Thinking about people and other animals, and the various ways in which we utilize, acknowledge and tolerate those animals in our lives, one aspect that I have never really understood is the attribution of spiritual associations. Some are obvious enough: the connection that is made in many cultures between ravens and death or afterlife is hardly to be unexpected. Ravens feed on carrion, and must have fed well on the aftermath of warfare and pestilence. Others, though baffle me. Take owls and wisdom, for example, as seen from Athena to A.A. Milne. Are owls obviously sagacious and intelligent? Not really: as cognitive capacity and problem solving go amongst birds, the parrot and crow families have owls soundly beaten. Are foxes particularly cunning, as Aesop and Janaček would have it? No, at least no more so than other mammals faced with the various challenges that our activities set them. So the association of particular animals with distinctive properties, places or events has always somewhat baffled me.
Until recently, that is. December 2013 brought two family bereavements, and funerals at either end of Kent around the last weekend before Christmas. Funerals, especially in the efficient and generally bland surroundings of a modern crematorium, are dreadful affairs. They lack the drama and theatre of soaring gothic arches or a rain-lashed graveside. Not that I am advocating either organised religion or burial, you understand, and the ministers concerned did a commendable job in the circumstances, but for all its necessary simplicity, an early 21st century cremation leaves the audience wanting. And so, maybe, these two occasions left me more than usually alert to anything distinctive and memorable.
On both occasions, as the congregation filed out of the crematorium, we were greeted by a noisy fly-past by a small group of rose-ringed parakeets. A spiritually-inclined or superstitious person could have made something significant out of those parakeets. Their timing was perfect, they called loudly, surely that was no coincidence? It would be so easy to make the transference, to believe that the spirits of my uncle and sister were soaring away, liberated and happy, embodied in those garrulous green birds. Nonsense, of course, but only a small step from appreciating the attendance of the birds at two funerals on those cold winter days.
Parakeets are associated with cemeteries. That is, they are associated with open green spaces that have stands of mature deciduous trees. And in the towns and cities of southern England, cemeteries and the grounds of crematoria are often the most desirable expanses of lawn and trees. The presence of them at our two funerals was hardly unexpected, then. Our needs and wishes for quiet parkland and trees where we lay our deceased have created a habitat that parakeets favour. They do not care about our funerals, grief and ceremonies: they are not even briefly grateful.
Are we grateful for them? There is a wide range of opinions concerning the rose-ringed parakeets that have colonized our southern towns. Initially welcomed as an exotic addition to our flying fauna, now they are seen as a noisy nuisance, as crop-raiding pests, as a supposed (though largely unproven) competitor for our native birds. Personally, I am quite fond of them, especially in winter, when their flashes of green enliven the dull monotony, and most especially then they grace a miserable December funeral.