On Finding A Bird in the House

Encountering a bird in a house is always an uncanny experience. There is something both frightening and compelling about it. Frightening because birds can be very scary in confined spaces; they dart around in a panic, their wings beating furiously, making a sound like someone violently punching a pillow. Compelling because birds suddenly seem so alien when you find them unexpectedly perched in your kitchen. Poised on top of a cupboard, a bird seems like a little household deity who’s dropped by for a quick visit. I can see why some ancient peoples believed they were gods. I have found birds in houses three times in my life, and the experiences never really fade with time. The most recent encounter was just last week, when I found a wood pigeon poking around on the kitchen floor.

It’s been so hot recently that we always keep the kitchen door, which leads onto the garden, open. I came downstairs to make some tea and saw the wood pigeonscavenging for crumbs on the floor. My arrival startled it and it flew up on top of a cupboard. Wood pigeons are truly enormous birds. Plump and pugnacious, they remind me of those backpackers on the Tube who are constantly prodding you with the sleeping bags that are strapped to their backs. This wood pigeon kept its beady little eyes on me as I carefully shut the kitchen door to prevent it flying into the rest of the house. The door to the garden was already wide open, so all I had to do was guide the beast in that general direction. It was pretty easy to do. I just walked toward it and it took off, bumping into the window once before finding the door. I spent the next 15 minutes locating and cleaning up the droppings it left behind in its hurried departure.

Just a few weeks before my pigeon spotting incident, I was in France and what I think was a yellowhammer finch flew into my bedroom. This bird was harder to liberate. It was timid and perched on the window, so it flew to the opposite side of the room every time I approached to open the window far enough so it could escape. Eventually, after a few tours around the bedroom, it did manage to get away. It’s a pitiful, lightly thudding sound, though: a small, desperate bird repeatedly hurling itself against glass.

The first time I found birds in a house was when I was about 18 and camping in Maine. I came across an old, boarded up hut in the woods. I snapped a few planks across the door and climbed in. Immediately, a small bird (I don’t know what kind it was) swooped and swirled around my head. I spent the best part of an hour trying to herd it toward the small opening I made in the window. But it was difficult because the window was so tightly boarded up that I could only open it a crack. Eventually, though, the bird did get through and I celebrated. But it was a short-lived celebration. Looking around the place more closely, I discovered another bird—the same type as the one that escaped and no doubt its partner—dead on the floor.

The Austrian aphorist Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach has some nice aphorisms about birds. Actually, they are about flying, but they give me that same kind of frightening, compelling feeling as finding a bird in the house:

You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.

Just rise up again after every fall from a great height! Either you’ll fall to your death or you’ll grow wings.