The Thing with Feathers

Juvenile American robins are everywhere at the Arboretum: I must have counted over two dozen in one six kilometre walk. But for some reason, every time I raised my binoculars to look at one, my brain said “Fieldfare”. ‘No,” I replied to my confused brain, “you’re in North America. Those are Turdus migratorius , not Turdus pilaris.” Didn’t help. Next juvenile robin, again my brain said “Fieldfare’.


If you look at the two illustrations – the juvenile American robin is on the left, the fieldfare on the right –  you can see why my brain just might confuse what I was looking at. But really, there was no excuse. I’ve been looking at juvenile robins (consciously) for about fifty-five years. I’ve only been looking at fieldfare for about twenty-five. I’m still trying to work out why I was so convinced I was not in North America: it was classic Ontario high summer, and everything should have said ‘home’ to me.

My first fieldfare were in an old orchard at Leighton Moss RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve, on Christmas Eve of 1991. We  were driving to Scotland to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s cousins; Leighton Moss is in Lancashire, more or less on the way. I remember the day as changeable, cloud giving way to brilliant low sunshine, the light winking in and out. We were walking from the visitor’s centre along the lane that borders the reserve, making our way to the footpath that runs out into the reedbeds. A rush of wings, and thrushes exploded into the old orchard: fieldfare, and their cousins the redwings. Both birds are similar to juvenile American robins (and a lot of other thrushes). But they were both new to us, and in the winter light and bare trees they were both sound and colour. I’ve seen both species many times since then, but I remember them best from that first sighting.

Later that day, walking back to the visitor’s centre, the reedbed glowing golden in a few moments of sunshine, an Eurasian bittern rose and flew, still a rarity then: the reserve was one of their few breeding sites in England. I can still watch that piece of ‘film’ in my mind, the bird flying low, its slow wingbeats and extended neck somehow almost as prehistoric as the flight of a heron, its colours and stripes blending with the reeds, all lit by the low sunlight of a northern English late December afternoon. It is one of my most cherished memories, for all the bitterns I’ve seen since.

So juvenile American robins, in the TARDIS of memory, took me back from late-July Ontario in 2016 to midwinter England in 1991.  Emily Dickinson described ‘hope as the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…’, but for me, ‘the thing with feathers’ is what brings memories.


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