From troubles of the world I turn to ducks


Dear Wood Warbler,

The more frightening the news, the more I fancy a nice wildlife distraction. Uncertain Brexity future? Why, just look at that lovely oak tree, it’s been there for seven hundred years! Scared of Putin? Look, lovely ducks. Ducks don’t care about Putin.

At the moment, I’m not sure what kind of wildlife event would be a good enough distraction. Maybe an undiscovered species landing in my garden, or a baby moose turning up in my hall.

In general, I’d like to recommend that terrifying world events should be scheduled in the summer, when there’s so much more lovely & consoling wildlife around.

Anyhow, here are the things I’ve seen this week.

Two squirrels, doing what is scientifically known as a sex chase on the New River Walk. It went like this: chase, pause, chase, a bit of tail biting, chase, break – for both parties to eat nuts. This went on for a while. Finally, (maybe through boredom) the chasee gave up, and the chaser straddled her. Whatever was being done to her, it didn’t seem to have that much of an impact. She carried on eating a nut for the duration.

The second wildlife event was a proper great tit fight in my garden. By the way, if you want to find out more about great tit behaviour, I highly recommend that you don’t google the phrase ‘great tit fight’. I was busy reading depressing news working in my kitchen when I heard all this high pitched cheeping. The two great tits were fighting by the bird feeder – then one managed to pin the other one to the ground. They flew up in the air again, darting around each other, whirring through the garden, before one pinned the other to the garden wall. It was vicious. It was thrilling!

I really thought I liked nature as a tonic against nastiness and violence, but it turns out I’m actually just quite up for watching a massive fight.

This week I’ve also seen lots of tiny shoots and buds appearing on bare branches. They make me think that maybe we’re not in the end times, after all. My favourites are the sloe saplings I’ve got on my windowsill. More of their light green leaves keep bursting out every day. They make me think that the future will contain good things, like life and colour and gin.


London Pigeon



Dear London Pigeon,

Snow is here! So exciting I can’t stop telling everyone, as if no one has windows or news or facebook. It started at five o’ clock yesterday in sleety drips down the back of my neck and then suddenly it turned into soft magical floating flakes and in no time the world was white and shining, just like the kind of English Christmas that has never actually existed. We walked on it, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, CRUNCH, we fell over into it, BUMP, BUMP, BUMP and we picked up hard little fistfuls of it and tried to sneakily aim it down coats and trousers.

This morning it was still there and I sledged the boys to school but I can hear the gutters dripping and I know it won’t last. In the meantime, I’m enjoying watching the birds feasting around their feeder – blue tits, robins, great tits and a fat, hopeful pigeon. Best of all, I just saw a fox, in the far field across the valley, gambolling and pouncing as if the snow were living and he was a cub again. It makes happy fools of us all.

How is London? Any snow to report?

Love, Wood Warbler


Pigeons, Picasso and Ping Pong


Dear Wood Warbler,

I was wrong about those squirrels. The other day I saw one on the New River Walk, meditating on a branch. He reminded me of the men I see in Islington library, bent over their crosswords, lost in some kind of trance. I went right up to the squirrel, close enough to see each tiny hair on his long toes, close enough to look right into his brown liquid eyes. When I tried to stroke his head, he pootled off, slowly.

Whatever has been making your squirrels so dozy, it seems to have spread here.

This week I’ve been continuing my extremely scientific search for the Pigeoniest Pigeon in London. Once you start looking for pigeons, you see them everywhere. Huddled masses on the edges of buildings, sitting in trees, optimistically pecking at plastic cups, occasionally taking the Circle Line.

Yep, they were everywhere, just not in the one place I was specifically looking for them: Trafalgar Square. I guess my brain had got stuck in 1987, when I last fed them there. Or maybe I thought that if I went there, I’d be magically transported into the pigeon scene from Mary Poppins.


Despite my attempt to be the pigeon lady, the actual birds there were outnumbered by depressed out of work actors pretending to be statues. Only then did I remember (ie. google) how Ken Livingstone declared war on the flying ‘vermin’ back in 2010. He managed to get rid of most of them, thanks to a feeding ban and a couple of Harris Hawks. In their defence, here are a few facts about these vermin:

  1. They have UV vision and fly using a magnetic compass – which may well be located in their right eye. Their right eye! They might look all scruffy, with their missing toes and their knackered, Peter O’Toole-ish charm. But these birds have got their shit together. They are basically doing a Columbo. They’re so high tec that the Chinese have a standing army of military homing pigeons in Chengdu. If all systems fail, they’re putting their faith in pigeons.
  2. Studies have shown the pigeons can tell the difference between paintings by Monet and Picasso. The study didn’t mention this, but I’m pretty sure that the pigeons would have preferred the Picassos. He was a big pigeon fan – he drew them, kept them, liked having them on his head, and called his daughter Paloma. (You can translate Paloma as pigeon or dove. Clearly ‘Pigeon Picasso’ has a much better ring to it).
  3. They have excellent hearing, which we know because they have really long cochleas (a thingummy inside their ears) and because the other day in Trafalgar Square, when a beatboxer started his act, the remaining pigeons all flew away.
  4. They’re not bad at ping pong.

Love from

London Pigeon

Sighting of the week: It’s a tie between a crowd of goldfinches on the New River Walk, and a pied wagtail looking a bit lost on the Holloway Road.

PS Blackbird shit vs. your car. Apparently the pigeon shit on Nelson’s column cost £120,000 to clean. So, you know, it could be worse.

Missing: possessed blackbird


Dear London Pigeon,

Thank you for your reply! Interesting that London squirrels aren’t in a similar state of gluttonous torpor. Maybe they don’t fatten up so much as country ones, knowing there’ll be a plentiful supply of food all winter, stolen from bins, or from people who leave out large quantities of bird seed?

Your idea of a squirrel soulmate reminded me of my blackbird ‘friend’ last year. Like your squirrel, he would sit outside my window as I worked, sometimes pecking at the glass as if he wanted to be let in. When I looked up, he’d fix his beady eye on me and not look away. But there was something very offputting about the way he did it. Maybe it was his orange-rimmed eye, which he couldn’t help, but it was also the way he kept on and on staring. I began to wonder if he was somehow possessed, or a reincarnated soul. He clearly had an important message to impart, if only I could understand it.

I stopped feeling remotely romantic about him around the same time he took to perching on my wing mirror, every morning, and shitting down the side of my car. I don’t know if it was revenge for my inability to understand him, or my refusal to let him into the house; or maybe he was someone I had offended in a past life. It’s probably quite hard to wreak serious revenge if you come back as a blackbird.

After that, I began to notice other things about him. Like his claws. Have you ever really looked at a blackbird’s feet? They’re massive! I mean, disproportionately massive, with lethal, hooked claws, especially on the fourth toe. All that deceiving jet-black sleek fluffiness and then you look down and there are monster dino-claws. His lack of fear began to unnerve me. I could put my face right up to his on the other side of the glass and still he wouldn’t move. I know blackbirds can be territorial, but it’s not like I look like a rival blackbird. I think.

I began mentioning him to other mothers in the school playground at drop off time, but then I realised I didn’t sound entirely normal, talking about a psychotic blackbird, so I kept him to myself, like a disturbing secret.

He stayed with me all summer, this blackbird, but by October he was gone and a pair of new blackbirds have recently arrived. They scamper along the decking, taking off as soon as I move. They’re a pair of flibbertigibbets. Both are looking a little sorry for themselves in all this wet, although I noticed one has a shiny orange bill that exactly matches our Halloween pumpkins, which I’ve yet to throw out. They never give me that same direct, unnerving stare, these two, and I’m not sure we’re going to build up much of a relationship. But then again, nor have they taken to crapping on my car.

Love, Wood Warbler

ps Yes it’s true I occasionally write poems. I hear you also illustrate? Perhaps I can post a poem when you’ve posted some of your illustrations

A scurry of squirrels


Dear Wood Warbler,

Thank you for your letter! I have been looking at the squirrel in my garden, to work out if he is as slow and intoxicated as your squirrel. But no, it turns out mine is as manic as usual (although definitely getting fat).

Actually, I thought I was developing quite a soulful relationship with my squirrel earlier this week. He kept coming up to the glass door into the kitchen, while I was working at the kitchen table. I gazed at him, he gazed back. It was like he was trying to tell me something. Pretty soon I became convinced that I was in the beginning of a White Fang-like story. I would soon become a squirrel whisperer, taking him around in my pocket, on trips in my bicycle basket…

It was several hours before I went into the garden, and saw that I’d left a bird feeder full of nuts on the step by the door, just hidden from view. He was coming up the steps to stuff himself, not to develop a really beautiful telepathic relationship with me.

Today I noticed he is looking pretty wide, after his massive binge, but is still as brisk & twitchy as usual, doing his usual trapeze artist thing, just a slightly wobblier version than usual. The feeder is now out of reach. He keeps trying it from all different angles. I’m not sure if he’s an optimist or just quite stupid.

Anyway, his lack of drunkenness makes me wonder if your countryside squirrels have found something particularly intoxicating to feast on.

Love from

London Pigeon

PS Did you know the collective noun for squirrels is a scurry?

PPS I meant to write to you about pigeons, but I haven’t got round to that yet. I have, however discovered two amazing facts about pigeons. One that the low budget 1948 London Olympics involved the release of 2,500 pigeons, which I think is quite splendid. The other one… I’ll tell you next week. I’m going to go to Trafalgar Square, the epicentre of pigeon life, to try and find the most pigeony of them all.

PPPS I’ve heard rumours that you write poetry, sometimes even poems about nature. Do you have any evidence of this?

Fat Squirrels


Dear London Pigeon,

Have you noticed something strange happening to the squirrels? I keep seeing them everywhere – sitting on fence posts, hanging out by the side of roads, looking fat and bushy and quite pleased with themselves, a nut grasped between their paws. When I approach, they no longer scamper away, flinging themselves between branches like a high-octane circus act. Instead they just sit there, nibbling and gnawing, occasionally glancing up at me to say, ‘What are you looking at?’ 

I can’t work out if this lack of fear and scurry is because they’ve grown fat and dazed on acorns and have entered a state of gluttonous torpor; or if their little animal bodies have felt the chill creep of winter and all they can think about now is eating nuts, nuts, nuts, as many as they can, before the cold comes and this crunchy carpet of food is gone.

Love, Wood Warbler