Listen to this article
This winter we’ve been making sure to keep the birdfeeder well stocked and also scattering crumbs and leftovers on the windowsill outside the kitchen and on the little garden table originally intended more for our breakfast than the birds’. I know that feeding birds is a contentious issue among naturalists: some deplore it, as a way of weakening birds’ natural survival instincts and making them dependent on humans. On the other hand, ever since the great freeze of 1963 in the UK, which killed up to 80 per cent of all wrens (the commonest and tiniest British bird), I have known that severe winters pose a grave threat to small birds.
You could ask yourself whether you feed birds for altruistic reasons – to enable them to survive the cold – or for more selfish ones: because you enjoy their company. But perhaps this issue can be happily blurred; attracting birds to your garden and supplementing their food supply is a way both of giving yourself pleasure and of restoring, to some small extent, the balance between human and non-human.
Now I have to admit something more embarrassing. I don’t just feed birds but talk to them. I suppose a lot of British people talk to robins, which have a special relationship with humans; almost uniquely they are not scared of us and will approach and even fly in through the window and feed out of your hand. But I also talk, or whistle, to blue tits, great tits, blackbirds and goldfinches. So far I have drawn the line at cooing to pigeons or cawing at crows.
In this eccentricity I am not alone. People have long imitated birds in order to lure them and catch them: think of Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. But, just occasionally, certain unusual individuals have addressed them for other purposes. The one who stands out is Saint Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182-1226) who once (according to stories related later by Thomas of Celano) preached to an assembly of birds while out walking in the Spoleto valley near Bevagna – the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s beautiful piano piece, “St Francis Preaching to the Birds”. On another occasion, apparently, he quietened some noisy birds that were interrupting a sermon he was giving.
Saint Francis is the patron saint of ecologists and the one I chose when I had to select a name saint for my own confirmation as a Catholic. I may have lapsed, in every conceivable way, but I have never regretted adding Francis to my overlong list of Roman Christian names. He had a profoundly fraternal feeling for birds and animals very rare among the men and women of his time or perhaps any time, expressed in his way of addressing non-human creatures as “brother”.
Preaching to birds could be regarded as a harmless quirk but befriending a man-eating wolf, as St Francis is said to have done near the Umbrian hill-town of Gubbio, is quite another matter. Nowadays, any man-eating or mauling creature is automatically “destroyed”, as the official media always put it, suggesting the rogue animal is just a piece of noxious stuff like, say, a suspicious piece of luggage. But Saint Francis had other ideas.
Up to a certain point, the tale told in the Fioretti di San Francesco, stories of the life of Saint Francis, and the much later version penned by the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, in his poem “Los Motivos del Lobo”, concur. When Francis meets the wolf in his lair outside the town and remonstrates with him about his cruel behaviour, the wolf provides an explanation. In the words put in the mouth of the wolf by Darío, “winter is hard/And hunger is horrible. In the frozen wood/I found nothing I could eat, and so I sought the flocks/And sometimes ate the shepherd too.”
In the Fioretti version, Francis establishes a pact between the hungry wild creature and the townspeople who agree to feed him. The wolf, now meek and Christian, is led into town by the saint, to become a standing marvel, until he dies of old age, lamented by the Gubbians.
Things do not work out quite like that in the post-Christian tale told by Darío. After a while, Saint Francis leaves, and then, some time later, the wolf resumes his bloody ways. Once again the saint goes to remonstrate with the beast. The wolf gives the reasons (los motivos) for his revolt. “I began to see that in every house/Envy, cruelty and rage held sway …/Brothers made war on brothers/The weak were losers and the evil won.” The wolf follows Francis’s saintly rule of meekness and fraternity but the townspeople beat him up and throw him out. Now he asks for nothing more than to live in his liberty, as pure wolf, still better than “those wicked folk” because he is only predatory when he needs food, not out of sheer spite. The saint can only pray.
Perhaps Darío is right and Saint Francis’s dream of a fraternal pact between man and wild creatures is doomed to fail until human fraternity prevails on earth. It could be a long wait.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published