This is one of those books that’s been sitting on my shelf for aeons, with all my good intentions of getting around to it gathering like dust on the shelf. As is the case for many of my books. I am trying really hard to try to get through them (though even the phrase ‘get through them’ sounds so joyless and workmanlike that it doesn’t encourage success or reflect, perhaps, the happy expectation with which I originally acquired them), and I’ve recently really struggled to read anything – part work, part generally being busy and distracted – but this book, which largely takes a diary form, seemed a good one to pick up.
The book is split into sections dictated by the seasons and begins in winter, just before Christmas, with Woolfson finding a pigeon injured in the snow. She takes it home and from there we begin to learn about her relationship with birds. Woolfson, who lives in Aberdeen, has a long and interconnected relationship with birds. She has a particular love of the corvids (crows, jackdaws, magpies, rooks and the like) and is the writer of the book Corvus: A Life with Birds (which I’d also like to read), but her love of nature, whilst overwhelmingly focused on birds, extends much further than that. In the book she shares her love of, and the availability of, urban wildlife. At times the writing is quite beautiful, like here when she shares her experience watching a murmuration of starlings:
“I’d stand, breath held, sharing the birds’ joyous flight, in their song, their exuberance and energy until the moment when, as one, they’d turn, their undulating tissue of bird-cloud folding, narrowing into a streamer of molten darkness to disappear under the parapets of Union Bridge.”
The book is a lovely blend of personal account, of science and biology, of statistic and observation. Interspersed between the seasons are longer, stand-alone chapters which focus on a particular urban creature including all those traditionally ‘hated’ such as spiders and slugs, rats, pigeons (rats with wings, a dual insult of pigeon and rat), the grey squirrel. I dispute anyone to read the chapter on rats and not have a better appreciation of this (very clean) creature, or the chapter on slugs and not have a slightly improved fondness for this otherwise unwanted garden visitor (or pest, if you prefer). Woolfson’s love of all creatures comes across so beautifully, and her knowledge of them shines a light on their attributes, rather than their unwanted features. Throughout the book she explores the impact that human expansion has had on so many creatures, and the way in which we deal with those who have successfully adapted. It is chock full of fascinating information like this:
“Birds, as all creatures in cities, have to adapt. Some will be urban by choice, others by circumstance as we have moved in and taken over their habitats. In addition to glass, urban birds face a variety of other challenges including noise, light and atmospheric pollution (to say nothing of our presence). They have to find mates, defend their territory and if they do it with the aid of their voice, they have to make themselves heard over the noise of cities. Male great tits in cities sing different songs from rural ones. They sing higher, faster songs, songs that can be picked up through the strands of urban noise. (It’s known than birds develop ‘dialects’, particularly over large areas; that the call of birds from different areas display differing, variable features. Another study into song patterns and adaptations in urban birds suggests that they have difficulty communicating with members of their own species from the countryside.)”
Which gave me a wonderful vision of a northern bird and a southern bird complaining about the other’s accent (much as happens with humans). In addition to her troubles concerning the impact of global warming, of human colonisation of creaturely habitats, Woolfson also concerns herself with the delicate relationship between a love of wild creatures and the burden / morality of pet ownership. Woolfson and her family have had a range of traditional and less traditional pets (crows, for example) as well as acting as a rescue service for various birds in the area. Yet all the time she feels quite keenly the balance between loving and wanting to ‘have’ (own) animals and the extent to which it is right or appropriate to interfere in the life of another creature. Is it right to protect her doves from hawks? Should she intervene with the great tit that fights daily with its reflection in her window? Should she bring in pest control to deal with the rats nesting under her house? When / why is it okay to kill a slug? It is an interesting quandary; one I have felt similarly and which has kept me away from pet keeping for a number of years, until the kids recently broke me down (we now have rabbits: Starlord and Rocket (sisters), and a snake: Kellogg. Yes, that’s Kellogg the corn snake. Kellogg is the cutest). Woolfson treads the line carefully, holding herself back sometimes. It’s a delicate balance.
I loved Woolfson’s quiet passion, the way she reveals both the merit, complexity and wonderful variety of wildlife that is available to us in the urban environment. She blows away all the prejudices, the preconceptions, revealing how intelligent birds are, how skilled and adaptive; I love how snippy she gets when someone refers to pigeons as ‘dirty, nasty things’ and imagine her sense of outrage gently expressed, the irony not unnoticed (pigeons, like rats, are scavengers, it is people that are dirty, they just clean up after us). This book is gentle and joyful, it is clever and insightful. It is humorous and personable. It made me think about the abundance that is out there, how beautiful and amazing it is. It made me look at the wildlife around me with different, more appreciative eyes, and a willingness to look more closely for it. It is a pleasure to read, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. It might even make you appreciate the humble spider (honest).
Field Notes From a Hidden City (An urban nature diary) is published in UK by Granta Books