This year we have been conducting bird surveys on the Kluane Plateau, the flat patch of tundra jutting above our field base on Kluane Lake. It’s the first time I have been involved in bird-based fieldwork. Trudging up the mountain earlier even than the sun does, I’ve had time to realise why I joined Team Shrub, and not Team Sparrow.
- Shrubs are stationary
Shrubs are always there. They’re reliable little fellows, sitting quite peacefully on their little patch of soil. You can go up to a shrub, pat it on the head, give it a little hug… whatever floats your boat. Shrubs don’t care. You can come back the next day, the next day, the day after that, hey we come back year on year! Our favourite shrubs are still sticking around, stoically soaking up the sun and the storms and the deep snows of winter. Choose a shrub – they’re always there for you.
Birds are flighty little things. You never know where you are with birds: swooping up the mountainside without a care in the world, no regard at all for scientific process. One day you’ll be beset by bird calls – your recorder runs out of memory and your camera runs out of batteries. The next day you just sit in silence for half an hour. Unreliable, inconsistent, fickle: the life of a birder.
- Shrubs are obvious
Shrubs stand out. They hold up their branches to the skies as if to hail their own existence. They rambunctiously rustle their leaves and provocatively shimmy in the breeze. They’re grandiose, with the gravitas of a tree but with grace of a gazelle, pointedly yet politely waiting for your arrival on the tundra with all the proper respect that a plant, and only a plant can show.
Birds are downright antisocial. They’re the conversation that stops when you walk into a room. They’re the cool kids that drift off when you join the party. Birds wait to catch you unawares before bursting forth in a cacophony of absurd twittering, knowingly timing their chorus for the moment your recorder times out. Giggling childishly, they watch on as your sleepy fingers fumble with record button and camera lens. As soon as you’re ready, planned and instantaneous, the din shall stop and off the birds shall fly in gleeful silence, disappearing to their hiding places under the obvious shrubs.
- Shrubs are straightforward
Shrubs are the solid, down-to-earth types you want fixing your car. Shrubs call a spade a spade, even if they’re not always the spade’s biggest fan. You don’t even have to ask a shrub its name – they stand around wearing nametags, offering up their identity as a simple introduction. Although there are some characters out there who like a little mystery, some pretence (and even some cross-dressing), they are more than happy for you to take their business card away with you, with a few extra leaves thrown in, just to check up on them in the morning. Pleasant and simple, shrubs do what they say on the tin.
Birds are dirty tricksters. They dress up in different colours, and put on different clothes. The teenagers, as teenagers do, wear strange and often drab outfits, and the children sometimes don’t go out at all. Half the time half the birds seem too busy trying to impress the other half, and the other half the time they’re still not interested in your science experiment. As for singing, birds would do well to learn their tunes and stick to them. I simply can’t stand improvisation. It seems that birds just cannot appreciate that the more they fool around the longer we will be pouring over identification books and churning through endless lists of their pointless calls. Birds should pull themselves together.
- Shrubs are restful
Shrubs know the meaning of a full night’s sleep. They’ve read the health books. They’ve ditched the coffee. They know the agony of the new parent, the red-eyed commuter, the burnt-out scientist after a long day of fieldwork. Shrubs need no watches, and have no alarm clock. Shrubs work on your schedule, meet your deadlines, put up with your missed appointments. Shrubs wait for you.
They say the early bird catches the worm. Well, birds must bloody love worms. Up, often before the sun, and letting the world know about it. If you’re not up for their 6am meeting, sweaty and blurred, dusty and aching, bruised and bleeding, then too bad for you. Birds are ravers, Glastonbury stop-outs worshipping the dawn before crashing into a stubborn stupor for the rest of the day. Birds are the boss from hell and the teenage dirtbag, all rolled into one.
- Shrubs are beautiful.
I need no explanation here. Just look at this beautiful willow in the sun. Birds got nothing on that.
And you know what they say. You can’t polish a Turdus.