Thursday, 25 August 2011


Swimming in the home pool one lazy July afternoon, I found myself overlooked from the covered terrace at the end of the pool by a couple of swallows. One was perched on the rim of a hanging plate, the other was gripping a wall-sculpture. I swam several lengths, coming within less than a few feet of these calm little birds each time I reached the deep end, apparently not causing them more than mild interest. Then as I relaxed between lengths at the far end of the pool the swallow from the hanging plate dropped in a perfect dive to within a yard of me, scooped up a sip of water in its beak and shot away over my shoulder for all the world like a Spitfire which had just rocketed a panzer tank.

Birds are an important part of life in Las Pinedas. Each summer swallows and house-martins nest and breed exuberantly. One year a pair of swallows flew in through my office door, fluttered round a few times like potential buyers inspecting a new property, and apparently satisfied, the next day set about building their nest on one of the cross beams – that is to say the hen (it must have been the hen) set about doing the building, while the cock (it was certainly the cock) sat on a nearby beam, berating me with a stream of threatening chatter as I meekly typed away at my computer. Eventually my breeding pair produced a family of three young . All that summer I had to keep my office door open as the family flew busily in and out. The next year, with swallow-like regularity, self-evidently the same hen arrived on the grille outside my office door, but now with a new and more uncertain mate, who seemed alarmed by my presence in the office. Nonetheless the pair roosted together on the usual beam and flew out in the usual way in the daytime. That second evening however the hen reappeared alone, sat on the grille for a while, then flew off with a definite air of decision, and presently returned with the defaulting male. They roosted one more night together. The third night the hen sat on the grille alone, finally flew out into the gloaming and never came back.

This summer there was a happier story. In Casa Uno a pair of swallows managed to construct their nest on the sloping brass top of one of the Moroccan lamps hanging over the covered eating area. The weight of the nest tilted the lamp at a crazy angle, but it fledged two full families of four baby swallows apiece, who spent the summer days on the wing, cleaning the Las Pinedas air of flying insects ,and in the evenings flew screaming with delight around the courtyard, before settling down to sleep in two groups of four on the branches of a big potted dama de noche plant beside the pool. Guests seeking the fifth bathroom in the night have courteously lifted over their heads the branches laden with sleeping swallows.

There are more caged birds in Las Pinedas than one might wish. A particular friend is a solitary love-bird, who spends the summer in a shaded corner of a neighbour’s garden, out of sight of the street. But he recognizes my footfall as I walk by in the road and gives me a welcoming ‘TWEET’! Love-birds can’t do much more than tweet. Our particular game is to work up to a climactic double-tweet…a wolf-whistle. We exchange one or two single tweets, then sometimes he goes first, sometimes I go first… for the double. I know he is warming up for a double when I hear a muted CHEEP, the sound of a love-bird clearing its beak, as one might say, for musical action. As every construction worker knows there are two possible inflections for a wolf-whistle: the upward inflection PHEW-WEE?, as in ‘Hey lady, love my abs of steel!’, and the downward inflection WEE-PHEW! As in ‘Phew wotta scorcher!’. My bird-friend and I have become practiced at both of these musical tropes. What the scrawny cats sitting on the garden wall make of it is difficult to say.

It is at Paqui’s Self-Service store next to the Bar Gtan Parada that the bird-life of Las Pinedas is most abundant and contradictory. Some years ago Paqui rescued a hen which was getting rough treatment in the chicken-pen at the back of the bar, and brought it into her house. All birds need a territory they can call their own. Paqui’s hen took up residence on the back arm of the sofa in the living room immediately off the shop. Each morning the hen pecks vigorously at the sofa cover, eating imaginary seeds and wood-lice, clucking possessively and ruffling her by now rather shabby old feathers. Later in the day she waddles into the shop, idly wandering the aisles like Marie-Antoinette taking the air in the Tuileries gardens, and though she is less than a foot high and has to look up her beak rather than down it to express her disdain for we shoppers, somehow manages to leave the indelible impression that from shop-floor level she is looking down on us.

Paqui’s shop also gives shelter to the most intimate of all my bird-friends in Las Pinedas. A love-bird again, coloured green and red, in a cage with a wired dome, like a miniature crystal palace. By now it knows me well – sees through all my various seasonal disguises – hails me straight away with a cheery TWEET!...leaving me in no doubt that I am being summoned to the presence. This is a bird that likes big music. Our relationship really began on the day I stooped to its cage and whistled the first twenty or so bars of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata – engraved in my memory by the man in the next-door set of rooms to mine at Cambridge, who only knew these twenty or so bars, but played them incessantly all one year and fixed them indelibly in my mind. Alas there was no way that Paqui’s love-bird could whistle Beethoven back to me. Instead he responded with callisthenics. First he rocked from side to side on his perch. Then he leapt onto the side of his cage and with beak and claw moved – like a crazy crotchet – up, down and across the upright wires, producing his own randomised Stockhausen score. Finally he worked his way up into the dome, did the splits to grip the two lateral base-wires and bring his body to the horizontal, and in that extended quasi-flying position focused his eyes on mine in a sustained and intensive stare – the bright and brotherly eye-to-eye acknowledgment of one significant artist to another. Latterly we have moved on from Beethoven to the Last Post, which two years of National Service in the 1950s had also indelibly printed on my mind. While Paqui weighs my tomatoes, slices the ham and tots up the bill, her bird and I celebrate the going down of the sun on innumerable imperial yesterdays. Of course he knows nothing about Gibraltar…where greatly to the irritation of successive Spanish governments, the Last Post is still blown nightly by a solitary British Army trumpeter.

My house is across the road from a Franco-era water tower, a gaunt concrete exclamation mark, identical to a thousand water towers all over Spain, relicts of Franco’s unsuccessful experiment in autarchy – economic self-sufficiency for Spain, without reliance on overseas trade (there are grain silos in every town from the same period). Nowadays the tower is rusty with concrete cancer and eventually it will have to come down…or risk falling down under its own immense weight. It has long been emptied of water, which nowadays is supplied by modern high-pressure mains. But for the migratory birds of Las Pinedas – and especially the house-martins – it is a vital landmark for their annual return to their traditional breeding-grounds on the houses and barns of Las Pinedas. The first sign that summer is drawing to a close is the house-martins’ assault on the water tower. For several days they mob it, flying hectically around it, clinging to it with clawed feet, falling away to scream and perform aerial acrobatics, flying back to cling to it again. It is as if they are in some way ‘marking’ it…embedding it in their own memories and the memories of their fledglings…fixing it as an attractor…a special point of return amongst all the other possible points of return in Spain…return to the the village that they know is theirs….though we humans foolishly sometimes think it is ours.

As the house-martins and swallows leave for Africa, small flocks of bee-eaters arrive, dropping thick autumnal trills as they swoop and swerve over the rooftops: a long curved bill, a flash of brilliant yellow at the throat, kingfisher blue body, wings that open on the turn to reveal sharply defined triangles of brightest white – the loveliest birds in Southern Spain.

Birds seem altogether more intelligent than we give them credit for. S0-odd miles from Las Pinedas is the lake of Fuente de Piedra, summer home for a colony of some 10,000 flamingos. Every evening at dusk the breeding pairs, male and female parents of the young birds, rise in a dense pink cloud from the water to fly down the Guadalquivir river to the estuarine marshes nowadays within the great biosphere reserve of the Parque Nacional de Donyana – a distance of some 100 miles each way, to browse the salt-marshes there throughout the night, returning to Fuente de Piedra at down the following morning, to regurgitate the contents of their stomachs and feed their young. And the young meanwhile? They spend the night in Fuente de Piedras. But far from leaving the young to their own devices, somehow the flamingo community has evolved a system whereby a number of older birds are designated to stay behind at the lake, to maintain tribal order and teach the young birds how to feed themselves. Perhaps these elders are self-selected, simply too old to undertake the nightly odyssey to Donyana and back, A physicist would see the principle of least action at work here, a philosopher would recognise the cut of Occam’s razor –for both disciplines, the simplest way always works best. Somehow, without any knowledge of physics or philosophy, the flamingos seem to have worked this out.


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