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Finding solace in birds

29 June 2021

When Charlie Corbett hit a tough period in his life, he rediscovered – and found solace in – his neighbourhood birds. The lessons they taught him have stood him in good stead ever since.

A kingfisher catches a fish

I want to be very clear before I start my guide to birds, and their power to instruct and to heal, that I am no ornithologist. Neither am I a ‘twitcher’. I am just a person who one day stopped on a secluded rural lane on the farm where he grew up, looked around and thought, ‘What on earth is all this wondrous activity, this buzzing and singing in the trees and hedgerows right next to me, and why have I spent years ignoring it?’

Once I made the decision to reconnect with nature, I found to my everlasting delight that this simple act, a personal, bird-based renaissance, provided me with the best coping mechanism for stress, anxiety and uncertainty. These ordinary birds carried me through my grief after the unexpected death of my mother, when my perspective on life was slipping. They bound me to my own environment and grounded me in place and season, in a way no phone app or therapist could.

They made me realise that I’m not the leading role in my own private melodrama, but merely a bit part in nature’s great epic. And they continue to help me every single day. I want to share their power to heal. I want to yell out, like the exuberant song thrush singing exultantly outside my widow right now, ‘Reconnect, reconnect! And you will never regret it’.

Here are seven (extra)ordinary birds, and what we can learn from them.

The skylark

How to spot it

Skylarks like wide open farmland and uninhabited hills and vales. They are a smallish streaky brown and cream creature, with a distinctive little Mohican on their heads. But their most obvious identifying feature is that they are the only bird that sings on the wing, belting out their rolling, soaring, tinkling song as they hover 30-50 feet off the ground in spring and summer.

What it teaches us

The skylark’s ecstatic song showed me the solace and perspective that could be found in nature. I was wandering on an empty hill on a damp August day having just been told my mother had months to live. My mind was spinning off into the cosmos – and a solitary skylark tied me back down again. It gave me the mental ballast I needed to get though the days that followed.

The robin

How to spot it

It’s more likely the robin will find you, rather than the other way round. Go to any park or garden, at any time of the year, and wait. Just wait. Within a few minutes an inquisitive robin will perch alongside you in mutually happy companionship.

What it teaches us

Watching robins taught me to take a breath amid nature. A robin kept me company in a soulless hospital car park during my mother’s short illness. It taught me the immense dividends of just sitting still and watching. It was hard at first, doing nothing with my brain whirring at 200 revs per minute, but whenever I manage it, I become totally distracted. And, just for those moments, my stress levels plummet.

How to photograph garden birds

The song thrush

How to spot it

A fine-featured bird with a brown back and a mottled creamy breast. There was a time when every garden would have had a pair nesting in it. But their population has plummeted. This is heart[1]breaking because the song thrush is the loudest, most musical and cheerfully persistent of all the songbirds. The male song thrush’s song is easily identified because, unlike his cousin the blackbird, he repeats a note over and again.

What it teaches us

The piercing, joyous song of the thrush on a midwinter morning raised me at one of my lowest times, in the days after the death of my mother when I could not sleep. It taught me that life does go on, whether we want it to or not. A cannonade of sweet song at nature’s (and my own) darkest hour restored my spirits. ‘Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew. And I was unaware,’ as Thomas Hardy once wrote of the thrush. All birdsong has this power to heal – but the song thrush and the mistle thrush are the only birds to sing in the dead of winter and through the storms. A living, singing metaphor.

The magpie

How to spot it

A large, quite elegant black and white scavenger, found everywhere, in city and countryside alike. Tenacious and intelligent, magpies have been a source of deep superstition and ire, both rational and irrational, all through history. Or, in the words of Rev. J. C. Atkinson, in his book British Birds’ Eggs and Nests (price one shilling) in 1861: ‘A very wary, crafty bird...bold, impudent, thievish rascal.’

What it teaches us

Magpies are adversaries. They destroy the nests of the smaller songbirds, eat the eggs and kill the chicks. I cannot help but draw a comparison in my mind to the cancer that took away my mother all those years ago, leaving our nest broken and askew. But magpies also show me that nature is unsentimental. You cannot have light without darkness. Black without white. They might be my adversaries, but they are necessary adversaries.

Find out about some of the best sites to see birds in the UK

The chiffchaff

How to spot it

Weighing in at just half an ounce, this tiny, olive-green migratory warbler arrives from Africa in March. It never ceases to astonish me quite how this tiny bundle of feathers manages to cross the oceans and seas every year without fail, to land at the top of the same ancient oak near my home, always taking me by surprise at a cold, low moment.

What it teaches us

The chiffchaff is the true herald of spring, not the cuckoo which arrives a few weeks later. No matter how much you think winter will never end, it will. The chiffchaff’s song on a freezing March day is a sweet-toned messenger of better times to come. A chiffchaff singing at the side of Mum’s grave helped to break a silence between my father and me that very much needed to be broken. This chiffchaff showed us that the warm wind and oak-dappled light would return to our lives, though it felt so far away at the time.

The house sparrow

How to spot it

 This happy little riot of black, brown and grey was, not long ago, the life-affirming chitter-chattering wallpaper of our everyday lives, nesting in odd loose bricks around our now hermetically sealed homes and feeding on our once weed-filled lawns. You will still find house sparrows in many of their old haunts – bringing immense joy.

What it teaches us

The sparrows chattering outside my window brought me comfort at a sad time, when I was mired in dread for the future. But those birds going about their business helped me to see that the point of life, when all is said and done, is just to live. They teach me to take the pressure off myself. And they also teach me the importance of ‘everyday nature’.

The kingfisher

How to spot it

A sparrow-sized bird with an iridescent blue back and wings, burnished coppery-orange breast and a beak like a black dagger, it is an unmistakable sight as it darts across the river at low level. Kingfishers like to find branches on which to perch and fish.

What it teaches us

You are never alone in nature. Watching for kingfishers on riverbanks and canals in the months after my mother died taught me just how gloriously diverse our ecosystem is – how it all fits together as a living, breathing whole of which I am an integral part. The chalk streams showed me a way out of loneliness through nature. Lying back on a warm day I learned to accept life as it came to me – and just to be.

Find out what exotic birds might visit a British garden

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.