Dad’s swift action stopped a catastrophe

L-R Me, Andrew, Dad, Tricia, Mum, Nana & Janet in 1970 outside the garden shed that became a feline maternity ward
Our cat Mamalade in 1976. She lived for 18 years and her death was the first time I saw my dad to openly cry.
Marmalade’s kittens Pip and Squeak

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 6th September 2017)

It only seems like five minutes since the children were breaking up for the holidays, yet as soon as September appears on the calendar, I can feel Christmas begin its stealthy trot towards me, and I know that before long it’ll be in a full-on gallop!

But let’s not worry about that while we enjoy the unrivalled luminosity of sunny autumn evenings unmatched at any other time of year. Dad describes it as ‘a glorious carpet of colour that defies description’ in his September 4th 1976 column. He continues:

‘I like the cool freshness of the mornings, the sound of the robin’s song and the rustle of dry leaves underfoot. I like the sight of dewy cobwebs in the hedgerows, and the feeling that the countryside is undergoing a complete change. It is a month of unusual beauty.’

He goes on to say that September was also the month of his less than beautiful annual chore of clearing out the gutters. It was essential due to the number of swifts that nested under the eaves of our cottage. By mid-August, they’d abandoned us for warmer climes, selfishly leaving all their their straw, grass and eggshell debris behind (my kids do the same with shoes, socks, and dirty plates). Left unchecked, rainwater couldn’t drain away and would have found its way into the fabric of our house.

The swifts had been coming to us for years, and brought with them a perennial problem that Dad dreaded because he was the one who had to deal with it – that of finding a grounded swift. It wasn’t just the swift that was the issue, it was also that our cat, Marmalade, would often get hold of it first.

He describes hearing a commotion outside the back door and found Marmalade with a pair of flapping wings protruding from her jaws. He managed to free the bird, but no sooner had he done so than it flew straight into the house, followed by the cat, and so a cat-swift-man version of the Wacky Races ensued around our kitchen. Thankfully, Dad was the winner, and managed to corner the bird which he placed in an old cage until able to release it the following day. This wasn’t the first or last of such escapades, and although Dad dreaded them, we of course found them really exciting!

Grounded swifts are still fairly common, often caused by a fledgling chick bodging its maiden launch. Some people think swifts can’t take off from the ground due to their short legs and long wingspan, but according to the RSPB, healthy birds should still be able to. If you spot one that can’t take off, the advice is not to throw it into the air, but to gently pick it up and rest it on your palms, then waft your arms up and down so it feels the air under its wings. If it doesn’t take off, or lands again nearby, there might be something wrong. In that case, put it into a ventilated, lidded shoebox with a soft blanket, and leave it somewhere quiet before calling the RSPB, RSPCA or your local vet. Don’t feed it, but occasionally wipe a watery cotton bud around its beak, avoiding its nostrils.

In my youth, Dad was real cat lover, with Marmalade outlasting a long familial line. After she died at the ripe old age of 18, he swore never to have another as it was too difficult losing her. Like a true Yorkshireman, he hadn’t openly shed a tear until that cat died.

Our four-legged dynasty came mainly from the litters of local strays who used our outbuildings as some kind of feline maternity ward, much to our delight and Mum’s consternation. Our long line of adoptees included Topol, Felix, Bungle, Marmalade, Marmalade’s kittens Pip and Squeak, Marmalade’s sister Eric (yes, Eric) and her offspring Alfred and Jackson. The line ended after I came home from school one day to find that Eric and her newest litter had vanished. Apparently they’d mysteriously ‘gone away’. I was never told where, but my adult self prefers not to think about that!

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