18th September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Boneshaking gales set the cat howling

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THE GALES this week have been real bone shakers. There were gusts on Friday night which shook the house so violently that it woke us up and set the cat howling downstairs in the kitchen.

Winds this strong can create havoc in the garden and attempts to protect it can backfire. A patch of fruit bushes have been ravaged, as the windbreak fencing proved too effective. It was stronger than the fencing which held it erect, causing the wind to heave it bodily out of the ground and flatten the entire structure, wind-breaking and all.

The prostrate trail of stiff, perforated plastic, plus supports was then dragged this way and that by the monster flans across the whole patch, backwards and forwards over the hapless bushes. Groan! Sometimes it’s best not even to go out and look at the damage. After all, with the gale still tearing across the islands, there is no possibility of even attempting a repair. You might just as well stay indoors and try not to think about what there is still left intact for the wind to devour.

Sunday brought gusts just as strong, this time from the south-west. It made me wonder, as I stood at the window, how on earth folk coped hundreds of years ago. No weather forecasts to give them advance warning; no modern-day materials to build with; no emergency services to call for rescue or assistance. Perhaps the earliest Shetlanders had the right idea: building underground shelters; “souterrains”, where not even a whisper of gale could reach in.

But suppose your home was close to a sandy shore. Enough days of battering on shore winds and the sand would begin to migrate. You might be safe below ground, keeping spirits up, eking out what food had been brought below to keep the hunger pangs at bay, while all the time the sand was duning towards you, unseen. And what food would there be then, without the luxury of imports and freezers? Dried fish, scraps of coarse bread?

Would the old, wise folk have advised you to leave in time? Imagine the torture of decision making; whether to sit it out and hope it would soon calm down, risking being buried alive, or risk struggling out into the teeth of the storm, carrying whatever could be carried, along with small children, the sick and the old? What a nightmare scenario. Yet decisions like this must have paid off, for as far as I am aware, no souterrains have been found full of suffocated skeletons. Shetland’s ancestors were certainly survivors.

Last Wednesday was windy too, but not quite so violent and I watched a crowd of birds from the north facing kitchen window behaving in the strangest way, which I can only think must have been playing. Anthropomorphism is borderline taboo in Wildernews, but I will describe the sequence of events as accurately as I can and leave you to decide for yourself.

Firstly, I use the word “crowd” of birds rather than flock, for a reason. A “flock” implies one species, or perhaps birds of several species engaged in a familiar activity; feeding, mobbing a predator, migrating, etc. This rabble of seagulls and starlings were not engaged in anything which made sense, but there were lots of them and they were “at it” for hours.

I was aware of the fact that there were gulls wheeling high above the houses nearby. Nothing unusual about that. But now and again, a curious movement drew my eye and eventually I gave up pretending to wash up and just watched. There was a performance going on in the sky. Some gulls were flipping over and then self correcting, losing height with each flip and then beating their wings extra fast to rejoin the others.

The antics caused them to fly in circles, vertically and it was a few of those weird vertical flights which alerted my periferal vision. and sent an “oddity 1” message to the brain. The wind was westerly and fairly constant. The gulls were almost motionless, hanging in the air, wings shivering with effort as they bored into it, trying o stay put. Now and again, one or another would be whipped off balance and tumble into a confusion of wings.

After a struggle, losing air space and having to work hard against it force, the unseated gulls would pull back level with their cronies and rejoin the game. But there was an even more unlikely item. Ammong the dozen or so gulls were a similar number of starlings. They too were, to all intents and purposes “playing” in the wind. They however couldn’t force their tiny (by comparison) bodies against its might, but they could play tricks.

In twos and threes, they seemed to be shadowing the gulls, flying close up behind them, then, caught by fierce gusts, would dive straight down into the lee of a building. But once in the wind shadow, far from alighting and resting, they would fly fast paralell with the ground, then shoot straight back up to the circling, shuddering wings above and repeat the whole performance.

It was an exhilarating sight. Seagulls and starlings in mid-air gymnastics, pitting their skills against the elements. Not for the first time I found myself wondering whether there was anything in the beliefs which are sincerely held by many fellow earthlings of a variety of religious beliefs, that when we die, we come back as different creatures. I would dearly have loved to be either a starling, or a seagull at that particular moment.

The wind-wrestling birds were a crows of mad, wild feathered fools having a whale of a time. There couldn’t surely be any other explanation. But the expenditure of vital energy reserves must have been huge. Any flying must use up quantities of hard-earned food energy. After antics like those I was watching, they would have had to feed double to make up the losses. They must have been pretty sure of a ready source. But I went out and stocked up the bird table just in case.

The voices of caution were loud: “It’s a natural behaviour, with perfectly practical reasons”; “birds don’t play”; “the starlings are probably mobbing the gulls”; none of them convinced me. There was too much elation and excitement about the “game”. I am certain they were having fun; enormous fun. They flew and fought, wing tip to wing tip, great and small, toppled, crashed, fell and struggled straight back again. They were loving it.

There are plenty of instances of animals having fun. Cats swirling about, trying to catch falling leaves; dogs racing and chasing along a beach, parrots (seen last year in Australia) swinging over and over while clasping a horizontal branch. Animals and birds eat, drink, survive and have fun.

We are after all animals too, despite what some people think, and so like the best of animals and birds, I hope you are having, along with the feasting of Yule, a lot of hilarity, excitement and fun too this Christmas.

Jill Slee Blackadder