Helen Macdonald – author of our Non-fiction Book of the Month, H is for Hawk – considers the bewitching power of birds.
It’s evening. Five people are standing in the middle of a road. All have binoculars, one has a hand-drawn map. They’re delegates at a conservation conference in Johannesburg, and they’ve driven here in a rental car to try and spot Taita falcons, tiny slate and cinnamon-coloured hawks of extreme rarity. The people are a little disconsolate, because they’ve driven a very long way, and walked the length of a stubby, vegetated cliff, then sat and watched for a long time, and they’d not seen a single sign of this legendary falcon. Not one. Their expedition was a failure.
That was us, of course, me and four friends, and we were feeling fed up and a teensy bit betrayed as we walked downhill over cooling asphalt back to the car. Night was falling, crickets were singing. We were tired, and we’d abandoned the scenic beauty around us in favour of slightly sulky views of the tarmac beneath our feet. Even so, we all stopped at the viewpoint by the car. Because from the side of the road here the land fell away into a vast, arid limestone gorge. A couple of hours ago this valley had been lit so gorgeously by the sun behind us it resembled a vast, dully shining geode, high rock walls glowing as if they were illuminated from within.
Baffling, tiny dots. They moved, danced like fireflies. Perhaps they were fireflies. They were alive.
But it was getting late. The sun was gone. The clifftops still shone white-gold, a chain of islands in a sea of shadow. But the valley was in darkness, now, shadow so deep it seemed filled to the brim with black water or oil. But looking closer, the blackness of the drowned valley wasn’t like liquid at all; it was a soft, hollow, vertiginous black, sufficient to make the eyes fizz and wink, like a photo-print of the night sky breaking up at ISO 400. This was a void, not a lake. The space in front of us looked dead. Not even dead, but something that had never held life; an alien place like the wall of a lunar crater, an ice shelf on a Europan sea. The shadow was rising now, high up the sides of the cliffs, and would soon swallow us all. We all grew silent, felt a kind of desperate, lonely dread.
And then in the silence John the ornithologist muttered, what is that? And pointed. Red dots in the middle of the abyss. Baffling, tiny dots. They moved, danced like fireflies. Perhaps they were fireflies. They were alive. Bobbing red lights glowing brightly against the black. Getting bigger. They were coming towards us.
We stared at these weird red lights through our binoculars and racked our brains. They moved in ways that made no sense at all. What the hell? I said. Are they UFOs? And I laughed, but it was a nervous laugh. Ball lightning? Fireflies? None of us could explain what we saw. And there was an urgent sense that we had to work out what these lights were before they reached us. My skin was chilled and crawling. The red dots were impossible, horrible. The five of us stood there like children in the presence of ghosts, worried that everything we’d ever understood about the world was wrong.
But then, in an instant, everything was all right. The up and down movement became something as recognisable and familiar as breathing; it was wingbeats. With a shiver of delight we realised they were birds, glorious, beautiful birds—a little party of southern bald ibises on their way home to roost. Small scruffy heron-like things with long, downturned beaks, their black plumage was invisible until they came close: those red dots were simply their bare red foreheads glowing bright in the last rays of the sun.
The birds were coming in to roost. One by one the red dots vanished as they swung into their night-time perches in the canyon’s shaded walls. What is it about birds flying home? I think it is the most reassuring thing I know. For the canyon was not a dead, lunar landscape any more. Instead of a palace of rock and wind and vacuum and astronomy, this place was a home; it had happy inhabitants, and they were dancing along in the dusk. We found ourselves grinning. Well, said John. That was amazing.
It was. People often ask me why I like birds so much. I tell them it’s because they’re beautiful, familiar, recognisable, and endlessly interesting animals. But sometimes they are much more than this. Sometimes birds can bring moments of deep revelation about the world and our place in it. And if ever I’ve had a moment of grace, in the field, watching birds, this was it.
Helen Macdonald, for Waterstones.com/blog