They had been living with us since 1995, and they moved with us to our apartment at 57 Boulevard Barbès, on 24 October 1999. We placed a two meter tall potted “tree” in the corner of the bedroom by the window.  At the base, we placed a cage, whose door was always open and where we kept a dish of food (dried insects and grains), drinking water and a bath.  They would eat and bathe in the cage, sleep on a high branch of the tree and fly freely about the apartment. Igor and Vera were Japanese Nightingales.  To the naked eye there was no difference between them, but the male, Igor, had an elaborate and beautiful song to which the female, Vera, would respond with a more modest twitter. 

After a couple of collisions with the glass they ceased trying to fly out through windows, even when they were open.  They never let us come too close to them.  They preferred high places: top shelves, lighting fitments, and tops of doors.  Igor would sing in response to classical music, preferably Stravinsky (after whom he was named) Debussy or Ravel.  By Christmas, they had abandoned sleeping in the cage in favour of the highest branch of the tree.  They would sleep together, feathers fluffed up and intermingled, with their heads tucked in and one foot retracted.

On 17 March 2000 we had a party to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.  We served Irish Coffee from 7pm until late.  We decided not to close Igor and Vera into their cage.  They had several high places around the apartment where they could feel safe.  Towards midnight the party degenerated.  We had stopped serving Irish Coffee and most people were drinking straight whiskey.  The atmosphere was smoky and hot in the living-room.  Someone turned the lights down and put on a disk of techno dance music with the volume at maximum.  Vera, who was perched above the sound system, took flight and flew overhead in the semi-darkness into the bedroom and towards the tree.  But there were two people standing in front of the tree, smoking by the open window.  Vera flew in a circle and out of the window.  She landed on the railing of the balcony and sat facing inwards.  The two smokers had seen her flight and alerted several other people who came rushing forward to see.  One of them reached forward and tried to catch her.  In an instant she was gone, disappearing into the black mass of trees on the Boulevard.

We closed the windows to ensure that Igor would not follow her.  When we finally managed to close him into his cage, we opened the window again and placed the cage on a chair beside it.  Most people had gone home by then and the Boulevard was quiet.  Igor sang through the night.  From time to time we could hear Vera’s faint distant reply.  Sometimes the reply seemed to be coming closer.  At one point, towards 5 a.m. it seemed to be coming from a tree right beside us.  But it receded again, and by 6.30 the morning traffic made it impossible to hear her replies.  At 7.30, we closed the window to get some sleep.  We repeated the same exercise several more times, but although we heard her replies regularly, we never saw her again.

Is Vera still alive?

Over the three years that have elapsed since her disappearance, we have certain evidence that would suggest that she is still alive, and living on, or around, the boulevard.

Firstly, we know she could survive.  It seems almost certain that she was captured in the wild before being imported into France and sold to us, as this species of bird is almost never bred in captivity.  The Japanese Nightingale, known more commonly as the Pekin Robin, does not come from Japan but from the Southern slopes of the Western Himalayan mountains to the East of China.  They can be found in mountain forests as high as 2,700 meters.  They can tolerate sub-freezing temperatures and a relatively barren environment, and can live up to twenty years.  So, the species is relatively hardy for an “exotic” cage bird, and there is no reason to believe that such a bird would have any difficulty living in the trees of a Parisian Boulevard.  While the male of the species will roam in search of a mate, the female is quite unadventurous.  They are essentially insectivores and frugivores.  The boulevard environment harbours a wide variety of insects, and fruit falls into the gutters at all times of the year from the market stalls on Boulevard Ornano.

Over the previous three years we have come across evidence of her presence.  In autumn 2002, we searched the street and found around the grills protecting the bases of the trees, two small white faeces identical to those left by Igor around our apartment and quite different from any other bird excrement we had come across out there.  On the evening of the 14 July 2003, a night lit by a full moon, as we were preparing to film the fireworks, we heard a shrill song similar to Vera’s signature song, which awoke Igor and prompted a long reply from him, before the fireworks drowned out any possibility of continued communication.  Even more conclusive was the discovery in August 2003, of a tail feather with the same markings and colors as Igor’s, in the gutter only two hundred meters from our apartment.

We made some unsuccessful attempts to lure her back home.  On several occasions we closed Igor into his cage and then placed it on the balcony so he could call to her.  But the omnipresent traffic noise in the daytime made it almost hopeless, and we concluded that the night-time boulevard would be impossible for her to navigate, as we knew that the Pekin Robin cannot see well at night.  In July 2002, we smeared the railing of our balcony with honey to attract wasps.  We had almost no memory of seeing either Igor or Vera catching live insects, but we remembered how, on one occasion in our previous apartment, we had seen Vera swipe a live wasp out of the air and swallow it whole without any after-effects.  We had concluded that wasps, being more colourful and slower moving than most urban insects, were easy prey, and so, we tried to lure her back to us with a copious and well-displayed meal.

All to no avail.  The possibility of replacing Vera with a new mate has receded ever since the species is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).  This means that Pekin Robins caught in the wild can no longer be imported for the commercial pet-trade.  In effect, the pre-act population of imported Pekin Robins has disappeared from bird markets in France, where there are few, if any, breeders willing to undertake the difficult and specialized task of breeding this bird.

For three years Igor lived on alone.  He slept at the top of an eccentric branch that reached towards the mirror over the fireplace, as close as possible to his own reflection.  He sang only when we played music.  In the fourth year he became increasingly enfeebled, practically ceasing to fly, spending most of the day in his tree or hopping about on the parquet.  One Sunday evening in January, the children found him collapsed in the corner of their bedroom with a broken wing and claw.  We never discovered how the accident happened.  The following morning we brought him to the veterinary clinic on rue Lécuyer.  The diagnosis was worse than we expected.  At best, the claw would have to be removed and he would never use his wing again.  At midday on Monday 12th January 2004, Igor was put to sleep.