Country diary: all thoughts turn to birds in flight

Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: Flight gives birds something more than mobility; it gives them an enhanced way of being

Birds sheltering in a tree
‘In the turbulence, birds’ familiar skyways are unravelling and they travel through the vortex as explorers of a perilously shifting airspace, beautiful and reckless.’ Photograph: Maria Nunzia @Varvera/The Guardian
‘In the turbulence, birds’ familiar skyways are unravelling and they travel through the vortex as explorers of a perilously shifting airspace, beautiful and reckless.’ Photograph: Maria Nunzia @Varvera/The Guardian
Thu 12 Nov 2020 00.30 EST

There are wild energies in the air: wraiths of Atlantic weathers twisting and unthreading the sky, warping through trees, poking into thickets.

Galvanised and illuminated by these energies are birds. A parcel of linnets unwraps into a field, a blue tit pole dances on a briar, blackbirds and redwings scuffle into hawthorns, long-tailed tits flick around high boughs. A covey of partridges makes for fields of shining tilth from which all memory has leached, leaving the piety of clay, the five of them plaiting through a hedge, neat and tidy. Up on the Edge, wood pigeons and jackdaws surf westerlies, opening their wings fully as gusts burst over the trees and hurl the birds at a dangerous lick down the dip slope towards shelter. Ravens find their battle cries in the wind to challenge buzzards, which blow hard on rusty whistles.

On this blustery November day flashing with sunlight, the broken column of a rainbow leans under a shelf of cloud sliding east. In the turbulence, birds’ familiar skyways are unravelling and they travel through the vortex as explorers of a perilously shifting airspace, beautiful and reckless. Some take refuge in trees and hedges; rebellious yellowhammers pluck up courage to bounce above the blackthorn tips, then dive back in before they are swept away from their anxious clan. The bird in the bush is a ventriloquist worth 50 sparrow voices.

Flight gives birds something more than mobility; it gives them an enhanced way of being, with an emotional, physical and psychic liberty unavailable to pedestrians. In windy weather, they seem to test the limits of this liberty and are aware that others are doing this too. Birds in flocks, charms, murmurations, and all their collective nouns, have complicated relationships and a shared awareness of kith in place. Even solitary birds must be conscious of belonging to the kin of the air. What then does it mean for a bird to be alone? Does wild weather remove the utility of flight and loosen the bonds between birds so that they fly as individuals, experience ecstasy, get lost in the flow, freed from each other, freed from themselves?

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