We are very fortunate to sleep right up in the roof under a skylight that opens out onto the forest behind us. Now the weather is so very cold, it is very hard to sleep with the skylight open all night but in the warmer months, we hear all manner of happenings outside during the night and at dawn. Usually it is the tawny owls who call at dusk as they leave their roosts and then again early in the morning as they return and then it is the turn of the day birds, who start carolling a little before first light in spring and summer. The winter months are a very different story however and are usually deadly silent. Things only start waking up again around this time of year, when we still have a lot of snow on the ground and the temperatures can reach -15°c at night but we often have very warm spells of sunshine during the day.
Only in the past two mornings have I started hearing a few birds singing. The dawn chorus has made its tentative beginnings and will reach a peak in April when the migrants such as the black redstart come back to the garden to join the resident choir. This morning, I heard several great tit alarm calls ringing out louder than the regular background chirps and then heard the mewling of a buzzard as it swept overhead; something I am so grateful to be able to hear whilst I am still in bed with the window closed.
For the past four days I have had a serious array of food set up on the bird table. In recent years I have always put food out but quite frankly have been saddened by the poor show of birds (by my standards) on it. I know that there are crested tits, hawfinches, crossbills, bullfinches, linnets, siskins, woodpeckers and all manner of exotics out in the forest that surrounds us but I have only in the past succeeded in attracting great tits and sparrows into the garden. Just a load of crap I thought.
Since reading Jon Young’s Book What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World however, I have started to understand the importance of these common or garden birds for teaching us humans about the movements of larger animals in the wood and so I have started to foster an appreciation for my humble hedge sparrows (which actually are not so humble, being the rarer tree sparrows that they are).
Today I counted six species of birds on my table – tree sparrow, robin, wren, great tit, willow tit and blue tit – every one of them a valuable ally as a bird language teacher (and roughly equivalent to Jon’s American song sparrow, carolina wren, robin and chickadee). I am beginning to think that the sit~spot I found three minutes away up on the bank behind the house is now too far away and has absolutely nothing going on compared to down here in the garden (I know that I will be proved wrong some day soon).
Although I have up to now, completely discounted my garden as a place to encounter wild birds, I realise that I have been totally wrong. I have thought of these common or garden birds as somehow ‘not wild’ when they are in my garden, perhaps ‘not impressive enough’ but they are the bread and butter birds; how stupid I was to think that I had to search for the exotics out deep in the forest in order to start learning something of value. Okay, the things that may be disturbing these garden birds are people putting out the trash, the local tomcat stalking under the hedge or a car racing up the road but they still show the same alarm calls and display the same bodily alerts as they would do if being disturbed by a wolf or golden eagle.
Start with what you have. And start with birds who actually know you. This morning, I was able to sling my full-length down coat over my pyjamas and push on some crocs and sit out next to the bird table for an hour just after dawn – my god was it cold. Twenty minutes after sitting through a real telling-off by a pair of great tits, I witnessed the birds one-by-one starting to get on with their business of flying back and forth to the table from the hedge without blinking an eyelid over me, even though I was sitting only six feet away. I realised that these birds actually were okay with my presence, having seen me potter around in the garden for years now. They know me, the girls, my husband and the dog. And as I sat and watched them watching the neighbour standing out on her porch with her morning cigarette and coffee, I knew that they knew her too. They knew the postman and the farmer and they were not phased by the sound of the bins being taken out. What they did react to though, was a crow flying high overhead and of course, the buzzard passing over earlier this morning.
Yes, I’ll take all of that, please.