I work mostly from home, and I’ve noticed that when I go to the kitchen for my mid afternoon snack I will sometimes have an gimlet eyed audience peering at me through the kitchen window from next door’s roof – particularly if said meal is bread based. Mostly it’s feral pigeons regarding my sandwich with envious eyes, cocking their heads from side to side and shuffling about with muted excitement, but this time it was a juvenile wood pigeon and it didn’t miss a single bite. I’ve never fed them, but obviously they’ve come to associate humans with food and this allows them to live in hope.
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My computer is squashed right into the corner of the room, up beside the fireplace and chimney breast. The fireplace was sadly boarded up long ago, but often and especially in summer I can be startled by a loud and echoey cooing right at my elbow. The culprits? Our resident wood pigeons, who live on (and perhaps in) the chimney pots pretty much all year round. They don’t come down the chimney – or at least not yet, but their voices are amplified and come out loud and clear right next to where I am working.
These portly and somewhat comical birds lead a peaceful life among the stumpy, pollution raddled trees that fringe the back gardens on our street. But the best and perhaps safest place to roost or soak up a drop of cheerless winter sun seems to be the chimney pots, and pigeons are famed for their liking of these perches. Everyone has a tale about the day a pigeon fell down the chimney and could be heard bumping about inside a bricked up fireplace; I like to think most people prefer to do messy and expensive work to release the unfortunate bird rather than hear it die there. Even the famed Wigan pie-eating contest was put in peril by a pigeon stuck in the flue.
Spring and summer brings the restful sound of incubating birds snoring down the chimney as they sit peacefully on their nests; it’s an odd bubbling noise I haven’t seen adequately described anywhere. I’ve never yet seen their offspring. Perhaps they are eaten by magpies and crows – if this is true, the parents seem to give up their nests without a fight or a sound.
I like to think that once upon a time, when we still had open fires, the pigeons would congregate on chimney tops for extra warmth as well as safety. Perhaps the smoke fumigated their feathers and kept nests free from lice. At any rate, they never lost the chimney roosting habit even after the advent of central heating. I love to think of them huddling there together on winter nights.
I got up this morning to freezing fog. The last two days have been impossibly perfect winter; sharp, brilliant sun in a dazzling cloudless sky, long shadows, sharp frosty air and utterly still. But this morning when I got up the light (what there was of it) was the strange, muffled subterranean hue that suggests that you have been snowed in.
The back door opened on to a petrified garden. Thick rimes of frost hung from every blade of grass, and in the immediate vicinity, silence. But London is never silent, and although not a thing seemed to stir the immense roar of a city waking could be heard over the roofs of the houses. It’s a strange sound, and one you are not normally aware of; there is always so much incidental noise. Not today, today the city sounded like an ocean, or a river about to burst its banks.
I love ice and fog. I love the delicate eerie beauty, the way it reduces the world to monochrome, the mystery of a familiar landscape become unfamiliar and shifting. I was drinking it all in when I heard a sharp tapping. A lone male blackbird foraging in next door’s garden was poking ineffectually at the icy ground. We rarely feed the birds; too many cats, squirrels and foxes in our neighbourhood. I decided that today had to be different and braved a metal fire escape thick with ice, carrying a kitchen chair down with me so that I could reach to put a tub of scraps (rice and potato) high on top of the washing line pole. As I climbed back up the treacherous steps, behind me I could hear the fluttering of wings as my guests arrived.