I built a table for the birds. So I should have put it where the birds would want it, which is some way from my house. But I didn't. I put it where I wanted it which was on the balcony just outside my kitchen window.
In other words it wasn't a gift but a bribe. I wanted the birds to come close enough for me to enjoy them. (Oddly the enjoyment isn't reciprocal. When they catch a glimpse of me on the other side of the glass they take off in terror.)
I stock the table with bread, fruit, stale biscuits, seeds and a swinging net of fat from the supermarket. These attract five species: a lone male blackbird, a few greenfinches, more than a few house sparrows, and limitless numbers of starlings and wax-eyes. None of those species evolved here but they're all good to watch.
The blackbird makes brief timid visits, darting in to seize a morsel, its little heart beating like a watch. The sparrows are more at ease. They have lived so long in cities that they fear us less. Their staple food is bread. Ours too.
The greenfinches with their squat strong beaks and their lilting flight and yellow-edged wings, come for the seeds. But they will sometimes cling to the ball of fat where they have to compete with the swarming wax-eyes.
Wax-eyes blew over from Australia in the 19th century and thrived. When I put food out they are always first to find it, but they spend more time fighting than feeding. They puff themselves up and shiver their wings and threaten each other with tiny beaks agape. One bird can have five fights in 10 seconds, each an instantly forgotten flutter of beak and claw and wing.
A friend came to take photographs, his camera weighing more than perhaps 200 wax-eyes. The photos, taken from a range of less than 2m, show every detail, from the fuse wire claws to the needle beak, from the white eye-ring to the layers of belly feather. But his best photos were of the starlings.
"An underrated bird, the starling," he said, "for lustre."
Starlings are gangsters in sequins. They're more easily scared than the tiny wax-eyes but once they dare to land on the bird table they over-run it, strutting, stabbing, besieging the fat ball, scattering the bread, wasteful, violent and somehow predatory.
It's wrong to play favourites. No bird's more deserving than another. But the starlings seem like bullies so often I scare them off to give the other birds a chance. I wave a hand and they scatter in shimmering panic.
But there's one starling I've never scared off, never waved a hand at. It turned up a fortnight ago, coming to the empty table in the middle of the afternoon, catching my eye by being on its own, by not taking fright and by looking somehow asymmetrical.
It took a while to realise it was standing on one leg. The other was folded up into the belly. That leg would drop down occasionally but it was useless, the claw clenched and folded. Also the bird's left wing didn't quite fold properly. Perhaps a cat had almost got it.
The table was bare. The starling stood alone. I opened the ranch slider and instead of taking off the bird just hopped along the rail a few metres, then turned to watch me.
I crumbled a slice of bread and withdrew again. The bird barely hesitated, hopping straight back to the table to feed. I watched it through the glass. It paid me no mind.
It was a minute or so before other starlings found the bread. The damaged one deferred to them immediately, more afraid of its kin than of me, taking off clumsily and flying just about to a nearby tree. I've seen pigeons mob an injured pigeon and peck it to death. Perhaps starlings do the same.
The following afternoon and several after that the starling came back. Each time it just stood on the empty table and waited and each time I put out bread for it and it fed fast until the other birds came. But I haven't seen it now for perhaps five days. I imagine it's dead.
Birds still flock to the table, all of them beautiful and apparently flawless. But the only one I could ever identify, and the only one I gave a name to, was the crippled one, the one on its own.