On Building a Nest
The isolation forced upon us by the pandemic has emboldened a pair of sunbirds (Cinnyris osea) and enabled me a delightful opportunity to observe up close the building of a nest. Since we have been ordered into isolation hardly anyone climbs the steps from our tiny garden to the front door; not our children, nor our grandchildren. There is no one to disturb these builders at work. Even Shmulik, a neighbour's cat who has adopted us as his second family, and who comes by several times a day looking for a treat or a good spot on which to curl up, seems oblivious of the intense activity going on above. I am sitting on the steps waiting for them to arrive. When they enter the garden and perch in the trees close to the nest, they make a series of abrupt, high pitched calls, warning each other, perhaps, of my presence. Then the tiny female is flitting up onto the vine on which they are building and delivering a beak-full of material into the construction. It is a remarkably scraggy nest that they have put together with bits of straw, twigs, pieces of fluff. It hangs, a chaotic confusion of debris that for several days appeared very unlike a bird's nest. On first seeing the shambles I was inclined to brushed it away as nothing, but I saw the beautiful turquoise male arrive and realised in time that this was not something the stormy winds of the last few days had blown in, but was in fact a home in the process of being raised.
I have vague childhood memories of my parents building a house; of the smell of upturned clay, and freshly cut timber planks, of discovering beautiful new iron nails scattered around, of observing the expertise of a bricklayer raising a wall. There is an excitement to the building process that is equalled only by that of moving in when the building is over. Part of this excitement is in observing the progression, in the case of the sunbirds' effort, from a scrap of fluff and straw to something that is now starting to look reasonably like it has intention behind it. Today it indeed appears almost nest-like. It has become ball-shaped and there is a doorway (Hobbit fashion) facing away from my door. No one taught them how to do this. Building a nest for a bird is not really like building a house. It is not acquired knowledge. There is no trial and error. There are no improvements over former models. A sunbird nesting here nine hundred years ago would have done precisely the same thing these birds are doing now. They follow the mystical guidance we call instinct.
When it came to building their houses, the Frankish settlers in the towns and villages of the Latin East were not repeating an age-old process, they were not following an innate and unfathomable drive. Rather, they were displaying a very human ability to learn, develop, adopt, adapt and improve. And they were remarkably quick learners. Coming from a society that built its houses mostly in perishable materials; wattle and daub, wood and thatch; by mid-century the Franks in the Levant appear to have been as competent in building houses in stone as were the locals. Within the space of a few decades they were constructing massive stone vaults and solid masonry walls. The simplest of village houses, tiny as they often were, possessed all the basic amenities of the time: undercrofts and cellars, internal and external staircases, ceramic water piping, sumps and cisterns, built-in closets, constructed benches, cooking platforms, ovens, drains, even latrines. And they introduced features that were unknown in the region and indeed not part of their European heritage, most notably the fireplaces and wall chimneys that were used to heat their town and village houses in the cold winters. The competence of the Frankish settlers in learning, appropriating and innovating can be observed everywhere, in domestic architecture as indeed in many other activities of this transplanted Western society. It is one of the things that makes this period of history so remarkably interesting.