Image Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
In 2013, my husband, Robin, took a new job in Ghana. We relocated from London, where I worked as a photographer and copywriter, to the capital, Accra. We then moved to the grasslands, where guinea grass swayed 11ft tall. Home was a thatched bungalow beside the Volta River. I had loved nature since childhood, when my dad taught me about birds and animals. I photographed horses professionally and considered the outdoors the place where I felt most alive. So when we arrived on the plains, I felt relief.
Robin worked, but my visa didn’t permit me to, and I was left isolated, homesick and lacking purpose. With few people around our home, I turned to nature. I learned the routines of local birds – the weavers that flew from kapok trees, trailing fronds like streamers, and the pair of violet turacos that went to roost every dusk.
In September 2018, the rainy season was in full flow. After one particularly bad thunderstorm, I found a fledgling – a bronze-winged mannikin finch – barely a month old, on the ground. He was abandoned by his flock, his nest blown from the mango tree. His eyes were tightly shut and he was shuddering, too young to survive alone. He was the size of my little finger, with feathers the colour of Rich Tea biscuits, inky eyes and a small bill like a pencil lead. I placed him in a cardboard box with tea towels, mimicking a nest, and stayed up all night, researching how to care for him. I spoke to an expert who said it would take 12 weeks to prepare him for the wild.
The next day, he woke with his mouth open and a shrill hunger call. I fed him termites and, instinctively, chirped at him. He chirped back and clambered into my hand, digging in his beak and head, then fell asleep in my palm. As far as he was concerned, I was his mother.
For the next 84 days, the fledgling lived on me. We became inseparable. He would fly alongside me, or cling to me as I went from room to room in the house, while we walked the grasslands or when I drove. He’d rest in my hand. As he learned to fly, he’d make short flights from my hand, to my shoulder, to my head, then abseil down my waist-length hair to rest again. He investigated my clothes, belt and shoelaces. I ate and went to the toilet one-handed, as he took daily naps in my cupped palm. At dusk, I would stroke and chirp to him until his eyes drooped and his head lolled to one side. Then I’d lower him into his tea towel nest and leave him until dawn.
Each day, he made little “nests” in my hair, on the groove of my collarbone, which filled me with awe. He’d tuck himself under a curtain of hair and gather individual strands with his beak, sculpting them into a round of woven locks, resembling a small nest, then settling inside. He would allow it to unravel when he was done and start again the next day.
I learned his different calls; he purred when he was content, sounded a high-pitched alarm when he was afraid. I’d forage for his food and clean up his litter, which was exhausting. I never named him because he didn’t belong to me – I had to remind myself that he needed to return to the wild.
Our bond was so strong that it became immeasurable – we both needed each other. In return for putting his life back on course, he was replotting mine by giving me purpose and new perspective.
His flock returned to the grasslands and we’d walk closer each day, so he could observe and interact with them. Almost three months later, he looked resplendent in his adult plumage. He was stronger, more confident and flying farther from me, for longer. At home, my husband had built him an aviary of wood and mesh to help wean him off me. It was time for him to go.
Before I flew back to England for Christmas, we decided Robin should let him fly while I was gone. Robin took him out to the flock three times. On the fourth day, the little bird flew away with them.
When I returned, in January, I’d watch out for him when the finches flew past. Every now and then, one would hang back, on a branch, and stare at me. I still cry when I think of him.
Raising him taught me how to live in the present and changed me for ever. Last year, when we returned to Oxfordshire, I joined local conservation efforts and wrote our story into a book, Fledgling. That, along with the lesson that any tiny animal can make a difference, will be his legacy.