Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Garden Birds Spring 2013

Our garden lies within a narrow strip between two rows of London houses. And it is a strange thing to say from someone who loves birds that I am happy not to have many to see. This is an advantage. In fact, it is a wonderful situation as territorial boundaries are restricted in size, intruders are rare, and those that do appear are not welcomed by the feathered residents.
            This means that we know most of our birds quite well – and they know us. So we are a sort of a family.      
            This family of ours varies in size each year. Some spend the winter with us. Then old friends appear, sometimes to nest with us after surviving the winter, others not.
            In springtime we share our house with the birds that use my bird boxes on the house. On the wall are nesting possibilities for most – even for birds that we seldom or may never see. The nesting boxes are there in case.
            Nearly always a pair of great tits bring up a family in a box made from scrap wood and painted as bricks to match those of the house. Sometimes blue tits nest in a box much higher up the wall. This box was made for house sparrows when we had many resident birds before they all disappeared mysteriously from the London scene. At least nesting places await their return.
Birds take time to get used to any home made for them – sometimes many years. I have made boxes for several friends who have initially been disappointed that they were not used immediately. But in the end all was well and those homes are now in use and appreciated. Birds take time. They do not like change.
In a hole in the eves of a house two away from ours, swifts nested. It must have been the only nesting place for miles around. We did not tell the owners who were not bird lovers and might well have filled in the hole. But they had their house done up for sale and the gap used by the swifts was closed.
High on our own house wall I replicated the birds’ home as best I could, but a year too late, by which time the birds had moved elsewhere. But it was a newly-made box and, as mentioned, birds need time. So we are hopeful of a return – even though we see so few swifts in the district. If they come back we will hardly know it, judging from past experience. She will only appear to lay each egg on an almost bare surface, and feeding young is done so quickly and quietly that only the very observant is aware of it happening. It may all take place again. I hope so. I can offer no greater encouragement than supplying a house especially made for them.
Our “house” robin was so tame that she would feed in our glazed shed with us and feel at home by standing on my knee for a minute or two. Her new mate (“Ranger”) took her too far away to nest from her usual sites near our house. But once in a while she returns, flying straight into the shed for a bite, and staying awhile for our company.
Our hen blackbird, of at least 14 years, and the survivor of a nasty cat-mauling, must have come to her end. But “Mr Black”, her shy mate of old, took another partner, and together they produce at least two broods each year.
He, once so shy, has now flown into the shed and next to me for food. Compared with our elegant little robin he is a large lump – and an untidy eater.
He shoos off the greedy starlings when I am in the house, but leaves this task to me when I am in the shed with the door open.
Starlings, now regarded as a declining species, abound. Goldfinches come and go (but so alike we don’t know them), as do greenfinches (one of which ate himself to death on sunflower seeds at one of our feeders). Wood pigeons are handsome pests that foul the flagstones. Dunnocks (who have bred well this year) scurry around the garden endlessly picking up minute morsels unseen by the human eye. Chaffinches have not re-appeared this year, nor have coal tits. But with so many fledglings around after a good breeding season, we are sure to see them soon.
            There is always drink and bath water for our feathered friends. And throughout the winter there is food for every species. A favourite “bite” for some is that from fat balls – not the bought variety, of which they are not particularly fond,  but of my own make.
            This is made from most of a loaf of bought bread, which is turned into crumbs. Bran is added, with a good handful of green raisins. A slab of lard is then melted and added, to be stirred in well. This mixture is allowed to cool before being formed into balls and frozen until wanted for the outside container, made for the bought variety (to which I have added a bamboo perch). Starlings, blackbirds, great tits and blue tits have made it their favourite food. When I made this in the country, stale bread was used, which was soaked and squeezed dry before the additions (including peanuts then, which now have a separate dispenser).
            I was worried initially that the tits might overfeed their nestlings with my fatty offering. But they wisely mixed the youngsters’ diet with caterpillars and other grubs. Also on offer in London are sunflower seeds, peanuts that have been crushed in a pestle and mortar, and niger seeds for goldfinches.
            This breeding year seems to have been a good one for my garden birds, despite a very cold and damp spring.