Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Worrying about wagtails

Out of all of the creatures that swoop down from the heavens to feed in our back garden, birds are the ones I like best.
As I have previously stated in this column, I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from seeing the garden teeming with our feathered friends, squabbling loudly over the peanut feeders and fat balls. Some may find sparrows and starlings boring but I get a real kick watching their mannerisms and jealousies. A blue tit visits us early in the morning and late in the afternoon when he has the place to himself. A wren is sometimes to be seen skulking in the undergrowth (having no sense of date, he is probably afraid it might be St. Stephens Day). Sometimes those big black bullies, the rooks and jackdaws, sweep down from their lofty perches, though they are always the first to scarper at a peremptory knock on the window.
And we have a wagtail.
He is a Pied Wagtail, a subspecies of the white wagtail, found commonly throughout Europe, according to my I-Spy Book of Garden Birds. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t actually wag his tail, which causes one to doubt the compos mentis of the great ornithologist that named him thus. Instead he nods it up and down incessantly as though his backside is on fire and he’s trying to cool it down.
Now, until recently, Mr. Wagtail (or motacilla alba yarrelli, as they probably refer to him in Rome) rarely ventured into our back garden. I would often see him in the mornings when I came out to get into the car hesitantly running backwards and forwards across the road, like a child taking swimming lessons. Whereas the other birds seem to prefer the foliage and food of the back garden, or the grass of the green opposite, the wagtail appears to regard tarmac and concrete as his favoured habitat, which has always struck me as somewhat odd.
But anyway, I would drive off in my car and watch him scurrying to the kerb as fast as his little legs would carry him. And here is another thing. If God had given me wings, I wouldn’t waste all that energy running to avoid traffic. But I put that particular trait down to the fact that he likes to remain in shape and keep his figure, while robins and dunnets just let themselves go.
Last year, I had cause to visit another estate in the locality. Being an un-wagtail-like person, I hopped into my car, watched the little black and white shape hurry out of the way and drove around. As I parked on the roadside, I idly watched another wagtail ostensibly foraging at the base of the kerb where the dandelions grow. And the thought naturally occurred to me that maybe every estate has their own wagtail. Just as every gang has their own turf, maybe the wagtails divide suburban estates amongst themselves, each ruling the roost on their own patch and anyone who crosses the boundary is cruising for a bruising.
As time went by, I had cause to test this theory and it usually held up. Whenever I visited another estate, I would normally see the familiar black and white shape doing the widths of the road, apparently unconcerned at the massive machines that approached him menacingly. He’d be pecking at something on the tarmac – surely not the greatest feeding ground he could choose in a location full of lawns and bushes and shrubs? – and then, judging it to perfection, he’d dash out of the way at the last moment.
So, I filed him away as a suburban estate bird, a little eccentric, considering his choice of habitat, but a familiar sight around the urban sprawl of Dublin 15.
And then I began to see him at work.
Now, I work out in Leixlip at a giant plant famous for producing pentium processors. It is right on the outskirts of Leixlip in a predominately rural area and as I pulled into the carpark one morning last November, I spied the familiar black and white figure scurrying out of my way. Ha, I thought. He’s spread his wings a bit, venturing from his familiar suburban stronghold out to the countryside.
And then another thought occurred to me – what if it’s the same bird?
Now, I’m sorry to death such a disarming idea ever entered my tiny head, because it has lodged there and won’t go away, pecking away at me whenever the nodding loner hoves into view.
What if the bird that I see when leaving for work in the morning is the same bird that is there ostensibly examining dandelions when I pull up in another estate? And is also there pretending to eat tarmac in my carpark at work? Spooky or what? Obviously he tails my car and swoops down unnoticed when I’m turning off the engine.
The more I think about it, the more the evidence seems to add up. This bird obviously has a personal interest in me and where I go. This explains why, unlike every other bird, he alone stays outside the front of the house. If he goes into the back garden, he might miss me leaving and won’t be able to pick up the trail. It also explains why he pretends to be feeding on tarmac when there are gardens full of slugs and juicy worms all around. Because he’s not really feeding – he’s reconnoitering. And it explains why the little blighter runs everywhere – he’s conserving his wing muscles in case he might have to make a sudden trip somewhere.
Farfetched? Well, would you be able to tell two wagtails apart? I, for one, am now pretty sure it is the same bird. Now, when I see him, I eye him closely and I am certain he is doing the same to me. We both watch each other out of the corner of our eyes and I fancy he is a bit disconcerted that I have blown his cover.
There are of course two possible reasons why this ornithological private eye is shadowing me. Instead of a guardian angel, he could be my guardian wagtail, watching o’er me to ensure I come to no harm, though quite what he intends to do in the case of an emergency is difficult to predict. Give me the peck of life?
Or his fixation with me could have more sinister undertones. Suppose Douglas Adams is right and white mice really do rule the planet? Could not this wagtail be part of their secret service, tailing me everywhere I go and noting down my movements? Maybe its tail hides a concealed radio transmitter that sends data back to the white mice’s lair and that is why it is incessantly moving? Maybe every human being in Ireland has their own personal wagtail that follows them everwhere?
My wagtail has taken to coming into the back garden now. It doesn’t squawk with the other birds on the pyracantha or squabble on the peanut feeder. Instead, it runs around the concrete patio while we are eating Sunday dinner, occasionally glancing in through the glass door to make sure I am still there.
As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

Prior to the March 2007 edition, Community Voice was published once per month

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