By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener The Wildlife Gardener loves birds. Well, all birds except magpies. A pair of these spiteful, arrogant creaky- voiced monsters has started building a nest in a whitebeam at the end of the Wildlife Garden. And I’m not happy about it.
What’s eatin’ you, Wildlife Gardener? Magpies are clever. They’re monochromatically beautiful. They steal shiny things and are entertaining fun characters in children’s books. The BBC can’t let forensic scientists or the cast of Eastenders walk through a wood without the grating rattle of a magpie. According to the rhyme, and the theme tune of Magpie (a 1970s ITV wannabe Blue Peter with cheesy presenters in tanktops and bad’fros), life gets better the more magpies there are:
One for sorrow, two for joy Three for a girl and four for a boy Five for silver, six for gold Seven for a secret never to be told.
Oh no it doesn’t. I’ve seen a pair of magpies drilling the brains out of a newly-fledged baby blackbird. I’ve been to inspect a box of recently-hatched spotted flycatchers and been confronted with blood, body parts and a ripped-open nest where a magpie has just dined. They tear up my lawn searching for cockchafer larvae and bounce around on my guttering at six in the morning making it leak. The resident sparrowhawk is an honest, magnificent predator. The magpies are just the avian equivalent of skulking, destructive hoodies. If they could use spray cans, they would.
This year had so far boded well for bird species in the Wildlife Garden. As well as Flash, my companionable robin the usual hedge-sparrows, blue and great tits, wrens and blackbirds, I’ve noticed bullfinches, goldfinches and blackcaps. All of these will nest somewhere in the spring and normally I’d hope that would be in the Wildlife Garden.
This year, I hope they all go somewhere else and deprive the whitebeam magpies and their nasty offspring of a food source. The magpies think they’ve nested above the larder of life, and if my garden birds aren’t savvy enough, they have. There’s little I can do, or am inclined to do about the situation. The whitebeam is on my neighbour’s land and the nest is 30ft up in the tree. Legally if my purpose is to conserve wild birds, under a general licence I could arguably destroy the nest or shoot the magpies (I’m a rotten shot and magpies are notoriously difficult to shoot anyway) but only with the landowner’s permission (possible), and well away from public roads and houses (not possible). I have better things to do with my life than acquire a Larsen trap. Instead, I draw a little comfort from the RSPB:
The RSPB commissioned the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) to analyse its 35 years of bird monitoring records. The study found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were many magpies or sparrowhawks from where there are few. It found no evidence that increased numbers of magpies have caused declines in songbirds and confirms that populations of prey species are not determined by the numbers of their predators. It is the availability of food and suitable places in which to nest that decide the population. Source: RSPB
So, reluctantly, and grumpily, I guess I have to let nature take its course. The Wildlife Garden has plenty of mixed hedgerows, trees, nooks and crannies for nesting birds, and insect food as I don’t use pesticides. If the smaller birds manage to keep their heads down, I have to hope that the sparrowhawk takes a swipe not at Flash, but at the magpies strutting about like Freddie Mercury.