What are the Birds Singing About?

We hear them every morning, birds singing cheerfully, calling out across the gardens to welcoming the sun each morning – or at least that is what I was told they were doing when I was in primary school. The truth is a little less pleasant. The tunes those birds sing each morning are a warning to other birds of the same species to stay away, that this piece of territory is owned and that trespass will probably be met with violence.

A work colleague (who must have had a bigger garden than mine) once told me of two robins that tried to live in his garden, one at the top and another at the bottom and he placed a bird feeder in the middle of the garden, hoping they would co-exist. Sadly, they fought until one was victorious and the other vanished. (It is believed that 10% of male robin deaths are as a result of attacks from other robins in territorial disputes.)

Territorial disputes are common among many animals and in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, it is common for groups of adolescent males to patrol the boundaries of their territory looking for intruders from other tribes, who they will attack and kill if possible.

Sadly, human instinct is similar to that of the chimpanzee. We are socialised to expect and tolerate strangers walking down our street as individuals, but large groups of young males from a different area walking down our street tends to raise tensions and make us feel that our area is under threat.

Three decades ago, I lived at Ballynafeigh, on the Ormeau Rd, when the area was predominantly Protestant, yet I was usually able to walk safely to the City Centre to meet friends on a Friday evening, down across the bridge and past the nationalist Lower Ormeau area. However, every time my community insisted on its right to keep the road open to ‘orange feet’ this paradoxically made crossing the Ormeau Bridge on foot dangerous for people like me – sometimes I would have to avoid missiles thrown by both communities as I crossed the bridge.

It has become the fashion for us unionists to talk about our ‘culture’, rather than our traditional routes, but we cannot escape humanity’s biological instincts. I do not accept any area belonging exclusively to a religious group, but I do understand why Loyalist parades passing through predominantly Nationalist areas can be perceived as threatening. We might like the music and the pageantry just as we enjoy the morning bird-song, but we would be naïve to ignore the territorial tensions.

That the Orange Order and the DUP would try to reopen the Drumcree dispute this summer surprised and disappointed me. Ever since Michael McGoldrick was murdered to help force a march through in 1996, I have felt the OO should voluntarily give up this route – it would be the Christian thing to do.

As the Orange Order was prevented from walking down the Garvaghy Road this year for the 25th year my sympathy was with the bereaved McGoldrick, Quinn, Martin, Hamill and O’Reilly families. The inconvenience suffered by the Orange Order is minor by comparison to the loss suffered by those families.

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