Away with the birds

A bird just flew in the window. By 1985 I was a PhD student in the Zoology Department of Edinburgh University, studying a small corner of animal behaviour: how games theory might be applied to the feeding and fighting behaviour of the Great Tit. Somewhat esoteric, I admit, but at the time I didn’t realise just how much this was stretching me beyond my limit. Living in the Edinburgh Colonies, where I rented a room off architect Richard Murphy, and happily spending my weekends exploring the Highlands, my working week was dedicated to understanding the birds through pure theory. It required me to exclude all emotion, all intuition, any personal connection with my subjects, to efface all trace of myself – snap.

Then I came across a second-hand book on ‘living with birds’ by an eccentric English naturalist. So intimate, so personal, so heartfelt, so opposite to the rigorous approach needed for my PhD that it shook me out of my science-trance. Reading that hardback made me realise I could not complete my three-year research programme and write my thesis without damaging myself. A few months later I bailed out of the PhD and returned south, to London.

Over the intervening years that catalystic tome became an increasingly faint reminder of my u-turn away from science and towards art (first Camberwell Foundation, then Kingston BA followed by Royal College MA) as I had lost my copy and couldn’t remember the title or author’s name. Until yesterday, that is. An email arrived from Pushkin Press advertising their latest release, Bird Cottage, about the life and times of Gwendolyn ‘Len’ Howard and her 1950s best seller ‘Birds as Individuals’. To be reconnected with that book, and with it to regain a part of my past – what an unexpected gift. A long-missed bird just flew in the window. [In memory of Pete Marsh, a fellow traveller in Edinburgh]

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