Esther Woolfson’s wonderful book about her life with members of the Corvid family, informs and entertains us with evidence from her eccentric household of birds.
She was born in Glasgow and lived in a very cold house where her father cared more for the warmth of the family dogs than he did for that of his own children. He insisted that the dogs wore short-sleeved, striped sweaters indoors. Esther never objected to this favouritism and said, “What it definitely did was prevent me from gaining any false ideas of the superior place human beings occupy in the world.”
She studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Edinburgh University. Her literary output has included many short stories that have been broadcast on Radio 4. She currently lives in Aberdeen, ‘The Granite City’; sadly all the granite now used for building in Scotland comes from China.
Whilst travelling around Scotland with her family, she tells of a sign, somewhere near Montrose, that could be seen from the road and that had been put up by a less than literate patriot. It read, “SCOTLAND, FREE OR A DESSERT.” Scottish Nationalists would, no doubt, consider the long term prospects of Scotland as a dessert but would prefer the ‘FREE’ option – less fattening and less washing up!! Most Scots would have gone for the street-wise fried Mars Bar image or the glens awash with Typsy Laird (yummy Scottish trifle served on Burns night). What’s not to like? A ‘FREE’ Scotland sounds pretty dull compared to the creamy, calorie-rich alternative. What better way to represent the sweet, persuasive nature of Scottish breakaway politics. The sign was removed long ago but obviously tickled with its bizarre wordplay.
Esther Woolfson takes pains to research every aspect of the birds in her care, especially her beloved rook, Chicken, and her volatile Magpie, Spike. She quotes from many literary sources and delves into the feeding, the song, the habits, the many aspects of caring for a wild bird, even the extrovert personality traits that manifest themselves when a bird is kept in captivity. This book feeds the reader with morsels of her mature tolerance and her desire to attain as complete a picture of the birds as it is possible to absorb. All this is given with humour and poetry of style as well as scientific accuracy.
Her sensitivity cultivates a mental bond with Chicken which we feel strongly when the rook becomes broody later in life and lays several infertile eggs. She takes each pale turquoise egg, cold and fragile, and lays them one by one on a white plate in full view of the bird. The act of doing this becomes meaningful to both bird and human. Her act creates a ceremonial record and somehow justifies what is a pointless exercise.
Esther is also a massive fan of the magpie and stands up for the bird’s right to exist in a balanced British ornithological arrangement. It seems to me that the British are always looking for villains to eradicate in every aspect of life when a more rational approach would reveal that things are not always as they seem. Esther points out that magpies are often cruelly killed because they pinch the eggs of songbirds but studies have revealed that, in reality, magpies have little effect on the populations of these birds. The domestic cat is far more culpable for any reduction in numbers of garden songbirds.
The book has educated me out of a few prejudices I had against certain birds. A particularly, charmless pigeon, as plump and pompous as the Beadle from ‘Oliver Twist’, has received many a lecture through the kitchen window about his greed and habit of throwing bread around the back yard in a jerky frenzy. He must be on steroids if his appetite is to be believed. He belligerently occupies the bird table in a Mexican stand-off with the far more threatening- looking rooks. Obviously pigeons rule!! The rooks seem to have created a little stash of my home-made lard, cheese, fruit and nut mix in the guttering so if Don Corleone pigeon decided to sit his ground, they would still have access to a food resource. They also show their superior intelligence by using forward thinking.
Very few of us have Esther’s ability to reach out, without ego, to wild creatures. This book makes me want to try a lot harder, even if it means condescending to feed overweight, bossy pigeons with bad table manners and too much testosterone.
CORVUS – A LIFE WITH BIRDS by Esther Woolfson is published by Granta Publications. ISBN 978 1 84708 029 5 (Hardback)