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#44 - JRL 2009-78 - JRL Home
Date: Sun, 26 Apr 2009
From: Sergei Roy <sergeiroy@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: Strictly for the Birds. A story.

Early Spring in Moscow: Strictly for the Birds
By Sergei Roy

From childhood every Russian knowsor did at least, for how do I know what the young now know?Alexei Savrasovs painting The Rooks Are Back (Grachi prileteli, 1871). It is supposed to inspire love for ones native land, however unassuming and unexotic its landscapes, and all sorts of radiant hopes for the coming of spring and revival of nature. Or so the teachers and museum guides used to tell us.

Frankly, the painting mostly depressed the feces out of me. All that loose, blackened, melting snow in the foreground, the shallow puddle to the right, the old, gnarled birch-trees with broken twigs, the old church and belfry in the distance, their walls quite likely peeling, but most of all the endless, flat, and inevitably muddy vista beyond and the dull sky above smeared with scowling clouds You could smell the damp air, you could hear the raucous cawing of the rooks and the rustling of the wind, and all these things, especially the bunch of those damn migrant birds in the trees, caused a heart-squeezing onslaught of that untranslatable Russian malaise, toska something like inescapable, ever-present ennui, a sense of transitoriness and fortuitousness of all earthly things. Particularly of oneself, of course.

That mood was quite acute in ones adolescence and youth. One would have expected it to swell with the passage of time, when ones inevitable transit from this world to the hypothetical next has ceased to be a theoretical, implausible possibility, becoming a close-looming prospect as unattractive as those dirty snowdrifts and as real. Curiously, things have worked out somewhat differently. Over the years of ones long life, the seasons repetitive cycle has convinced one of the truth of King Solomons adage: Everything passesand this [whatever that this is] will pass, too. It is just a matter of patience, of biding ones time, and the snows will all melt away, the rooks will have settled in their nests, black-and-brown will turn to green, and life will go onfor a short while longer, at least.

In a big city like Moscow, one needs an extra ration of such Stoicism. End of March and the first weeks of April, and in bad years like the present the whole of April is the hardest time to weather outwitness the steep rise in suicide incidence. The once pristine snowdrifts turn dirty to the point of exquisite ugliness, and where they melt away the accumulated filth hidden by the snow in winter comes to light, to the delight of Moscows yard-keepers. Luckily there are plenty of them these days, all said to be illegal migrants from the newly awfully independent if somewhat basket-case former Soviet republics. But that is by the by.

A believer in the factual truth of Savrasovs ever so Realist painting, I keep waiting for those other migrants, the rooks, to appearbut I wait in vain, year after year. I dont know, maybe our routes no longer intersect, or my eyesight is going, or something, but there it is. The other day we traveled to our dacha, the first time this year. It is some 70 kilometers north of Moscow; we saw plenty of Savrasovian vistas complete with dirty snowdrifts, ice-covered puddles, endless fields, woods, clouds, damp, wind, even dilapidated churches, butno rooks. Something is out of joint. The time, Russia, me, who knows. Maybe the rooks need worms to feed on, and all the worms have crawled away some place where agriculture is not dead yet. It certainly is dead all around Moscow. Land is too preciousthe nouveaux riches must have space to build their hideous castles in.

If I may be permitted a literary digression. Ive had this thing about rooks since early adolescence, and Savrasov is only partly to blame. Charles Dickens is the other culprit. I fell in love with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club at an early age and reread it many times. One of my special delights was the chapter in which Mr. Wardle takes the Pickwickians for a spot of rook-shooting before breakfast and that great sportsman Mr. Winkle shoots poor Mr. Tupman in the arm.

Now, that chapter, and sundry other passages in The Papers mention rook-pie. Fact is, in Russia rooks are not regarded as proper game, except by bestial, slingshot-wielding urchins; nor do they figure in Russian cuisineexcept in times of famine, I guess. An ardent hunter in my youth, I nevertheless never shot them, though there were always gangs of them following a tractor plowing a field, all busy pecking at worms and whatever else they delight in.

One day, however, I decided that Anglophile is as Anglophile does, and shot an unsuspecting bird thus hopping after a tractor with a bunch of others. A completely unsportsmanlike act that made me squirm, to be honest. That happened in Southern Russias steppe where quail and partridge were plentiful, and a woman used to cook them for me most deliciously. When I handed her the rook, though, she took it with barely concealed disgust, and later reported that it had had to be thrown away, having proved quite uncookable. I still dont know the reason; maybe it did not smell right, who knows.

I remembered then that the Dickens character actually shot nestlings and even used child labor a couple of ragged lads for whose safety Mr. Pickwick was so solicitous to climb the trees and start the game. Nestlings lolling in the nests without much exercise, force-fed by their parents, are indeed plump and tender unlike the stringy adult bird that I had shot, but for me shooting them in a rookery was totally out of the question if I did not wish to invite a cuff on the ear from a passing elderly Cossackstill the approved method of instilling proper behavior modes in errant youngsters out there.

You see, I had the impression that rooks shared with doves some sort of benevolent prejudice among Russias rural folks. More than once I got sworn at in choicest Russian as I passed through a village with a brace of wood-pigeons at my belt: Shooting Gods own bird, you . I could have objected that all birds, and more, were Gods own creations but, keenly aware that the theological debate could all too quickly turn physical, acted on the familiar premise that discretion was the only part of valor.

Perhaps rooks are the same kind of semi-religiously protected species in Russia, I dont know. Theres this reverent saying, Grach ptitsa vesenniaya The rook is a bird of the Spring. It would take another Pickwickian expedition, I guess, to get to the root of the matter. Ruefully, by this time the issue has lost all urgency for me. I am no longer likely to shoot at anything except burglars, and the Greens and animal rights activists must have eradicated the inhuman practice of rook-shooting in Britain, though that is by no means certain. Traditions die really hard over there. If those activists have won, then we are all moving toward a world of insidious goodwill and universal brotherhood of all Gods chillunall except the worm- and anything-else-eating Chinese, naturally.

The other day Russian TV viewers were treated to convincing evidence of the spread of this universal goodwill. A couple of ruddy shelduck apparently took it into their heads to cross a particularly busy Moscow thoroughfare on footwhether to make some point or out of inherent cretinism, I cannot say. You could practically hear an identical expletive bursting from drivers mouths as they slammed on the brakes in what threatened to become a major pile-up disaster. The silly birds stolidly waddled across the street exchanging a quiet quack between themselves while even sillier grins spread over the faces of the drivers who could almost be heard to repeat that same expletivein a completely different tone of voice. I practically shed a tear watching the scene. I mean, it was so funny

Talking of ducks, these poor creatures must have been grievously misinformed about global warming or something. They have come flying to Moscow in great numbers only to discover that all lakes, ponds, rivers etc. are still covered with inches thick ice here. Now they toddle about on the slippery surfaces getting their webbed feet ice-cold, I am sure, in a sort of Army run-and-wait routine.

One might feel the same concern for their lot as Holden Caulfield, that J.D.Salinger character whom we slobbered over back in the 60s, felt about the ducks in Central Park, but the local ducks habits actively discourage any such sentiments. As they wait till the ice melts and they can at last do headstands in the water, they subsist on handouts of bread and cookies from passersby, much like Ukraine does on IMF credits. But that is not all they do: they put in the time quite usefully sorting out their mutual grievances. Judging from the hullabaloo they raise, the birds are now recalling past insults and injuries stretching back years, as they tell their neighbors exactly what they think of them. My sister described to me just such a scene: two couples of ducks faced off on a patch of ice yelling at each other lustily, the insults coming plenteous and fast; the screaming match over, they separated, but each couple continued quarreling among themselves a long time before subsiding sulkily. Menschliches, allzu menschliches behavior.

All that, as I said, takes place at or near ponds and other iced surfaces. Actually I do most of my vernal bird-watching in a forested patch, about 300 meters by 150, along the Savelovskaya Railway, hemmed in on three sides by garages and suchlike. Not much in the way of wooded scenery, except it is just a five minutes walk from my home, the nearest spot I can take my morning constitutional, as per doctors orders.

In fact, I heartily dislike the place, and have a rather unflattering name for it: Galyun Park, the g-word a relic from my sailing days. You know, Peter the Great was the first Russian Czar to build the countrys navy early in the 18th century, and to be able to do that he spent a few years abroad, incognito, mostly in Amsterdam, where he learned the shipbuilders trade as an ordinary carpenter. Russian marine terminology is therefore mostly of Dutch origin, including the word for the crews toilet, galyun (Dutch galjoen). All the dogs from the neighboring garages and elsewhere relieve themselves in my park, and oh if it were only the dogs Both bomzhi (down-and-outs to you) feeding off the nearby Timiryazevsky marketplace, and respectable-looking citizens, too, stop by here to consume countless bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey (viskar), beer, what have you, and have a snack in this womb of nature, leaving behind mounds of litter and worse. Some even build fires, barbecuing and cooking other unspeakable items: I once saw a pair of dogs hind feet tied to a tree where a poor canine had obviously been strung up and skinned. Ugh

An ugly spot, thats for sure. Still, the birds like it, and I like to watch the birds. Not that there is much bird life to watch there in winter. Apart from the occasional tomtit and ubiquitous fat pigeons, the only other species is crows passing overhead as they home in on neighboring trash cans. Biologists say that there are about 80 percent more crows in cities than there should be, if proper balance were to be maintained for warblers to have a chance of survival: crows play havoc with the eggs in these birdies nests.

This is taken as sufficient reason by Moscows numerous macho individuals to indulge in what they refer to, perversely in bogus English, as krou-khanting or krouling. Actually these are simply owners of powerful air-rifles succumbing to the urge to put to use their expensive toys, more or less clandestinely. They even have an Internet site of their own (see http://talks.guns.ru/forumtopics/82.html ). If they merely wound a poor karl (thats the kroulers nickname for the bird), it can be picked up and nursed by the more compassionate element of the community, and in this way vse pri dele, as the humorous phrase goes: Everyone has something to do.

My feelings about crows are quite mixed. Crows are incredibly intelligent, no question about that. They know exactly where to fear crow-hunters and give humans a wide birth, and where insolently to let any biped approach within a couple of meters. One crow-hunter swore that he had tried to creep up on his prey in his car, but the damn creature remembered his license-plate number and let it known to the entire crow community in that area. I personally saw a crow drop a slice of hard, dried bread in a puddle, fly away on some crow business, then return in some ten minutes or so to peck at the by now soggy, quite edible if a bit muddy bread. Crows show a fine sense of humor as they tease a sleeping dog, always in pairs, one at the dogs head, the other at the tail. Sometimes they are as mischievous as street urchins; I saw a crow skate on ice standing on a sliver of ice with one foot and pushing with the other, just like a boy on a scooter. People who look after Moscows golden church cupolas and similar roofs in the Kremlin intensely dislike crows, whose favorite amusement is sliding down the cupolas on their backsides, damaging the precious gilded surfaces. In the Kremlin, they have to keep falcons, to cope with these feathered hooligans. Then, with all those bottles lying around in the trash cans and on the ground, with many drops of beer and vodka left in them, some crows develop an unhealthy craving for alcohol and will have the hair of the dog that bit them even from human hands (see http://talks.guns.ru/forummessage/82/349219.html ). Talk of anthropomorphism...

Yes, crows are cute, and whatever the biologists may say I have never shot themexcept on one memorable occasion. That was decades ago, in the Northern Caucasus where I liked to do some woodcock shooting during the brief open season in spring. I clearly remember how happy I felt walking home that beautiful sunny morning in the fine forest on the slope of Mount Beshtau, a couple of woodcock in the bag and not a care in the world. Suddenly I heard piercing, heart-rending screams, much like a childs, coming from a clearing ahead. I rushed forwardonly to see a most ugly scene, a big crow hammering with its iron-hard beak at a little hares forehead, the poor thing jerking and screaming its head off, almost literally. A charge of small shot, fired by sheer reflex, put an end to this tragedy, one of natures innumerable proofs of Darwins theoryand that marked the beginning of my ambivalent attitude toward crows. In practical terms, though, the ambivalence is no longer a problem: like I said, I never shoot at anything except beer cans these days. The technical term is plinking, by the way, and even this mini-vandalism may be taken as an expression of my newfound temperance convictions, a recent and most unpatriotic psychological development.

But to get back to bird-watching. Whatever calendars may say, for me spring is here only when flocks of birds start returning from the south, breaking the winter monotony. This year the red day of the calendar fell on 2 April, when I saw for the first time a couple of fieldfare on a stretch of high ground along the railway where the snow had melted away earliest revealing greenish-brownish remains of last years grass. An internet site says that these straggling, chuckling flocks [of fieldfares] that roam the UK's countryside are a delightful and attractive part of the winter scene. Lucky Brits. Here, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a couple of these newcomers running in front of me picking at something in the turfwhat could there be there, in that frozen ground? I really worried about them, especially at night, when the fairly mild day (meaning, there was practically no frost) was over and a blizzard started howling in the night. I tossed and turned half the night, I really did. As if the global economic downturn werent enough, there were those poor defenseless fieldfares out there in the freezing night to agonize over In the end I decided, just like that impatient-type cab driver in J.D. Salinger, that Mother Nature would take care of them.

Well, it did. In the morning there were even more of them, again mostly looking for something edible on the ground. I spotted one of them trying to pull a worm from under rotten leaves, only the worm would not give in and the poor thrush must have been so weak after flying thousands of miles that it plumped on its backside but never let go. Uncharacteristically, they behaved modestly and quietly, none of the deafening trrrrr call on take-off. Silent and well-behaved they were, only I was not to be taken in; I know what it will be like in a month or so, when they have established a proper colony in Galyun Park.

Fieldfares are about the most beastly, quarrelsome and noisy beggars of all bird populations, and they use their droppings with mathematical accuracy to scare away all intruders, well-disposed bird watchers included. Whenever ornithologists set out to count the population of a fieldfare colony, or do whatever else ornithologists are supposed to do, they wear their oldest clothes that will have to be thrown away when the job is done. One summer I drove my wife to a near hysterical fit of laughter when I came home from my morning walk with my white baseball cap soiledthree days in a row! Unthinking, or too deep in thought about the geopolitical situation or something, I stopped under the same tree on each of those mornings, and each time there was a distinct plop! as I felt something hit the exact top of my cap. My wife, who knows more about birds than I do (except game, I am proud to say) informed me that white is fieldfares pet aversion. I changed my cap to something drab, and the abomination ceased or maybe I became more cautious, stealing through the scrub in a credible imitation of a World War II partisan.

Fieldfares are the most visible, Id even say intrusive, Galyun Park dwellers (except those other bipeds, of course). Other birds are common, too: tomtits, wagtails, flycatchers, chaffinches, sparrows even, though these last prefer the neighborhood of trash cans where they amuse themselves by stealing crumbs from under silly pigeons noses. There are also tiny creatures, smaller than sparrows, that I usually refer to as UFOs though I like to think they are wrens. Cant say for sure, as they are still silentor maybe I am too deaf to hear them.

Never mind, though. We will soon be moving to the country, to our dacha where I keep my binoculars and where I can watch birds to my hearts content, more of them and in a more congenial environment. Trouble is, though, that at the time of this annual migration I invariably start musing about resettlement to yet another, terminal dacha up there, if there is an up-there. And thats something that makes me feel really ambivalent.

On the one hand, there may be an infinite variety of birds to watch there, with the spring season, too, stretching into infinity. But suppose them Upper People should play a nasty trick on me like they played on Saint Julien lHospitalier. If we are to believe M. Gustave Flaubert, the poor chap found himself in an awkward situation where all the animals that he had once hunted appeared and formed a close circle around him, gazing at him reproachfully. Awful, isnt it. Suppose all the ducks and geese and quail and snipe and partridges and grouse and woodcock and whatever else I once shot came and surrounded me on all sides, staring at me accusinglywhy did you kill and eat us, you carnivorous slob

No, its a good thing I am an unbeliever, after all. Feeling guilty while one is alive is bad enough.