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Published: 23 October 2021

By Andy Ross

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Birds are fascinating and during lockdown, proved to be a source of creativity. 

During the first of the lockdowns, our eerily-silent streets and parks gradually came alive with the sounds of nature, and bird song filled the air. We envied birds their ability to go wherever they wanted whenever they liked, and they provided a glimpse into a world of which so many were simply oblivious. Lots of projects began as people started to attract birds into gardens and parks, and it seemed that the world was a little less strange because of the presence of our avian neighbours. 

One day, outside our bedroom window, a dove called from a recently-pruned tree and the sound immediately took me back to previous homes: Zimbabwe and Shetland. The sound was so evocative that I started to write about birds and their migration as a creative outlet during the very stressful times we were in. 

Each week I will put a piece on the blog from those writings. One day these will be a performance piece but not just yet. In the meantime they form a repository, a memory store of those strange days when our world stopped. 

The Dove – patron saint of the voyager

A while back, as a last resort to heading off impending caterpillar infestation, our local London council in a fit of zeal completed a round of enthusiastic near-winter pruning. A denuded and stump-branched tree stood in sorrowful silence outside our windows, its black outline a stark contrast to the grey sky and perpetual, cold drizzle that means London in the Dark Season.

It is Spring. The tree has sent shoots out, and green leaves. Not all over. Just in certain parts on certain branches. It looks a little lopsided. Branch-ends, which seemed abruptly terminated and swollen, truncated, are alive again. Leaves shoot from the stumps. The tree seems determined to live in spite of the trauma of multiple amputation. Such pruning is good for trees around here, apparently. It gives them a distinctive look as well as being useful for producing multiple shoots and, with it, lots of leafy shade. It also stops caterpillar attack.

Visitors have always come to the tree. In the winter it is a sort-of lookout. A useful perch to view the horizon’s buildings, and buses thundering by. Few want or need that kind of place. The tree then is simply a meeting-before-going-elsewhere spot, and pigeons mainly use it on their way to better pecking grounds. Now it is Spring and blue tits, and wrens, a robin once, crows and the ubiquitous pigeons use it to survey an over-grown garden where a wildflower meadow is springing up.

It IS Spring. This morning, the double-barrelled purr of a collared dove came through our opened balcony door. It is a familiar sound. Enough to take mind’s eye back to long, slow Sundays where it accompanied the traditional snooze-after-barbeque-luncheon (men on one side and women on the other). It is a comforting sound; monotonous under hot sun, warm and safe in the cool air of the North. The dove sits amongst new-shot leaves, watching. The sound pushes and pulls on memory, vignettes flash by like movie stills… Then the bird is gone, soaring high above the tower blocks, on its way to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what. The sound dies with each flap of its wings.

Collared doves came to Britain in the 1950s, spreading from their homelands in the Middle East across Europe. They echoed another wave of migration, one from war-wearied countries, and the Commonwealth, to the UK. People from India and Pakistan, and from the Caribbean, arrived here to join European refugees from the Second World War, and immigrants who came to help rebuild the economy of Britain. Now people come for other reasons; escaping, seeking, searching… As we settle so we give. Just as the yearning sound of the dove is now part of this landscape, so too are our accents and a sentinel dove, calling from treetop perch, joins us in the chorus “I AM here. We ARE here.”