Friday, May 13, 2011

London bird life, spring 2011

Those in other countries may see garden birds as food for the table, but the British (the Irish used to kill wrens) treasure them for their song, friendliness in the case of robins and sometimes blackbirds, and the charm and mobility they provide for our gardens.

Because we love them, we feed them. And, in return, they grace us with their presence.

I have owned gardens that were the habitat of many birds. Some of these birds one got to know, like the swallows that returned annually to a stable, flying in and out through a partly opened window. Their return each spring, as with those dapper little birds, the house martins, heralded the oncoming summer.

Of course there were villains, like the magpies that perched and waited to see a parent returning to its nest with food for young, pounced, and made off with a chick in its beak to tear it apart on a branch or chimney pot.

A sparrow hawk would wait atop a post and chase a blue tit through the thickest of undergrowth to catch its prey – and then tear out the feathers before consuming it. Eventually I asked it to leave – and it did.

My smallest garden is my present London one. And although the variety of birds that inhabit it are far fewer than in the country, it does have the advantage that our resident birds become known to us.

We have our villains in town, too. The magpies lie in wait. And once a great spotted woodpecker (rarely seen) robbed a robin’s nest box on our house of all its young. (Afterwards the robins unmade their nest, throwing all of it to the ground.)

A hen blackbird inhabited our garden and enjoyed our offerings of Cheddar for, perhaps, 15 years. She once managed to escape the clutches of a cat (probably James May’s Fusker, who, when alive, was a great predator of birds) and could barely walk with a useless leg and hardly fly with many feathers missing. But she was a survivor, always producing two broods nearby each spring. Her successor has yet to gain confidence in us.

Robins have nested near at hand – usually in the house robin box – each year, except this one. And a tame robin (trained with morsels of cheese) has always been our intimate friend, summer and winter. They have eaten from my hand or on my knee, and given visiting children and adults much astonishment and pleasure – but not this year. One has passed through a couple of times, looked us over, and gone on.

But the absence of a fiercely territorial robin has at least allowed a pair of great tits to live unmolested as they nested in a box on the house and brought up a family of young. And, at the same time, a blue tit pair has done the same in a box above the great tit family.

Our garden is a small one of several in a row, much enclosed by houses. So, it is not what one might call ideal bird territory. But a few birds have chosen it. And because their number is small, we are much closer to them than those people offering more generous amenities. In that respect we are lucky indeed.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


The newspaper announcement of my cousin Fred Scott’s death was brief, and submitted by part of his family. It was headed: Freddy Scott (MC). There has since been an obituary in The Daily Telegraph (25 April 2011).

As a very junior officer, Fred landed in German-held Normandy (between Caen and the sea) on D-Day with his platoon in a Horsa glider.

The Germans, being an orderly race, had positioned anti-glider spikes in straight lines where he was to land.

His pilots were rank novices, so Fred, who knew about map-reading, directed them in. And noticing the spikes in straight lines, ordered a landing so that the wings of his glider broke off on the obstructions, leaving the fuselage and all inside, shaken but unscathed.

He went on to achieve his objectives, pushing through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, gaining rank and the Military Cross for valour (presented by Field Marshall Montgomery) en route. He ended in preventing the Russians from entering Denmark, mainly, in his account, by out-drinking them in vodka.

There are two stories about Fred that always please me.

When selling tobacco in Malaya for the company for which he worked before the war, his eccentric wife, Millie, was left a fine collection of pearls by her wealthy family in America.

Unable to receive them in the tropics, those in charge of this fine legacy were instructed to send them to Harrods, in London, for temporary safekeeping.

When Fred and Millie returned to England, they went to collect the goodies.

When the box was opened, all were aghast to find that due to being in a safe and unworn for many years, all were dead. Fred said that they looked absolutely horrible.

Harrods bought the many diamond clasps – and one string of dead pearls, just to show unbelievers what can happen to pearls that are locked away and not worn.

The other story I pared right down to send to the “Lives Remembered” column of The Times, should an obituary appear in that newspaper. It reads:

My cousin, Major Fred Scott MC, walked into a recruiting office and joined the wartime army as a Private soldier. He was put in charge of men who had passed through Courts of Justice and as punishment been given the choice of the mines or the army.

Fred was unable to open his locker as he had lost the key. He was given his own piece of wire and instructed by one of his charges in the art of how to gain entry.

His father, a Brigadier, newly stationed in the district, arranged to see his son. The Adjutant and others were dismissed from the room. Fred and his father were alone.

“And what have you learned in the army, Fred?”

“I’ve learned how to pick locks, sir.”

“Then open up that gas meter.”

Half crowns and florins fell to the floor.

“Now pick up those coins and lock it up again.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” replied Fred. “I have only learned to unpick locks.”