The Garden Birdwatch

The previous occupants of our house had two, small, yappy dogs whose favoured latrine area seems to have been the roughly triangular patch of scruffy grass in what is now our back garden. I know this because I’ve had to spend time and effort removing the evidence. In the beginning there were no bird visitors to the modest space that we call a garden, presumably due to fear of the two yappy dogs.

We’ve spent the six months since we moved attempting to lure birds back into the garden, wooing them with a fortune’s worth of tasty treats. Peanuts, mixed seeds, fat slabs, sunflower hearts, bread scraps and [their favourite] mealworms are displayed for their delectation, with the result that we now have a regular flow of tiny [and not so tiny] feathered guests to the cafeteria in the back yard, where a bird table and a contraption like a hat stand with hooks display a range of titbits.

Following the success of this enterprise I applied to do the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ ‘Great Garden Birdwatch’. This initiative exists to investigate how numbers of differing species are changing. It does not involve a terrific investment of time [one hour over the course of a specific weekend] and requires little more than observation and recording. I am, however confused. We are not asked to count the birds or to record the different species. We must record the greatest number of any given species at one time. OK. How is ‘one time’ defined? The birds are not obligingly cooperative in this respect, visiting in pairs or serially as individuals.

We settled down at our large window with sheets of paper and pens. The most frequent visitors to the feeders are great tits, an almost incessant stream of them, though rarely in numbers of more than two at a time. There is the inevitable pair of robins who are mostly enamoured of the bird table. Husband, as part of the war he is continuing to wage against squirrels has encased the open sides in wire netting which has nevertheless been breached a few times. Then there are blue tits, lumbering wood pigeons and intermittent groups of starlings.

The traffic flow was slow at the beginning but then there are flurries of frantic activity. I’ve noticed before how a mixture of species come into the space in waves, perhaps as security in numbers. I was both disappointed with the lack of some of our frequent visitors [like wrens] and delighted by the appearance of others, especially the long-tailed tits, who never deigned to visit our previous residence and a pair of chaffinches who are rarely seen.

How scientific is the exercise? The surveys can hardly be expected to be reliable, since some are bound to be a little over enthusiastic with their data. I suppose the collators must cross-check with postal codes. If I were to note that a golden eagle had entered our portals the credibility would be stretched somewhat.

But it was an enjoyable hour. If nothing else it gave us an excuse to sit and stare and [as William Henry Davies famously penned] what is this life otherwise?

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A Very Happy Christmas to all Anecdotage Followers and Visitors-

Since Anecdotage is on Christmas Day this year I’m posting a seasonal story on the blog. While it is a story for children it is also a parable of our times. The birds in our own garden seem to have definite characters, making them ideal fodder for fiction…

Goodwill to All Birds

                  Rowena Robinson was huddled on the spindly branches of the lilac tree. Her feathers were puffed up like a seeding dandelion while Roy, on the branch above her was filling the garden with a selection of his latest songs.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that rubbish!” Rowena nagged. “Nobody is taking any notice. It won’t get us any nearer to the peanuts; not with that rabble hogging the bird feeders.”

She jerked her beak at the bird table across the lawn. The Starling family, all seven of them, were feasting there, tearing into the peanuts and the suet as if it was their last meal on earth. Shreds of food rained down upon the grass. Rowena shook her head. “Their manners are terrible! Look at the mess they make! No wonder their chicks are so badly behaved, with the bad example they set. And why do they have so many children? Three or four is enough for any bird, surely?”

Roy hopped down to join his wife. Cold and hunger was making her bad tempered.

“They are hungry too, my love. Perhaps we should call them the Starvling family! And if they drop scraps on to the grass it’s easier for some of the smaller birds like Jenny to pick it up. Wrens prefer the ground for feeding after all. Stevie and his chicks will be done in a minute then we will get a turn at those nuts. We’ll need some supper. It’ll be dark soon.”

Sure enough a light came on in the house, illuminating the garden and prompting the Starlings to rise up like a cloud and swoop away over the fence. As the Robinsons prepared to fly over to the bird table a door slid open on the patio and the giant figure of a girl chick stepped out. Rowena turned back with a squawk of alarm as her husband landed on the stones next to the girl’s feet. He bowed several times in front of the enormous figure, who stood still and murmured to him in her strange tongue. In her hand she held a bag and now she shook it over the stones, peppering the ground with delicious seeds, nuts and mealworms.

Roy called to Rowena, “Come on over, dear. There’s enough food here to feed a flock!” But she shrank back into the tree, trembling.

“Roy! Get out of there! It isn’t safe.”

He hopped over and looked up at her. “Dear, the people won’t hurt us. They like us. They are the ones who put all this food out. We must show them we like them too. When we gather around them and sing they keep feeding us.”

He coaxed her from the tree, leading her on to the stone slabs to where the girl, Millie was standing.

Later, feeling well-fed in their cosy roost as they prepared for sleep, Roy was explaining about the family in the house. “That one you saw, the one who served us the meal; that was a hen-chick. They call it a girl in human language. I don’t think she lives in the house but she visits quite often”

“Girl” Rowena murmured.

“Then there’s an old hen. She lives there all the time. They call it a woman.”

Rowena yawned. “How do you know she’s old?”

“Well her feathers are all white and straggly. Of course, the poor things only have feathers on their heads and they can’t even fly.” He turned to his wife but she was asleep.

The next morning, after a quick preen and a beak wipe they peered out to see Mark and Mandy Magpie strutting around as if they owned the place and making their usual racket. The other birds hung around at a distance listening to what sounded like pistol volleys. Rowena sighed.

“Not much chance of breakfast any time soon, then.”

“No-but they are the only ones who can keep Squirrel at bay, so they have their uses! What do you think that is?” Roy indicated a bedraggled, grey mound of feathers on the slabs by the door. Rowena stared, aghast. “Oh Roy! Do you think that dreadful cat’s been here again?” She shuddered, remembering the last time the fearful beast had terrorised the inhabitants of the garden.

“I’m going to take a closer look.”

“Roy you can’t! It isn’t safe with the Magpies there!”

But he’d already taken off. He flew over to the patio and perched on a window ledge above the feathers, ignored by Mark and Mandy who were squabbling and squawking over a fat ball they both wanted. Rowena saw Roy bend towards the feathers as he chirped at it then was astonished to see the feathers move! A bedraggled head appeared and peered up at her husband.

Just then the door opened and Millie stepped out. Mark and Mandy screeched and rose up grumbling to retire to the nearest tree but Roy stayed where he was, watching. When the girl-chick spotted the heap of feathers and got down to look at it Rowena gasped, for the heap of feathers did not get up and fly away or even try to move. The girl-chick went back inside the house and Roy glided back to his wife.

“It’s a pigeon, Row. His name is Preston. I know pigeons aren’t very clever and they’re a bit common but he’s in a bad way. I think his wing is injured. He says a car hit him. Look-the girl-chick is coming back out.”

Millie returned. In one hand she held the peanut bag they all knew so well, in the other a saucer of water. She knelt by the pigeon and placed the water and some peanuts next to him. Then withdrew to the other end of the patio. Preston raised his head to stare over at Roy.

“It’s alright” chirped the robin. “The girl-chick won’t hurt you. She helps us all.”

“Shush, Roy! You know we don’t talk to pigeons! They come in here from miles away and take all our food and water!”

Roy cocked his head to one side. “My love, we are lucky to be very well looked after here in this garden. Does it really matter where this poor bird is from or who he is? He may not be like us but he is a bird all the same. There is enough to go around, whoever needs it, isn’t there?”

“I suppose so. But he won’t stand much of a chance if he stays there anyway. Fox will get him.”

She was right, thought Roy.

The next morning Preston wasn’t there and in his place was a box. Millie stepped outside and poured some nuts into it. “Is it some new kind of bird feeder?” Rowena asked and Roy went to look. “He’s in the box, Row! Preston is in there!”

“Don’t be daft, Roy. Have you been eating those rotten apples again?”

“It’s true-go and see for yourself.”

She took off and made a cautious circuit over the patio, peering down at the box before returning to their branch. “He seems a bit better today-more perky and he’s tidied himself up a bit.”

Two days later they woke to see Preston standing on the slabs tucking into a saucer of peanuts. Roy called to him. “How’s it going? You’re looking much better.”

The grey wood pigeon took a few wobbly steps towards the edge of the slabs. “Since the girl-chick gave me food and a safe place to sleep my wing is starting to feel less painful. I might try a few exercises after breakfast.”

“Take care, friend,” warned Roy, “The Magpies can be very rough and we sometimes get Fox here in the garden, too!”

They watched as Preston hopped around the garden, flexing his wings and wincing then propelling himself half a metre into the air in a series of leaps whilst flapping. At last he flopped on to the slabs for a rest.

“He’s persistent. I’ll give him that.” Rowena glanced sideways at her husband.

Preston got stronger every day until one morning they woke to see him flying around the garden and making experimental landings on branches and the grass. He stopped on the ground flower bed below them and squinted up with one beady eye.

“I’m off this morning. I’ll say Cheerio. Might be back some time. Thanks for all your help.”

Roy flicked his tail. “Take care friend. You know where we are.”

Preston bowed deeply before making an ungainly ascent, circling once and then heading west. They watched in silence until he became a tiny speck. The patio door slid open and Millie stepped out, looking about her and into the box, which was empty. She called something into the house behind her and a short, old hen-person came out to stand by her.

Roy took off, calling to Rowena. “Come on!”

“What are you?…” Rowena spluttered but flew to join him on the patio next to the two humans. “Sing, my love. Sing with all your heart!”

The Robinsons perched together on the edge of the bird bath, serenading the hen and girl-chick as they stood smiling outside the door. Millie clapped her hands. “That was so beautiful. Thank you. I expect you’re hungry after all that singing!”

She sprinkled a liberal helping of peanuts on to the slabs in front of them.

“There-you see?” Roy nodded at his wife. “We are so lucky. We live in the best garden in the world.”

Boomers’ Bloomers [again]

Baby boomer:    a person born during a baby boom, especially the one in the US or UK between approximately 1945 and 1965: Ageing baby boomers are creating a greater need for healthcare. baby-boomer. adjective [before noun] › The baby-boomer generation is now hitting retirement age.18 May 2016

We ‘boomers’ are in trouble again. Not content with having had free university education, ‘good’ pensions, having the gall to buy properties and now living long enough to be using up all the healthcare budget we have transgressed further. The offence? We have failed to teach our progeny horticultural skills. There! How appalling! We should have been outside in the garden with our new-borns teaching them the difference between bindweed and broccoli instead of idly dandling them on our knees. We should have set our toddlers to weeding, hoeing and tying in the runner beans rather than reading them stories and letting them splash around in paddling pools.

Having been born and raised in the countryside I did actually learn a great deal about gardening at an early age; though not grand or modernised the properties we inhabited were always surrounded by large pieces of garden which my father tended with gusto-perhaps because he came from a family of market gardeners. The fruit and vegetables he grew were more than a supplement to our diet; together with the hens we kept they almost were our diet. Yet we were not coerced into digging and weeding and were left to our own devices, excavating our own plot behind the shed to find buried treasure and taking stray worms down to the hens’ enclosure or trawling the small stream with jam jars on strings. I do remember being interrogated as to why I’d pulled up a cabbage and explaining that it was to see if it was growing, a reply not received with indulgent approval-nevertheless it had been growing.

But I knew about gardening. I knew that you could graft one type of apple tree on to another, that potatoes needed to be earthed up, that you could make compost from garden and vegetable waste. I knew the names of things-vegetables, fruits, flowers and weeds. I also knew the names of trees and wild flowers. At school, with no danger of a ‘national curriculum’ we went on nature walks-a long crocodile of hand-holding pairs strolling the lanes and scrutinising the banks and hedgerows so that we knew which tree conkers grew on [not a conker tree!] and bringing back specimens for the ‘nature table’. I grew up able to identify common birds from plumage and song and to know a number of wild flowers, plants and trees.

Just as a garden itself cannot be made instantly you can’t ‘teach’ gardening. The skills and knowledge develop over time with trial and error and a little research now and again. The best gardens evolve-like the twenty year old patch I’ve grappled with and am about to leave. How will the next garden grow? I look forward to finding out…