You are not just a member of a species. You are also an individual. That is true for any representative of Homo sapiens who might be reading these words, that is equally true of the representative of Sylvia communis who would be witnessing their composition if he wasn’t so busy right now.
The privilege of knowing a bird as an individual comes more often to garden-lovers than birdwatchers. Garden people, both the active and the passive kind, get to know the regulars as people: spade-sitting robin, hard-working wren or acrobatic blue tit.
Knowing a member of a species as a distinct individual is the key to ethology, the study of animal behaviour. It is also a great pleasure to those who look at nature without such structure.
I was discussing the work of Carl Safina in this space a few days ago; in a previous book Beyond Words he talked about Twenty-One: a wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Twenty-One never lost a fight and never once killed a vanquished opponent. Those who watched him called him “the perfect wolf”.
Perhaps the bird I see every day from my desk is the perfect whitethroat. I have heard him singing since mid-April: the best whitethroats turn their scratchy old song into a joyous avant-garde melody.
This bird has sung from the fallen willow, the one I refused to have cut into logs. He has also sung from the lower branches of the big ash and from the post I put there for birds to sing from. He has been bold and strong – and crucially, tireless.
Right now he is in the midst of rearing a brood. I see him, on the post, with food in his beak, looking around scrupulously for peril of all kinds before dropping down to feed the young ones; the nest is just below the post, though I haven’t sought to disturb its occupants.
He has worked incessantly, in song, in display flights and now in feeding. He seems to be a bird at the absolute peak of his powers. Perhaps his offspring will be singing here next year. A name would, I think, demean him — but you can call him Twenty-One if you like.