By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener I’d never really given garden birds much thought. They were just always there, doing their thing. I enjoyed the company of a friendly cock robin while digging the allotment, and I put out kitchen scraps in the winter, but that’s as far as it went. I was far more into social insects, butterflies and small furry mammals. Until now. I just can’t help myself. I find I am spending around an hour a day twitching. Not net curtains. Not from New Year resolution substance withdrawals. At birds. Our wildlife garden came with a bird table and I can’t stop myself watching the daily goings-on in this avian Eastenders. We’ve had struggles for survival, family conflicts, sectarian violence, even a death. And now, of course, sex.
The first episode began quite calmly. I put out scraps as I usually did. A couple of robins and blackbirds appeared, with some blue tits. So I bought a peanut feeder. Great tits appeared, followed by coal tits and long-tailed tits, and a whole family flock of ten little blue ones. Great tits and blue tits seem just about to tolerate each other, but the bigger great ones (should that be great bigger ones?) just can’t resist a swipe at the blues. The family group of blue tits often seem so wrapped up in squabbling with each other that the peanuts have disappeared while they have been fighting. Chaffinches are too snooty to join in the rabble at the table. They seem happy to pick about under the apple trees. The death occurred on a snowy morning. My five-year-old ran indoors, blue with cold from stuffing snowballs down her younger sister’s jersey. “Mummy, there’s a live bird in the snow and it isn’t getting up!” A perfect female blackbird, slightly bloodied, looked up at me plaintively as I gently picked it up, in time for it to expire gracefully to the sound of primary school tears. At the time this occurred, bird flu had been out of the newspapers for several months, and compassion got in the way of common sense. I figured that a cat had caught the blackbird, not H5N1, and of course I went down with a stinking cold the day after (now fully recovered, thank you). Had the news about Bernard Matthews’s bird flu broken just after picking up the blackbird, I’m sure I would have been twice as ill and surfing the internet for a family pack of Tamiflu. No one’s really sure how the Norfolk turkeys became infected ” wild birds seem the most likely source of the virus, so perhaps picking up ill ones isn’t sensible. Don’t do this at home, folks. It will be interesting (if not a little worrying) to see how the arrival of bird flu in the UK affects wild and domestic birds. Stampedes in London as a nightingale sneezes in Berkeley Square, perhaps? Undaunted by the prospect of a global pandemic, I went out and bought a half coconut feeder filled with fat and seeds. This attracted two stunning woodland species: nuthatches and greater spotted woodpeckers! Fabulous though these are, my favourite birds are still the stylishly dowdy little ground-feeding hedge-sparrows that pick up the bits. They just get on with life, with no ostentation, and obvious success as they always seem to be there and not in a cat’s jaws. When the sun comes out, the robins and bluetits seem to be shakin’ their booties at one other and fanning out their wings in a saucy manner (well, wouldn’t you?) so I guess the sap is rising and little robins and bluetits are about to be made. Soon, the coconut feeder emptied and instead of buying another one I made a’bird cake’ to pack into the empty shell. This is a great thing to do with kids. My Dad used to make one with me every winter, and I make bird cake with my two little daughters. You’ll need: (1) FAT! LARD! LOTS OF IT! (From trimming lamb or pork chops, or poured off a Sunday roast. Vegetarians ” you’ll have to buy some vegetable suet) (2) Stale bread, crumbled small (3) Leftover dry cereal and/or biscuits, crumbled (4) Wild bird seed Render down the fat until it is fully melted then mix all the other ingredients into it. Pour or pack it into half a coconut shell and chill it to let the fat harden. Or you can wait until it is lukewarm and shape it into’fat balls’ to put in the specially made and charmingly-named’fat ball feeders’ you get in garden centres. Or you can make your own with some wire mesh. Hang it in your garden or balcony and watch it disappear. One of our bluetits is so fat it looks like a Sumo wrestler. A couple of weekends ago, we took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch organised by the RSPB. In an hour, we saw multiples of 11 species of birds, with 10 bluetits at any one time. And just one house sparrow. When I was a child in 1970s Berkshire, I would expect to see a flock of at least 15 house-sparrows, and we considered them pests because of their dreadful treatment of the wannabe resident housemartins. We lived near a tributary of the River Thames, and had an old house with high eaves. Every year, the housemartins would painstakingly construct their exquisite mud nests in the eaves of the house. Just as they had finished them and laid a clutch of eggs, a gang of house sparrows would violently evict the parent birds, chuck out the eggs, drag untidy straws into the mud nests and rear their own brood of squabbling little brown (very 1970s) sparrowlets. Has anyone else observed this sparrow/housemartin behaviour? Ornithologists mourn the decline of the’little Cockney sparrow’ and yes, numbers do seem to be visibly declining. But there’s a wicked streak in me that says: bully for the housemartins! There’s not a lot to do in the veg patch this month ” the ground’s too hard to dig. So, we’ve been tidying up and preserving the large ramshackle greenhouse (all tilted to one side, buckled out, about to fall down, covered in algae, has been like this for 30 years) ready to start off vegetable and flower seedlings. So the next blog will be all about greenhousy things, together with notes on whatever wildlife chooses to rock up in the garden. Happy Twitching!!