We are not doing well with pets in our household. The sudden death of Ginger the guinea pig halved our pet population two weeks ago. The day before Christmas Eve, Grace had to be put to sleep. She was the last of six cats that I’ve had in this house.
Actually I’ve had 7 cats here, if you count Fluffy. This sweet-natured grey moved in one winter, a tangle of grubby fur with runny eyes. He lived in the utility room while the resident cats got used to him. We nursed him through cat flu, clipped and combed his matted coat, and had him neutered. And then we discovered he belonged to a neighbour.
Needless to say, she wasn’t the ideal pet owner. She had once given us two tabby and white kittens from her cat’s litter. Then a few days later she bought a ginger one. Apparently she had rejected the others because they were the wrong colour. I’d never come across apartheid in cats before.
She’d once had a cage of budgies and left them to fend for themselves while she went on holiday to Spain. Budgies not being renowned for their self-sufficiency, there are no prizes for guessing how many of them were still alive to admire her souvenir straw donkey. (Now, that was an ideal pet for her.)
So, as you can see, my experiences have rather put me off the acquisition of further pets, despite my small daughter’s requests. (Strange how often “a dog” appears on my shopping list when I’m not looking.) But during the recent snow, it struck me that the answer was on my doorstep. Literally. Outside the back door there would gather every day a little assortment of garden birds. Not many at first, in these freezing conditions, but when I began to throw out a few daily scraps, they started to show a bit of loyalty. They’d pop back to visit every day, bringing a friend or two or three. This started to become a habit.
As time went by, I added a few treats for variety. A few brazils and walnuts (well, it was Christmas), some scraps of bacon, the fat from the drip tray of what my sister-in-law memorably referred to as a George Formby grill. (For a split second I was impressed that the great banjo player could also cook.) Soon I was starting to cut the crusts off my daughter’s toast a little wider, to give my friends the birds a bigger share.
During the Second World War, it was illegal to feed scraps to birds. Only traitors wasted food – in the days of rations, the threat of starvation seemed far too close to home. Anyone caught slipping the odd crust to birds would be prosecuted and fined. But now I could see why they’d have taken the risk. I’d have ended up hungry and broke.
Three additional great things about feeding garden birds. Firstly, you get to feel really virtuous in return for practically no effort or expense. Secondly, within their species, for the most part, they all look alike. So if five sparrows turn up one day, and five the next, you assume they are the same five come back to visit you, as loyal friends. Really, you’ll never know the difference. (We probably all look alike to them too.) All five could have died, and you won’t need to mourn them. And if they do all die, you are fairly safe that another five – or more – will quickly come along to take their place, free of charge. And third, you won’t find a puppy dog anywhere that will sing you a better song.
What better household pet can there be? Adopt the garden birds as your pets, and you’ll never find yourself in a pet shop trying to match your child’s dead blackbird’s markings with those of a live one. There’ll be no small grave to dig if one bird bites the dust; no silk scarf to provide for its funeral. No more cages to clean, no litter trays to empty, no dubious smells, no fur on the sofa. And there’s more or less an endless supply of them.
Now all I have to do is think of an infinite number of names.