The Wildlife And Me
As a first post for a new blog I thought I’d start with something fairly innocuous, even deceptively pleasant, just to lure in people who don’t know me. So here’s the tale of my new-found relationship with the local wildlife.
There’s plenty of wildlife round here. I now live on the border between the High and Low Weald — a land of crinkly countryside where no road runs flat or straight for 100 metres, and hundreds of little streams meander around tiny irregular fields which are defined by small woods known locally as shaws. The geology restricted large scale agriculture and settlement, and has subsequently helped preserve much of the area from the blight of development All this means that there remain plenty of habitat niches for all sorts of wildlife. I’ve yet to see the wild boar, extinct for 300 years but now thriving after escaping from farms, but there’s plenty of other animals more or less happily co-existing with people. Leaving aside the traditional thick hedgerows full of wild flowers, and the woods carpeted with bluebells and anemones, it’s the animals, especially the birds, that have lately fascinated me.with people.
I’ve never really taken much interest in birds, apart from delighting in sea eagles and such soaring above and below me in the hills and cliffs of India (not to mention the delightful and ubiquitous kingfishers), but I hadn’t been here long before I spotted buzzards circling over the fields, and heard their piercing hunting call. I’ve also spotted the rarer red kite quartering the fields searching for prey. But it’s with the more common garden birds that I’ve developed a relationship.
When I first moved here I noticed the blackbirds around, and as I love the song of a blackbird on a summer’s evening and knowing they would have chicks, I started to encourage them by putting out the odd scrap of old bread that would otherwise have been wasted. But I’m told that bread is not ideal, so I cast around for something I had with more nutritional value, and came up with digestive biscuits (fat, protein, salt as well as carbohydrates), and soon found they were very well liked. So much so that a hen blackbird began bringing her chick to my door for feeding.
Fledgling chicks take a lot of feeding, so very soon they were hanging around all day, and quite quickly became rather bold – even hopping over the threshold of the garden doors. Then, one day, a fat chick came indoors and performed the ‘Feed Me’ behaviour (crouch down, beak open, waggle your bum and shake your wings, all the while going ‘cheep’, ‘cheep’, ‘cheep’ insistently) to me. That’s hard to resist, and since then I seem to have become rather obsessive, and I’m spending far more time and energy on them than I really should. I’m even spending money which I can ill-afford buying the particular foods preferred by different species.
It’s somehow fascinating to observe all their little behaviours and habits, especially if you can devote the time to get to know them. I sit all day at my computer, facing out the window and patio doors, where I can easily observe their comings and goings. I was puzzled at first by at least one of them having incorporated the warble of a telephone into their song, but I’m hoping it will catch-on, and perhaps some other domestic sounds will soon be adopted, like the amazing lyre bird of Australasia.
The sparrows wake me up in the very early morning with their rather harsh and non-stop calling, but I can’t help liking their boisterous chattering, squabbling and courting, like a bunch of Londoners on a charabanc outing to Margate. Interestingly, all the chicks, whatever the species, look bigger than the somewhat skinny, rather bedraggled looking adults – I’m speculating that this is because the chicks retain some downy feathers, but maybe it’s just that the adults are worn thin by the effort, they certainly work pretty hard.
Now I have a whole flock of blackbirds coming to my door, importunately demanding food and staring through the glass if I don’t respond quickly enough, and bringing each new clutch to be fed. They practically knock on the door, and have become so bold they confidently came into my living room (or at least they did until I became fed-up with cleaning-up bird shit and banned them.) Six or seven have become regular visitors, and loudly squabble and fight each other to secure unique access to the food.
The problem I have is that different birds have different needs and habits, and catering to them has become a full-time job. I’m constantly watching the birds and feeding them every half hour. It’s worse than having a baby! While I used to love the brooding call of wood pigeons (a sound that since my childhood is indelibly associated with sunny afternoons in summer woods), they and the doves from a local dovecote rapidly hoover-up any and all the food put out, leaving nothing for others, whereas most others will take a few beak-fulls and depart. So making sure others get a share is a constant preoccupation I have to put out only very small amounts so I can supervise, and distract some birds with different piles so others get their chance.
Worst of all though is the problem of the song thrushes, whose vast repertoire is a truly enchanting delight. They won’t take food from a feeder, so I have to put it out on the ground, but they are very timid and reluctant to approach, while blackbirds (their fellow Turdidae) are very aggressive and will chase them away. They will even let a tiny sparrow steal food they’ve collected from right under their beaks. Again, I find myself having to intervene. With the very dry spring, the thrushes’ preferred food of snails, which they loudly crack on the path, are in short supply, so I’m very keen to make sure they can raise at least one brood. Sadly, habitat loss means that while they were once more common than the closely related blackbird, they are now red-list endangered.
Out in the fields buzzards are circling and sometimes descend to the roof tops, often mobbed by jackdaws, where you can see just how big they are. Today, at the petrol station a kestrel hovered over the main road, marvellously still in the air. It’s not all bucolic tranquillity though. A few days ago a male sparrow hawk hurtled vertically down at tremendous speed, and with a loud thunk took a sparrow from my window ledge, not 4 feet from my head. Doubtless he had chicks to feed too, but I couldn’t help feel slightly responsible for providing the food that lured the sparrow to an early death.
Starlings are much less frequent visitors, in fact I haven’t seen any since the spring when one adult was feeding 5 chicks. It’s amazing how many big bugs (look like moths or larvae) they can pull from a couple of square metres of lawn – who knew there was so much living just under that grass? I have tried to befriend the jackdaws as the most intelligent of birds (the insult ‘bird-brain’ isn’t entirely undeserved!) but they too, like the various pigeons, eat everything given a chance, and observing me trying to share food with other birds, they’ve become rather nervous. But one fellow became quite a regular and bold visitor for a while.
There are various other birds around, some of which I’ve yet to identify from their calls, Several species of tit including the rather uncommon long-tailed tits, climb among the shrubs like circus performers. I’m told that nightingales are about, and that’s something I need to keep an eye, and more importantly an ear, open for. And, magically, through the autumn to spring I could stand outside my door, and in the lovely, deep silence, I can hear owls calling from trees just a few metres away, being answered by others far off across the empty fields.
Postscript: As we move into a baking hot August, the number and variety of avian visitors has dropped dramatically. Only in the last few days have I even seen a blackbird, never mind a thrush. Food left out has still been untouched hours later – unthinkable only a few weeks ago when an eager throng awaited every offering. Perhaps, like the Parisians, they have all taken their vacances in Thermidor. Happily, in the last couple of days, the evenings and early mornings have been graced with song from the robins who are now resplendent in their new plumage after the summer moult.
 The Wikipedia page has a lovely sound clip of the song thrush’s vast repertoire (over 150 different sounds.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_thrush, as does this RSPB page https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/song-thrush/