The magpie, George, was a troublemaker. He brought happy chaos into my life when I adopted him as a barely feathered chick, tossed from a broken nest after a storm in 2007. I hand-raised George, fed him several times a day, kept him warm, about him watched over, while all the while he worked his way into my affections.
Which meant that when he left home five months later, in October 2007, I felt the shock of the loss in a way I didn’t expect; it was like a death.
Even as a very small child I was more comfortable with animals and birds than with people. It started with the house cat when I was maybe four years old. Tabby was given to us by the writer Doris Lessing who owned a cottage on Dartmoor. When Tabby died, I accepted a ginger kitten from a friend who was the daughter of a farmer whose cat had produced too many kittens to keep. When no one was looking I hid him in my bedroom but was discovered when he climbed through my bedroom window. He was rehomed before I even decided on a name for him.
A puppy named Peter was then given to me and my little brother, Nicholas, by my aunt when I was about six years old; but Nick tormented Peter. He pulled his tail relentlessly until Peter bit Nick’s lip and was rehomed to the sound of my heart breaking and my father’s protests that he would at least be too big a dog because he had huge paws.
Around the age of nine I discovered guinea pigs – and they bred them. This was incredibly exciting because now I had my own little family of squeaky joy, and they were portable. The warmth of their bodies, sniffing noses, their attachment to me and my attachment to them made them feel like kin.
Frieda with Eddie the eagle owl. She has twelve other owls. The daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes talks about her love for animals
Then my dad took us out for a few weeks and instructed his own dad on how to feed all 15 of them (including two new litters). I came home with five; grandpa had forgotten about them and in desperation they had eaten their babies.
I realized that keeping animals meant standing still, not shifting and traveling. So when I moved to Mid Wales in 2004 at the age of 44 with my then husband and a little white Maltese cross named Mouse I was ready to adopt.
Not long after we moved in, Mouse slept all day in her bed by the Rayburn mountain range, not interested in playing any longer. I was surprised because she was only seven years old. I didn’t want her to die and leave me without a dog, but when I came home with two Maltese puppies, Snickers and Widget, she woke up with a newfound zest for life and lived for several more years.
Fortunately, George the Magpie’s arrival was easily accommodated by my trio of dogs, who adopted him like I did until he left home and never had to occupy the giant aviary I built for him.
The aviary was crying out for residents. First there was Arthur, a Bengal eagle owl with a broken wing that no one wanted. Someone contacted my local pet store looking for a likely new owner, and they thought of me.
Then there was an orphaned wild duck named Demelza, referred to me by the local vet. The duckling needed other ducklings for company, so I bought two Indian runners, Samson and Delilah, and one day the mallard Demelza flew away. Since then other wild birds have come along – most notably a young crow in 2017, which occupied my shoulder for two weeks until it learned how to fly.
Burying my face in fluff or feathers was a good way to drive away misery
I also bought a few chinchillas – all my life I’ve wanted chinchillas: fluffy, bouncy, squidgy, they can live up to 18 years, unlike a rat or a hamster with a lifespan of two years.
In January 2009 my marriage came to an end. As the main breadwinner, I was able to stay in the house in Wales, where I felt I was rooted.
Then, three months later, my brother committed suicide. [A professor of ocean sciences in Alaska, Nicholas had long struggled with depression. His suicide came 46 years after his mother’s.] The ground felt like it had been ripped from under my feet and I had to untangle everything my brother had left behind. It took a year, and the kindness of neighbors who took care of my animal family during my short but necessary and desperate absence.
I found that focusing on the needs of creatures was a good way to clear my mind of my own misery. And burying my face in fluff or feathers, feeling the soft warmth of an owl or a dog was infinitely comforting.
I ended up relocating my Indian runners to a friend who had a dozen and a large lake. Ducks are not very good as family members because they are a bit stupid.
After that, Arthur the owl attracted more owls – birds that other people for some reason could no longer keep.
Frieda pictured herself as a child – with her brother Nicholas and their father Ted Hughes, who was a famous poet
There was an aging Bengal eagle-owl, five barn owls (one with crippled feet), three huge Eurasian eagle-owls (one missing a middle toe), a snowy owl (with a damaged wing so it cannot fly), two white-faced scops owls, two burrowing owls and a small boneless Tengmalm owl in his feet, so that he stands like a surprised child, with toes turned inwards. I built a second aviary and purchased cages for the indoor owls.
When the first pair of Indos arrived in 2015 with two eggs, I bought an incubator and incubated Max and Charlie. The love I felt for these two baby birds as they grew was powerful; they developed before my eyes, and soon they were no longer fabulously fluffy bundles of bones and claws, but slender feathered powerful fliers. Two years later, Eddie hatched again.
These three huge owls now come into the utility room for a few hours each night as their aviary is attached to the house. I throw open the doors and Eddie is immediately on the doorstep and strides in, followed by his older brothers who are quieter, less pushy and less shrill. They let me feed them and then fluttered up to sleep on top of the wall cabinets, their five to six foot wingspan over the ceiling and any obstacles along the way.
This is their home, and they know it. Amazingly, despite exploring the kitchen at times, they’ve never broken anything.
Some of the older owls have since passed away; I am only 13 and my three little white dogs are now buried in the garden. But grief is the price I pay for all those years of joy.
Currently I have five chinchillas, two rescue huskies, a royal python named Shirley and Socks, the last of 12 ferrets. And there is always room for an orphan crow or magpie…
George: A Magpie Memoir by Frieda Hughes is published by Profile Books, £16.99*
*TO ORDER A COPY FOR £15.29 UNTIL 28TH MAY GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £25