A photograph of Susan Ogilvy at her desk in her studio

How Susan Ogilvy unravelled the lost story of birds nests

Despite the rise of nature writing, there hasn't been a book about birds nests for nearly a century. It took grief and curiosity for Susan Ogilvy to write one.

A surprising fact: there are very few books about birds’ nests. There has been a steady flutter of books about the creatures themselves over the decades. It is not difficult to find titles dedicated to goshawks and skylarks, crows and parakeets. But the shelters birds make? Far less documented. The one botanical artist Susan Ogilvy relied upon for research, Birds’ Eggs and Nests by Charles A. Hall, was published in 1932. It made her realise that writing a book of her own, dedicated to nests, might be worthwhile.

I’m in Ogilvy’s studio when she shows me Hall’s book. The text is dense, interrupted by murky monochrome photos. Nearly a century after it was published and the gilt text has faded. There are pots of paintbrushes on Ogilvy’s desk, next to the heavy magnifying glass that belonged to her husband’s grandfather. On the wall, framed artwork by infant grandchildren. There’s not much space in this former bedroom, tucked beneath the eaves of the Somerset home where she’s lived for more than 30 years, but it is calm and immaculate, much like Ogilvy’s work.

For the past five years, Ogilvy – in her seventies, now, with an RHS Gold Medal among the hundreds of works in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Ashmolean and Kew, among private collections – has been painting birds’ nests. She paints them as she has always painted flora: always from life, to perfect scale for an impeccably life-like depiction. It is a quirk of botanists that they prefer to study from painted specimens, rather than photographed ones. And so it proves with Ogilvy’s nests: in the painstaking application of each tiny brushstroke, the life that eludes the camera’s lens is caught on paper.

I hold my breath as she opens up a portfolio and rifles through the original 58 paintings that comprise the book. Among these crisp papers are feathers and fluff, twigs and spit, skeins of upholstery thread and plastic bag, all recreated in layers of rich watercolour. Ogilvy’s looking for her painting of a chaffinch nest – the one that started this whole thing off.

She found it in her garden, “a sort of dark green lump,” she explains. “I couldn’t work out what it was, and thought, ‘Do I even want to touch it?’ But it was so fascinating and so extraordinary that I dared to pick it up. I brought in and put it on newspaper and the water just drained out of it. As the weight of water dried out it puffed up and sprang back into life. And there,” she says, blue eyes shining, “was this wonderful sort of jewel-like nest.”

Ogilvy was no ornithologist, though her obsession with nests has turned her into one. She didn’t know what kind of nest it was, but she did know that it was perfect – even this one, blown from a tree in the midst of a storm. As she flips through the paintings she points out the different characteristics of each nest, the evidence of the species that made it. The extended “double-decker” nest created by a goldfinch; the footlong nest created by a sparrow with “delusions of grandeur” – too large to fit on the book’s pages in its entirety; the intricate wisps of a mistle thrush nest, Ogilvy’s favourite.

Look at a bird’s nest and you can uncover its secrets. The architectural magnitude of a wren’s nest – a kind of balaclava made from grass and skeleton leaves, no larger than a grapefruit – is all the more admirable when you learn that the male wren (Christopher, perhaps) builds five or six every Spring, which he will then offer to his mate to choose her favourite. They will then line it together with feathers and moss. Come winter, the tiny birds huddle en masse – the largest number ever discovered in a single nest was 96.

One of the reasons why there have been so few books about nests is due to the controversy admiring them can cause. Humans are good at taking things from the natural world, among them birds’ nests and eggs. In 1981 the Wildlife and Countryside Act  justifiably made this a crime, and a steady silence has fallen over the nests since. All of the nests in Ogilvy’s book were windfalls or deserted discoveries. After the chaffinch nest, Ogilvy started to paint others she came across on walks or in the garden. But the village she lives in is small, and once word about her nest paintings got out she started receiving donations from friends and family. “Sometimes I’d go out and come back and find a nest in a carrier bag attached to the front door,” she says.

We’re in her garage now, with the nests. They’re tucked away in shoeboxes on shelves, and she takes them out for me to cup in my hands. They are so light, and so complex. Much of Ogilvy’s learning has come from a naturalist she was introduced to early on in this process, a man named Deon Warner, who is in his eighties. He’s taught her to identify nests after Ogilvy realised there were scant books about them. “We’ve been bosom pals ever since,” she laughs. “He’s taught me almost everything. The whole thing has been a sort of five-year lesson.” It’s been a surprise to her. “Here I am in my seventies, and I’ve learned this new subject that I hadn’t known about before. A whole new world has opened up for me.” After 40 years of botanical painting, it is the nests that have proved the most satisfying, she says.

The vast majority of books about birds are written by men, and I find it interesting that it has taken a woman – and a woman new to ornithology – to write and illustrate the first book about nests in nearly a century. “I wonder if that’s because it’s women who are the nest builders,” she says. “A lot of nests are built by the hen bird. I wonder if that is the case, that men aren’t as much interested in the homes as the birds themselves.”

It was the men in Ogilvy’s household who introduced her to birdwatching. The book is dedicated to her father, Donald Easten, a British Army officer who died in 2017. The day we meet, she says, would have been his 103rd birthday. “He adored birds, all his life”. In Nests, the painting of the reed warbler nest was done from one found in Easten’s study. It was then, while clearing her father’s home after his death, that Ogilvy found a lever-arch file stuffed with meticulous records of every bird he saw for 13 years. “Isn’t that an extraordinary thing?” she asks, as we pore over the neat writing, the ruler-lined columns. “We didn’t even know he was doing it. For all I know there could have been files before it.” Her brother, who died “very young”, was also interested in birds. “He would be tickled to bits” by the book, Ogilvy says.

“Perhaps we were so force-fed with birds that we simply left them to the menfolk, and this is why it has taken me so long to make an effort to learn about them,” Ogilvy writes in Nests. “Although somewhat late in the day, it has been a huge pleasure and I have felt my father beside me through it all.” 

“He would have loved it,” she says of the book. “I wish he was here to see it finished. He was my lighthouse for the whole of my life. I was absolutely devoted to him.”

Ogilvy’s prose is exacting and gently informative; Nests is a lovely read. I tell her I’m surprised this is her first book, and she replies that she’d never intended to write it herself: the manuscript was largely taken from notes that she had sent to her son, Henry, to write in collaboration with her paintings. “I wasn’t convinced of my own ability to write up what I learned,” she says, simply. It took her editor to suggest otherwise. “All you’ve got here is me writing to my son. Almost like a letter. So that’s what it is, it’s as though I’ve been writing it to Henry.” Nests may be dedicated to Ogilvy’s father, but it’s written for her son. A whole family, wrapped up in a book about the different ways of making a home.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

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