In Italy the last 3 days of January are known as "I giorni della Merla", or "The days of the Blackbird". There are several legends to explain how these days got their name but my favourite is this one.
One day cruel January was angry with the beautiful white bird who sang so happily in spite of the fierce winter conditions. He summoned up the bitterest winds and blizzards to punish it. The white bird and her young took refuge in an old chimney for three days while January's storm raged around them and when they emerged they were completely black.
Whatever the origins of these "blackbird days", tradition has it that if the last 3 days of January are cold then spring will be beautiful but if the days are warm spring will be late in coming. So, from the weather forcast here I guess we will have a long winter this year. I do not mind that if only we could have some snow. So far we have had fog, rain and gloom and I am longing for the magical transformation of a deep snowfall. I realise that is selfish of me, since anyone who has to get to work dreads the arrival of snow, so I will hope that it snows on a weekend for their sakes.
Thinking about "blackbird days" made me realise just how many special memories I have regarding birds.
When we are sailing I love to watch the cormorants diving for fish and the shearwaters that follow us, dipping and soaring with the waves as if joined to the surface by invisible threads.
My grandparents had a beautiful robin who would come through their kitchen window and eat crumbs from the window ledge and as a child I would hold my breath as long as I could so as not to scare it away.
There was a friendly robin when we were in France recently too. It hopped along from tree to bush beside me as I walked, in case I unearthed a worm as a treat. I talked to it and it would tilt its head to one side as if listening intently. Everywhere we drove in France there were hawks fixing us with steely gaze as we drove past or hovering majesticly above the fields, ready to swoop.
I remember that as I was driving with my father through the Lincolnshire countryside one evening an owl floated out of the twilight alongside us like a benevolent ghost.
My parents have a bird table and nuts in their garden and when I stay with them my favourite passtime at breakfast is watching squabbles of bluetits swinging madly on the nuts and the intelligent pigeons who wait beneath to pick up whatever falls.
As a child I had a canary with the very original name of Goldie. Tabatha the cat (another remarkable name!) watched him hop around his cage with longing for hours each day! I used to spend hours looking at my book on birds and deciding which were the sweetest. I particularly liked the little chubby plovers but maybe my favourite has always been the humble sparrow. These cheeky little chaps are everywhere and are so bold. The photo below was taken at Mont St Michel on a freezing day in December. This sparrow let us get really close so that we could take a good shot of him. I wondered if he would let me stroke him but that was asking too much and he fluttered away, settling at a proper distance and fluffing up his feathers.
Outside my window here in Tuscany the cypress tree hosts families of goldfinches and every year we have swallows in the nest below the roof by my bathroom window. They make a terrible mess in the courtyard below but I love to see them shooting into their nest with incredible precision to feed their hungry young.
In the olden days birds were seen as omens, good and bad. I do not think they are seen as anything mystical now but it is quite remarkable how, whenever I make a decision that feels completely right, seconds later a small feather will be underfoot, fluttering by or stuck to my clothes.