Ever since a blackbird first overheard a child gleefully reciting a nursery rhyme celebrating the demise of four and twenty of its kindred ‘baked in a pie’, blackbirds have had good cause to be extremely wary of people and to regard the ‘kind’ bit in ‘mankind’ as somewhat ironic. It is bad enough having twenty four of one’s kith and kin massacred for culinary purposes, but for people to then go around boasting about it is beyond the pale. The odd poet here and there like Tennyson should not be allowed to lull any health and safety conscious blackbird into a sense of false security: ‘O Blackbird! sing me something well: While all the neighbours shoot thee round, I keep smooth plats of fruitful ground, Where thou may’st warble, eat and dwell.’ As Tennyson acknowledges, he is the exception that proves the rule and blackbirds would be wise to worry about the neighbours.
I now find myself reluctantly contributing to this long history of inter-species conflict. This year, of all years, a very determined and persistent blackbird has decided that a shelf attached to the side of our shed between the shed and the fruit cage would be the ideal place to build its nest. The shed with the shelf has been there for well over twenty years, the cage with the Saskatoon bush has been there for seven or eight, and nobody has ever previously decided that the shelf is the absolutely perfect place to set up house and bring up the children. Any other year we would have been delighted and felt warmly protective in an appropriately grand-parental kind of way; this year the shed is scheduled to be demolished in precisely three weeks time and all the arrangements have been irrevocably put in place. The shed is past its sell-by date, the creeper is gradually overwhelming it from the outside and sending triffid-like tentacles through cracks in the sides deep into the darkness within. Three weeks won’t allow even the most hyper-active blackbird couple to complete the nest, lay and hatch the eggs, and bring the chicks to maturity. So, regardless of the crisis of conscience involved, a halt had to be called to the nest building activity.
I mention the ‘blackbird couple’ by way of a gesture towards gender equality, but in this instance, contrary to Royal Society for the Protection of Birds information, the female has very seldom been putting in much of an appearance, and it is the obviously very woke male that appears to have been doing most of the building. In fact so little evidence of a female was there that for two or three days of conscience-stricken nest deterrence I was under the impression that what I was dealing with was a gender-confused male blackbird building a bachelor pad in the hope of attracting a partner, rather than a couple desperate to bring some more little blackbirds into the world to make up for the four and twenty. As he sat on a nearby roof, his beak stuffed with building material on the second morning, indignantly watching me remove the foundations of his house from the shelf once again, he probably thought that what he was dealing with was the kind of adolescent vandalism that culminates in the celebration of dozens of members of the extended family being baked in pies. I painstakingly explained to him what I was doing, and why I was doing it, and insisted that it wasn’t mere vandalism but was in his own interests and those of his partner and potential future offspring, but he did not appear to be in the least mollified.
Yesterday when I went out to see whether the deterrence had been effective I found an almost completed nest on the shelf and concluded that our blackbird, with or without a partner, must have been on night shift. That enabled me very carefully to move the entire nest to an equally sheltered shelf between a bush and the wall on the other side of the garden. I then removed the favoured shelf, which I should probably have done first time around. However, I am obviously an ignorant amateur when it comes to ‘location, location, location’ where blackbird nesting is concerned, and he has rejected my alternative site and is now, with increasingly impatient partner in more active evidence, busily building a nest in a bush in the garden next door.
It is held to be good luck if a blackbird builds its nest near one’s house – so I’ve just donated our share of that to our neighbours. But there is also a good deal of more sinister folklore around blackbirds, which tends to make one wary of annoying them. The blackness of the male results in the blackbird sometimes being perceived as a symbol of death, but, because it isn’t actually black but a dark brown that merely looks black from a distance, it is also seen as a ‘shape-shifter,’ or an embodiment of ‘glamoury’ – an archaic term deriving from the original meaning of ‘glamour’, which denoted a magical or fictitious beauty. And that isn’t all. If you Google ‘blackbird symbolism you’ll be told, for example, that: ‘The dark wings of Blackbird give it associations with the Otherworld and the great Mysteries that haunt human souls; this also means it can fly as a messenger of death. Black is also often a colour associated with magic, mystics, and Witches. Some say listening to Blackbird songs helps the Shaman’s travels to different spiritual realms. The ability to move between the worlds and retain clarity is a powerful bit of Blackbird Medicine.’* So the message comes across pretty clearly: ‘don’t mess with blackbirds if you don’t want a dose of powerful Blackbird Medicine.’
Once I had relocated his house, the blackbird didn’t get on with the business of checking on the state of its nest, or of building a new one, but spent some time hopping from vantage point to vantage point speculatively eyeing our house, I assumed that he was contemplating which particular form of Blackbird Medicine would do justice to the circumstances with a view to appropriate retaliation. The instinct for revenge was no doubt honed by this further evidence of the irony of its being a man – Tennyson, in fact, to compound the irony – rather than a nest-deprived bird, or one of the mourning relatives of the four and twenty, who had written the lines about ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.
So far the revenge has been limited to removing as much moss as it could find from the kitchen roof and the gutter above the back door and dumping it on the door mat – no doubt in the hope of being able to watch a pratfall if I were to go out of the back door intent on demolishing or relocating anyone else’s nest. I’m just hoping the accelerating nest-building now going on next door will serve as a distraction, and that blackbirds’ memories don’t rival those of elephants.