Having risen rather earlier than usual on the Sunday morning when these words are being written, I had time to browse over my favourite Sunday newspaper.
Reading the tributes being paid to my all-time favourite sports writer, Hugh McIlvanney, whose death a matter of days short of his 85th birthday had just been announced. But I also had the luxury of time to enjoy Neil Oliver’s column with the headline, “Brave robin rocks my world of cold comforts,” wherein he was contrasting the winter lives of most people and the winter lives of birds in general and the robin in particular.
By an extraordinary coincidence, very much the same thoughts had passed through my mind minutes before I read his piece. Like him, I had been out at our range of coloured refuse bins, dumping the detritus of the previous 24 hours into the several colour-coded bins, caddies and boxes; like him, I was muttering quiet imprecations about the sheer amount of waste I had to venture out into a cold garden to dispose of; like him, I caught sight of a robin, hopeful that I might just drop some of my food waste to allow him or her to break its chilly overnight fast; and like him, I awoke to the realisation that my complaint was utterly insignificant in the great scheme of things, an entirely momentary, minor inconvenience in my life before I returned to the warm, protected environment where I spend most of my hours, protected against the cold, the damp and what President Trump would describe as ‘b-a-a-a-d people’.
For years, we shared our home with a budgie. I am certain that there will be readers who are sceptical of my claim that our budgie, who … I regard him as much too personable to be referred to disparagingly as ‘which’ … obviously enjoyed and appreciated his creature comforts. Our house was his environment, to fly through as he wished. If he felt cold on a winter’s day, he would take one of his favourite toys to a vent in our warm-air central heating system and chuckle softly to himself as he luxuriated in the warmth; if he fancied an alcoholic tipple when my wife and I were enjoying a pre-dinner aperitif, he would fly over to Ailsa and invite her to dip a finger in her drink and let him lick it; he knew it was time for bed when we fitted up the large cloth-covered cocoa tin containing a 25W lamp which kept his house … not his ‘cage’ … warm overnight, snug underneath its draught-preventing cover. And, of a summer afternoon, he knew that, if he retired to his house and drew our attention to this fact, we would close his house door and take him outside into the garden where he could … and did … listen to the calls of his wild cousins and enjoy the sunshine while a gentle breeze ruffled his feathers.
What a contrast there was between their life and his! No threat from predators for him; no constant competition for food with its concomitant threat of starvation; no possibility of being poisoned by agricultural or horticultural herbicides and pesticides, no chance of freezing to death. And he did seem to appreciate his bird-luxury lifestyle, house-training himself, being meticulous in matters of personal hygiene and grooming, always friendly towards us and our visitors, a pleasure to have around. Thank you, Neil Oliver, for reminding me of the extreme contrast between the protected, safe environment of my home and the cruel, unforgiving environment of my garden. Maybe I’ll try harder to remember my natural neighbours by taking greater care to offer appropriate food on a cold winter’s morning and by making sure they have access to fresh, clean water when the burn at the bottom of our garden has an overcoat of ice and the water in the birdbath is frozen solid. It’s the least I can do.