Country diary: life lessons from a fearless song thrush

If I reach out my hand, the song thrush will hop closer. It will calmly accept a crumb, a seed or a half-grape from my fingers, or alight on them, gripping with toes that feel like electrical wire: not hard, but not quite soft; not warm, but not quite cool. “Alight” is very much the right word, because the wonder of mutually fearless physical contact with a wild songbird is akin to holding fire in my hand. At such close range, this is not just a song thrush, but a someone.

Unlike the bandit confidence of quayside gulls, that of the song thrushes that populate Scilly at 10 times the density found on the mainland is inquiring and circumspect, almost polite. The house sparrows here are equally unafraid, but they operate in a crowd, making it hard to keep track of who’s who.

St Agnes, Scilly.
St Agnes, Scilly. ‘The sense of mental decompression is palpable.’ Photograph: Amy-Jane Beer

The local swallows are, if not confiding (I have nothing they want or need), then insouciant. The lanes of St Agnes are narrow and sheltered between stone walls and hedges, and their concrete surfaces radiate heat well into the night. The birds barrel along these warm canyons, hoovering up insects that mistake the still air for safety. Walking of an evening it can feel as though you’ve strayed on to the wrong carriageway of a hirundine highway. They hurtle past at head height or lower, making the minimum correction necessary to avoid human bollards, but passing so close you can glimpse the Joker-gape and large eyes, sense air thrumming in feathers, and vortices flung in their wake.

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For a while, this holiday seemed too much to hope for and now the sense of mental decompression is palpable. While we pitch tents this afternoon, the children disappear, like four genies liberated into light and air. It’s only later that they show me where they’ve spent the afternoon – much further than we imagined they’d go unaccompanied: a natural rock fortress with giddy pinnacles, unnerving drops, tight caves and narrow crevices. They swarm over it like monkeys. Suppressing a reflexive and unnecessary urge to caution them, I recall the bird’s trusting grip on my finger. It’s easy to forget sometimes, perhaps most times, that fearing and being feared are not inescapable parts of being human.


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