Monday, July 13, 2009



An old neighbour of mine, wee Billy, was a great man for birds. He could identify them by the sounds they made. Tuneful warbles, piercing whistles, melodious piping. Clucking, cackling and other less pleasant noises. Billy knew them all. And not in a show-offy way. No! Billy was a modest man. If you were in his company, and in the vicinity of birds and birdsong, he would merely nod gently as if in remembrance of another place or time and say softly, almost to himself, with a little smile.

‘A chaffinch’.


‘That blackbird is in fine tune this evening.’

Some friends of mine who live in the middle of big cities never see or hear birds near their abodes except for the occasional lost sea gull or wayward pigeon. I see and hear birds all the time where I live.

And I actively encourage them. Pea nuts and seed. Bits of fat. Bread crumbs even though some people tell you not to give birds bread. The dog’s food dish is also the scene of much excitement at dinner time. The hedge between me and Billy is a multi storey high rise nesting complex for an epidemic of sparrows. They and all their cousins and distant relations congregate and gorge themselves regularly on Superdog Veggie Meal and other canine delicacies.

Snowie is very tolerant. For example he tolerates magpies. Not a word out of him even when his feathered amigos take to skinny dipping in his water dish. Except when our dove arrives. Snowie can’t stand doves. I don’t know why. Maybe Snowie is a closet hawk?

By the way magpies were brought to Ireland by Cromwell’s stormtroopers as pets. When the poor Paddies and Patricas saw magpies about the place they knew they were in deep danger. The bad guys weren’t far behind the magpies. Hence the ‘one for sorrow’ rhyme. That’s my story anyway.

Billy had tons of birdlore.

‘Crows never build their nests before Saint Patricks Day. Unless we are going to have a bad summer’.

Swallows flying low? A sure sign that rain is on its way.

‘Give a Housemartin a place to live and they will come back year after year’.

Unless the cats intrude. Frances, who came to Belfast as a young child in 1927, from a small hill village outside Rome, used to feed stray cats. She lived opposite us. At one time as many as sixteen feral cats would gather in her garden, lounging delinquently on window stills and provocatively peeing on the roses. Frances had very few birds on her side of the street. Eventually she was persuaded to get rid of the cats on account of them being carriers of parvo which is deadly for dogs.

Now our local non-feral cats have bells around their necks which drives them mad when they go into bird hunting mode. The birds for their part make fun of them. Especially if they have had a few feeds of Snowie’s Superdog Veggie Meal. Did you ever hear a robin snarling?

Billy would have approved. He liked small things. He was small himself. Even the children ‘round here called him wee Billy.

He loved Feile an Phobal. Especially the street party. Occasionally, when younger less resilient party goers had collapsed under the pressures of Feile fever, he and I would usher in the morning together. Us and our feathered friends. Out in his back garden. The light filtering through the gnarled limbs of his apple tree.

‘We shud finish this,’ he would say lifting a bottle of whatever was left and peering at the contents.

‘We cudn’t let it go off’

I would agree.

‘That’s a thrush’ he would say softly, almost to himself, with a little smile as the sweet bird song lightened our day and welcomed in the dawn.

‘What a great Feile this has been! We are better off than decent-er people.’

And so we are. And its almost Feile time again.

‘Slainte Billy’.
Feile an Pobal. From 31 July to August 9.


Linda Coleman said...

In my part of the world, we have grackles ( I was out for a walk the other day, and a scruffy little dog--about like Snowie, except gray--came running up to the fence, snarling and barking at me. Behind his back, two grackles landed in the yard and started chowing down on his food! I kept trying to tell the doggie, "Turn around, you're being robbed!" But he didn't listen, so I walked away hoping he'd run off those interlopers. Grackles are huge and there's too many of them. We don't need them eating dog food!

My backyard is a haven for cats (but not as many as 16!) and birds--mainly mockingbirds, which will divebomb any cat who comes too close. I have lots of trees for the birds, which provide shady napping spots for the cats. They seem to have worked out an arrangement to share the yard in peace. The cats work this whole neighborhood, looking for rats, mainly. My yard is on the early morning and late afternoon "rounds," and it's been years since we've heard any little rat feet scurrying around in our attic!

Timothy Dougherty said...

Wonderful Gerry,The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head. Birds have been a strange event here in Southern California about 30 years about a ship in the harbor with a cargo of illegal Parrots from South America, let them off into the air for fear if being caught in the Act. The Parrots have made the city its home and have a large population of large green Parrots. No need to cage them.

Anonymous said...

unfortunatly given that the psni are speaking i will not be attending the feile for the first time,They have to be disbanded gerry simple as.

Paul Doran said...


I have a bird I call her Pettle she is lovely.She likes brown sauce.

Micheal said...

Magpies have a very bad reputation for plundering other birds nests. I don't know if it's warrented. I'm no expert on birds but I get the impression that they go along on instinct. They search for food, build a nest, find a mate, fight off intruders... that sort of thing.

Birds don't make mistakes. Their either lucky or unlucky. Their's is a simple and straightfoward existence. Not so for us humans, however. We have to figure stuff out. We have to learn how to do things, usually through trial and error. We have to learn how to do things that we didn't even know we had to do, let alone learn how to do.

It's a lot tougher being a human being but it's probably the highest incarnation possible on this planet.

A Christian brother called Barry Butler once said, "A person who never made a mistake never made anything". I thought that was a wise and compassionate thing to say. I liked Barry a lot.

Nora said...

Dear Gerry, i've just heard you talk on Big Think about memorable songs. You mention the anti-apartheid anthem containing the line ‘The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become’. You wrongly attributed it to Peter Gabriel – shame on you. The song is ‘Something Inside So Strong’ written by Labi Siffre an amazing activist, musician, poet. Labi Siffre was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s, he’s overcome racism and homophobia to inspire the world. Labi Siffre a name to remember!