It's the November issue and happy birthday to me (on the 1st, if you were wondering and wanted to send chocolate or wine)! At the sad old age of 32, I've reached the stage where if I can't eat or drink a gift, I'm honestly, if a little ungratefully, not that interested.
I've recently been making a concerted effort to cut back on the amount of unwanted clutter in my life, largely for environmental reasons. I’m more and more repulsed by plastic tat, gadgetry and unnecessary 'stuff'. New clothes are almost exclusively second-hand, from charity shops or apps like Vinted, and I find shopping in fast-fashion outlets terrifying. I've reached that age where I pick things up off the rails and exclaim loudly "good god, who would wear this?" to the embarrassment of whoever I'm with. If I need anything electronic, I'll aim for refurbished products first.
This leaves my nearest and dearest stumped for gift ideas. I'm picky with cosmetics and perfume (must be eco-friendly), wear minimal jewellery, have run out of space for new books and have all the kitchen utensils one human being can usefully own. Husband, wisely, opts for gin. I'm not some kind of 'green goddess' – far from it – but it would be fair to say I'm exacting.
Let's rewind 10 years to a younger, more naïve and politer me, when I had just picked up a pair of binoculars. While friends and family may have been bemused by my new hobby, bird-related paraphernalia opened up, for a year or two at least, a wealth of gifting opportunities. I'm sure you've all experienced it. The books, the socks, the cheap-not-waterproof clothing. The bird boxes with hearts for entrance holes. The bird-branded beer, the artwork from non-bird artists, the Christmas gifts with robins on (except they're American Robins, Common Redstarts or Siberian Rubythroats), and all because 'it had a bird on it, and I know you love birds!'.
Some gifts are quite subtle in their ornithological connections, like my purse that has owls on it, or the t-shirt with the lovely gull pattern, or the excellent mug with illustrations of different species of booby. Then there's the beginners field guides after you've been birding for five years, or your fourth copy of This Birding Life by Stephen Moss, which was clearly on offer in The Works that year.
When I asked around, bird-related ornaments were (un)popular birthday gifts, including badly-moulded Blue Tits and a cartoon dragon with a Puffin on its head. You just know that the buyer was so proud and/or amused when they chose them. You can even get a pair of decorative paper binoculars (made from vintage sheet music) for the princely sum of £40 in Country Living magazine. Bird clocks are surprisingly common, except they rarely feature UK birds. Prepare for the screech of a Blue Jay twice a day at 3 o'clock.
The most brilliantly awful gifts I've received come from my sister, who one year bought me a doormat with matching sports umbrella displaying an enormous, leering and badly reproduced robin. A year later she gave me a huge, blue metal vintage-style lunchbox (funky, but totally useless and cumbersome), that endearingly said 'Let’s go twitching!' on it. Husband pretended to like it so much that she gave him one for Christmas – so now we have two!
Perhaps I'm being cynical, and there are some great birding gifts out there. I'd love a Harriet Mead bird sculpture. If anyone has a spare £2k lying around, those thermal-imaging cameras look very handy. Even a swift nestbox wouldn’t go amiss, and in a few years, we'll be signing up daughter for an RSPB youth membership.
Looking back, my favourite wildlife present by far is the t-shirt I was given by colleagues a few years ago. On the front, it said 'Nice beaver!', complete with a picture of a beaver. On the back, it read 'Thanks, I've just had it reintroduced'. Nailed it, thanks guys.
- This column first appeared in the November 2022 issue of Birdwatch magazine.