From a very early age I’ve been obsessed with birds. Of course, as a young boy, I did not know the word obsessed, but I would have told you that I loved birds and I really meant it. I’ve spent more of my life thinking about birds than anything else.
During my childhood, my parents were quite strict and every day we had family lunch at the dining table, followed by a compulsory 30-minute lie down. For many kids that would have been a painful experience, but it didn’t bother me at all. My bed was positioned under a large window and I would lie on the bed, watching the bird feeder on a rock a few metres away. There were always birds there and I knew them all.
I didn’t only know their names, I knew them individually, their habits and their behaviours. In many ways, it resembled my school playground during break time. There was the pintail who was a real arrogant bloody bully, so full of himself and his importance, and the cheerful chatty bulbuls. I spent many hours watching these characters interacting with each other. I especially loved the mannikins and the white eyes, who both came in sociable little flocks; they were self-contained, mindful and dapper. Every now and then a new bird would suddenly show up and it would send a shiver of excitement through me. My family life was quite lonely on the farm and there were many days and hours that I found myself alone. During these times the birds were my close companions.
When I wasn’t watching them, I would turn over on my bed to study my Roberts Field guide of South African Birds. I read this book every day. The birds were described in detail, maps showed where they occurred, and, most importantly, every bird was beautifully illustrated. I studied them all and knew each one intimately. Each plate had a favourite bird, one that I desperately wanted to see. The artist, Norman Lighton, did a masterful job of illustrating the birds in various poses. Some were shown in flight, others perched on a branch and others feeding or displaying a habit typical of that bird. Those illustrations filled my mind and however the bird was illustrated was how I came to know the bird and also how I came to expect to see it one day.
More than fifty years later, I still love my birds and I still like to lie down after lunch, although I must admit that my eyes do sometimes close these days. I miss my childhood bedroom window and the bird feeder outside, but I still watch birds whenever I get the chance. My Roberts field guide is always close at hand; but it’s no longer shiny bottle green. Instead, it has faded to a speckled bird’s egg colour. Inside, the pages are filled with notes and observations, some written when I was a boy and some as fresh as yesterday.
Just a couple of days ago I accompanied my guide, Jabu, on a mission deep into some mangroves in search of an elusive kingfisher. We walked quietly for a couple of hours; the only sound was the squelching of our shoes in the soft mud. Crabs skedaddled away from us, but there was no sign of our bird. I was ready to turn back, but Jabu pushed on, insisting that he’d heard the bird in the thicket. Suddenly, as if he had orchestrated it, there was a bright flash of blue right in front of us as the Mangrove Kingfisher landed on an exposed branch a distance away, but in front of us. ‘Here I am’, he seemed to be saying. My heart was in my mouth as I raised the binoculars to my eyes. Jabu did a little jig beside me and jumped into the air with a huge smile, and I clasped his hand tightly. Time stood absolutely still for a moment as we watched the beautiful bird.
My mind moved back to the Roberts plate where I’d first seen and studied this bird as a boy. It looked so much brighter than I had imagined and, of course, it was no longer frozen into an artist’s pose. This time, in front of me, was a Mangrove Kingfisher flapping its azure blue wings in an expression of pure joy and it felt as if the bird was taking off out of the book and being set free.
My heart leaps with exhilaration each time I find a new bird and, bird by bird, I free them from the pages of the book. Slowly but surely, my Roberts book of frozen still-life birds is emptying as I find each bird in the wild and watch it come alive.
I think the author, Roberts himself, will be proud of me when, one day, I hope the book is blank as I’ve set all my birds free and watched them fly. It certainly brings me joy as I search the bush for more birds to set free from the pages of my mind.