Spring takes a while to arrive in Oslo, almost 60 degrees north. It doesn’t creep up on you, like autumn seems to do in early August (the horror!); you have to encourage it, will it into existence. That’s a hard task after such a long winter. It’s April, with Easter mere days away, and the sun is out, but the trees are still bare and the wind is still biting. These last gasps of the toughest season are proving extra onerous this year. Luckily, help is at hand from our feathered friends. Long before even the snowdrops sleepily emerge, chirps, whistles and little bursts of activity on bare branches are the first signs of a coming change.
Great tits perch at the very tops of the trees, proclaiming their patch. Their call is a two-note tinkle, like a gnome’s bicycle pump. The sound is sweet, but the volume means business. No need to go out of your way in search of the call – it’ll find you, as early as January. I would notice it on my Sunday morning walk to yoga, ringing in a new season, while the church bells summoned the faithful to mass. My route passes by five or six churches, so bells and birds would still be pealing in my ears as I lay down on the mat. Yogic endeavours may have been devolved to the home for the time being, but the great tits are still out there, sounding all the louder for the reduction in city buzz.
The black-headed gull has a very misleading name for half the year. There’s nothing more than a patch of dark goth blusher on each white cheek during the winter, but as the days lengthen, the patch grows, covering the entire front of the bird’s head. The seagulls delight in their new summer look, throwing out strident laughter as they wheel above the harbour in front of Oslo’s town hall, defying the still-wintry wind.
As the evening draws in, the male blackbird makes a last-ditch attempt to drive out any would-be squatters from his range by shouting out the predominant colour of the late-winter sky: pink-pink-pink. Like a hyperactive weather vane, he clasps the rooftop, turning this way and that, silhouetted against the pastel clouds. Other males may zoom provocatively past him, violating borders invisible to our eyes as they dive into bushes, our protagonist in hot pursuit. Otherwise, they keep away from him, sounding off from their own soapboxes, knowing night is not the time to throw down the gauntlet. That can wait for tomorrow.
For the new dawn brings with it a longer day – at this latitude, Sunday will be half an hour lighter than the Monday preceding it – and the hope of consolidating, expanding, or even taking over territory. The point to all this – the great tit’s ring, the black-headed gull’s makeover, the blackbird’s pink – is nothing less than new life: the most successful males will mate, passing on their genes to a new generation. The little, blind, pink oddballs that result are a sight, patches of downy fluff aquiver and bright yellow beaks agape when a parent returns with a delicious worm.
I look in the mirror in the mornings and see a blackbird chick staring back. There are fluffy, scruffy things happening on top of my head, as the fond memory of my last haircut fades into the distance. Puffy, half-open eyes, a souvenir of another sleepless night. A feeling of helplessness when faced with what’s ravaging the world outside the safety of my nest.
But I take comfort in knowing that sooner or later, the blackbirds will fall silent as their eggs are laid, to protect them from unwanted attention. This year, we humans have been forced to do something similar, keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe by staying low, hunkering down, biding our time. In the blackbird’s nest, new life will break its way out of beautiful, mottled, turquoise shells. Spring will have finally, really, truly arrived. I will wait for these little broods to emerge, knowing that we will be probably be fledging with them this summer, soaring out into the welcoming sky, relishing our freedom.