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.