their feeding station at their eye level, while I choose the moment carefully from indoors, out of their ken. And now, now I feel that I’m just on the cusp of an obsession. So will the grands be delighted with the photo book, or will it get shoved into their bookshelf only to be forgotten until they themselves reach a grand old age?

By then, one imagines, such bird books will feature 3D movies with sound, or a holographic walk-around compilation, and the static 2D images we’ve lovingly put together into a photo book will be merely yesterday’s snapshots. But never mind, carpe diem and all that, and the emerging project is looking like lots of fun, for me anyway.

Back to the original question: older folks and wild birds. In both North America and in the UK, animal feed producers have funded research into the bird-feeding habits of their human populations. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association of the UK reports that a majority (64%) of early retirees feed wild birds in their gardens. By contrast, only 34% of households with young children do so. A similar manufacturers’ group funded research in the USA and Canada into the benefits to residents of nursing/care homes of maintaining a bird feeding station. When quizzed about why the older folks like to feed wild birds, answers seemed to include the delights of bird song and learning about the different species.

I can’t think that too many of us older folks are all that eager to indulge in an obsession with photographing the tiny flying creatures (especially since it’s not all that easy!), but if it’s a new hobby that stimulates the mind, just in time for Father’s Day, why ever not? But probably I should be prepared, even with the very best photographs I can manage, to have my carefully compiled efforts neatly stored away and forgotten, as the next generation gets on with their own lives.

Meanwhile, our son is bringing home an old treasure of my youth: a complete collection of some 200 plastic ‘coins’ featuring models of automobiles through the first half of the 20th century, offered in the late 1950s one by one in each pack by the Jell-O manufacturers of Canada, which came to light only recently. We ate a lot of Jell-O, us boys! It should be fascinating to compare and contrast collecting obsessions separated by some 60 years. I suppose you can never quite take the boy out of the old man.

1 Comment

  1. Wendy Linsley writes from her garden in Jesmond:

    I smiled so much when I read this diary entry. I remember when I was about age 50 mildly mocking my Mother because of her passion for birds.The highlight of her excitement was when she had a long tailed tit nesting in her garden. She took me to see it and her joy was palpable. But I couldn’t understand it.

    NOW, age 77, I absolutely understand it and it is my children who gently tease me.

    Inspired by your diary, I got out my tripod and camera with 50mm to 200mm lens.My iPhone has replaced my use of bulky camera these days , but is no good for bird photography. My photos were not quite sharp enough (? Cheap lens or inexperienced photographer!).

    However, I spent over an hour just sitting about 8 feet away from my bird feeders. I couldn’t believe the constant stream of birds, almost queuing up to have their lunch.

    Just sitting and watching, with the odd click of the shutter, made me realise how casually I have been watching , but not fully appreciating all the feathered friends that give me so much pleasure. Like undemanding companions, they are essential to my life. The highlights were a pair of bullfinches, and a young goldfinch that just kept feeding on the sunflower kernels, even though a young blue tit kept sitting on its back to try and get its turn!

    Sadly, I can’t share these moments with my Mother.

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