HOW IT ALL STARTED FOR ME

A BIRD IN THE HEART IS WORTH ALL THOSE IN THE BUSH

 



At first the size of life was measured by a matchbox. Then a jam-jar, shoebox, old budgie cage and then the groundbreaking first fish tank, repainted and refurbished to welcome the organism at the epicentre of my known universe . . a clumsily caught tail-less Common Lizard. At first it looked dejected on its manicured bed of yellow sand, then it hid in its lovingly created ‘Bark Cave’, and then it died. Like so many of the previous prisoners in the young naturalist’s menagerie, it expired and broke a heart which, after an episode of Captain Scarlett, healed faster than a lizard’s tail stump, and raced as further expeditions deep into the uncharted wastelands of Bitterne Park and Midanbury, widened the eyes of the bramble-scratched boy. In the time that it took to launch a Sputnik, win a World Cup, kill the Kennedys and put Neil on the moon, a passion for all those small things had infused every cell, and by the time T-Rex singles lay scratched, and Bobby Stokes stole the FA Cup for Southampton, the genocide had stopped. More lived than died, and butterflies had been replaced by Badgers, frogs spawn by Foxes, and a new epicentre had evolved in the expanding universe . . . birds. More precisely Kestrels.




On my birthday, the following year, my parents bought me my first pair of binoculars from Dixons. Previously I had used, and broken, my dad’s. I cycled out of the driveway and had only got a hundred yards when I looked up over Selma Court and saw a small raptor circling, wings spread with a long fanned tail. I didn’t need the bins, I knew what it was. I watched it drift away, turned and set off to begin a life where birds have come and gone, where obsessions have fledged and burned with equal fervour – I got hit badly by the end of the Red Backed Shrikes – I twitched when it was still nice to do so, and I’ve been so very fortunate to have travelled the globe and to have a huge ‘World List’. I still fantasise about birds I’d like to see or photograph, exotics like Philippines Eagle, and the Birds of Paradise, but not a year passes when I don’t steal a moment on that December anniversary to recall which was the best bird of all.

Kestrels were my whole-wide-world. I thought Kestrels, talked Kestrels, drew and dreamt Kestrels and spent every available daylight hour looking for Kestrels, and if it wasn’t daylight, I was reading about them. Junior Mastermind, chosen subject – the Kestrel, ten out of ten, a hundred out of a hundred . . . go on ask me still and I’ll tell you the scientific names of their commonest gut parasites. The young Packhams Tinnuncular Phenomena defined obsession and reached its stellar climax on June 25th 1975 at 12.38, on West Horton Farm near Fair Oak in Hampshire. I found a nest! I think I’ve been happier since but I’m not so sure I’ve ever been so elated. Two weeks later I took a youngster from that oak tree, three weeks after that it flew free, and for four months I trod the pre-school dew to fly it over those brickfield wastelands on Cloud 999. But then - it got ill and on December 6th just after Jim had fixed it, the bird died in my hands as I sat on my bed. Everything broke, the Kestrel Universe collapsed and I went into a very black hole. I have been sadder but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone, so obviously beyond the reach of Captain Scarlett’s indestructibility.

Chris Packham


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