What’s your favourite bird?Posted: August 26, 2011
My favourite bird is the yellowhammer. ‘That’s fascinating, Paul,’ I hear you say.
OK, so birding – or bird watching if you like – is not for everyone, but I reckon even the most hardened non-birder must have a favourite bird. Maybe it’s a cheeky robin singing cheerily from a tree in your garden. Perhaps it’s a penguin that you’ve enjoyed watching while it waddles.
In fact, it’s easier to have a favourite bird when you’re not actually that bothered for them. There are fewer to choose from.
For me, though, there are lots to choose from, because I’ve been interested in birds since I was eight. It all started with a redwing – a kind of thrush that comes to the UK in the winter from Scandinavia. This particular redwing came to land outside my classroom window. I might never have noticed it had my teacher, Mrs Douglas, not been very keen on birds. But she was very, very keen, and she showed us this special visitor and explained where it had come from. And I was hooked.
At first, my new-found interest in birds was the perfect foil for my other big interest at the time – drawing. And so I began to draw birds. My drawing was mercifully better than my handwriting so Mrs Douglas at least had one thing to praise me for. The more I looked up new birds to draw, the more I found out and the more I wanted to see and learn about.
I joined the Young Ornithologists Club (YOC) and went on a couple of trips with them, where new and exciting birds came thick and fast. I can still hear our guide at RSPB Blacktoft Sands shrieking hysterically at the sight of a bittern in the reeds – still the only one I’ve ever seen. Family holidays and days out began to include birding opportunities, such as a trip to Loch Garten to see the ospreys, spotting wood warblers and pied flycatchers at Bolton Abbey, being bombarded by terns on the Farne Islands and many other unforgettable experiences.
So what’s all this about yellowhammers, then?
What’s so good about them? What makes them better than, say, redstarts (my second favourite bird)?
There are three main reasons I love yellowhammers:
1) Their colours – you can’t confuse a male yellowhammer with any other yellow bird because its bright yellow head contrasts so beautifully with its chestnut brown back. They’re such a happy-looking bird and raise the spirits just by looking lovely.
2) Their song – I’m not brilliant at recognising birdsong, but I would know a yellowhammer’s song anywhere. It reputedly sounds like ‘A little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeeeeeeese,’ which is a very sensible sentiment to a cheese-hater like me. See, I have something in common with this little bird. Neither of us want any cheese, thanks very much.
3) Nostalgia – I associate yellowhammers with summer walks down a street we call ‘the Country Lane’, where we used to walk Smartie, my Yorkshire terrier. Smartie was a strong-minded sort of chap and he’d be off sniffing deeply unpleasant things in the undergrowth while I’d stop and listen to yellowhammers and cuckoos. Like the cuckoos, I feared yellowhammers had disappeared from the Country Lane until I ventured that way on a day off a few weeks ago. Reaching the end of the lane, I heard that familiar call from a hedge in the field ahead, then spotted that bright yellow head, and everything was right with the world.
It’s a special memory or association that can elevate a particular bird to number one in your list of favourites. So while the redstart, with its fiery orange tail, is undeniably glorious to behold and always a real treat to see, it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional attachment as the yellowhammer. And for all I know, it might like cheese.