THE NEWHAVEN NESTING BOX AFFAIR

I made it in April 2009 from the case that had held one of the most munificent presents that I have ever been given; a dozen Château Gruaud-Larose ’85.

Gruaud-Larose is a red wine from the St. Julien appellation of the Médoc region of Bordeaux, a “second growth” so consistently excellent that a man might wonder what heaven a first growth could be intended for. 1985 was a particularly good year for all French wines and this was superb. It would have remained so for far longer than the wind farm scam will continue to flourish or the likely political life of Nick Clegg, but by the time I came to be looking for carpentry materials it had all been drunk. In the bird box, I thought, it would at least have some sort of a memorial.

I conceived  it with the affection that I have for almost all birds except vultures and city pigeons, and for small birds in particular. At my grammar school I never progressed beyond sawing and planing and at my military-minded boarding school there was no handicraft instruction at all, but I gave the job my limited best. Ornithological authorities were consulted as regards dimensions. Screws rather than nails were used and no potentially harmful protrusions were permitted either outside or in. The entrance hole was large enough for all garden birds except starlings. There was strength where strength was required (we are vulnerable to prevailing, and sometimes ferocious westerlies here on the lower slopes of the Sussex Downs), symmetry where symmetry seemed advisable or advantageous and taste throughout.

In short, I crafted it, aiming somewhere well short of godwottery but less utilitarian than anything offered at B & Q: something between Enid Blyton and the library’s Carpentry from A to Z.  For a nicely calculated rusticity the vestigial G and R of the Gruaud Larose on the roof were concealed by short lengths of well weathered bean pole, a finish so authentic that even with the highest possible degree of magnification the artifice would not be detectable on Google Earth.  Thinking about the habits of nuthatches and stumped for a non-toxic wood dye, I at last imaginatively hit upon half a bottle of superannuated soy sauce.

Never think that God’s delays are God’s denials. Hold on; hold fast. Patience is genius, said the philosopher, Buffon. It would have been foolish to have expected an avian stampede to  a so newly contrived nesting site., and for the rest of that spring after positioning it on a post beside a hedge at the end of the lawn I was content simply to speculate as to whether robin, wren, blue tit or sparrow would be the first to take possession in 2010. When May of that year was half gone without any sign of  interest being shown by a feathered friend of any kind I gave philosophy another whirl. All human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope, said Alexandre Dumas.  It was a dictum that carried me well past lilac time and a spot of bother that underlined the undesirability of visiting A & E in the early hours of a Sunday after a night when lusty lads and lasses fuelled by the blushful supermarket Hippocrene or dry cider laced with vodka have caroused from dark ‘til dawn through the centre of Brighton  and woe betide anyone who gets in their way. But again, for all the notice my diary took of it  last year the bird box might never have existed. Then on Monday everything changed.

Sitting at the computer, searching for a mot juste, I was looking out of my cabin window for inspiration when a sudden movement at the edge of my vision caught my eye. The top of the post on which the bird box is mounted is crowned with a piece of packing case larger than the base of the box itself. On the ledge thus provided a blue tit had alighted and with little jerky shifts of the head, up and down, tilted to the right, tilted to the left, was shrewdly considering its options; it was a process that seemed to take for ever while I hardly dared breathe. Then at last the bird was clinging to the rim of the entrance hole. Then had disappeared inside. In a moment it appeared again and perched on the overhang of the roof while a second bird, just flown in, imitated its behaviour. It was an occasion worth capturing and I got up to fetch my camera. Less than three minutes later, when I was ready to shoot, the blue tits had gone, never to be seen again.

A disappointed suitor could scarcely be more miserable than this writer. I had been called on but not chosen; tried, but found wanting. Pride was devastated, self-confidence shattered. What could be the reason for my rejection? Given the numerous requirements for an acceptable bird box, and in spite of all my efforts, it was obvious that I had conspicuously failed in every respect

At a right angle to the hedge at the end of the lawn, meeting it no more than a few yards from where the bird box stands, but just out of sight from my cabin window, is my neighbour’s garden wall, a substantial affair of Sussex stone. On Friday, bent on a critical examination of the box and necessarily moving from the cabin further than I normally need to go, I was greatly surprised by the sight of Sinbad, my neighbour’s moggy, installed where I had never seen it dare to venture before on the broad coping of the wall.

I am not a dyed-in-the-wool adversary of Felis catus, but no lover of it either. For every amiable Mittens, Moppet or Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, collared and belled, petted and pampered with GoCat and Whiskas, there are a thousand domestic relations in whom beat the feral heart of the primordial predator of field and forest, red in tooth and claw. No doubt sensing antipathy, Sinbad is usually careful to avoid me. Now, with blatant effrontery, contemptuous of my presence, he was curled up in the sun, facing the abandoned bird box and within a purposeful spring of it. Watching. Waiting.

And now antipathy turned to implaccable enmity. Now  I understood.

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