Sunday, 23 November 2008

Bird Watch, November

Winter arrived in Lincolnshire today with the first snow since Easter and by mid morning the garden was under a generous covering. This had the effect of bringing back to the garden all of the birds that seemed to have been missing just recently and it made me realise just how difficult feeding can become for them when their routine is disrupted by the weather in this unexpected way.

The Blackbirds are always the first to arrive and they show little fear under normal circumstances so it is certainly not unusual for them to be found waiting by the front door for the first handful of sultanas and this morning was no exception. Being Sunday I was later than usual and judging by the amount of footprints in the snow they had either been waiting around for some time or had made a lot of return visits just to check.

The Starlings were squabbling noisily over the homemade fat ball and as soon as the bird table was filled up they descended in huge numbers from the surrounding trees and roof tops. They certainly are the messiest feeders in the garden and if they were human diners I certainly wouldn’t want to be sitting next to them in a restaurant without a full suit of protective clothing. They quickly demolish the contents of the table but about 50% ends up on the ground and that suits the ground feeders like the Dunnocks who simply wait around and pick up the food that falls off the table. The Collared Doves are as bad because they have a preference for the sultanas and to get to them they simply throw the bread over the side with a flick of their beaks and underneath the sparrows pick it up and fly away with it.

There always used to be thousands of sparrows but there numbers have been declining rapidly. Population estimates in 2000 gave between 2.1 and 3.6 million pairs breeding in the United Kingdom which is an approximately 50% decline since1990. This decline in numbers is now so serious that the sparrow is on the RSPB red list of conservation importance.

The RSPB together with De Montfort University and Natural England have investigated the decline of the Sparrow and in a three year study in Leicester they found that numbers have fallen by nearly third. Every pair of house sparrows must raise at least five chicks a year to maintain the population, but many are starving to death in their nests or are too weak to live long after fledging. The study found that chick survival was higher in areas where insects, such as aphids, are more abundant because although peanuts and seeds are great for birds for most of the year, sparrows need lots of insects in summer to feed their hungry young.

The decline in London is even worse. More than 2,600 sparrows were counted in Kensington Gardens in 1925 but numbers dropped to 885 in 1948, 544 in 1975, 81 in 1995 and only eight in October 2000. The RSPB says that gardeners are to blame because of current gardening trends that have removed the indigenous plants for more fashionable and exotic species. I am taking the advice of the RSPB and making sure I have the right sort of plants for the Sparrows in my little garden.

Also back today was the Robin put perhaps he was just more noticeable today with his vivid red breast standing out against the white of the freshly fallen snow. He usually comes and goes without stopping very long but today he was in no hurry to go anywhere until he had had his share of the food. All of the Tits were around filling themselves up with peanuts and a pair of Chaffinch were picking up the pieces from underneath the seed feeder. The Goldfinch were there as usual and the weather didn’t seem to be bothering them at all and they were feeding in their normal unhurried style at the thistle seed feeder. They can do this because apart from the Greenfinch none of the other birds seem to have the taste for thistle seeds so there is virtually no competition for their favourite food.

Because of its diet of prickly thistle seeds the Goldfinch is associated with the Crucifixion and the Crown of Thorns. According to legend a Goldfinch flew to Jesus on the cross and pulled a thorn from his head and to this day the birds retain the mark of the blood on their face. This is a bit like the Robin story of course who got the blood on his breast doing a very similar thing. The goldfinch appears in more than five hundred Medieval and Renaissance paintings, many of them depicting Mary with the infant Jesus and in Christian symbolism this represents the foreknowledge that both of them had of the Crucifixion. Because it symbolizes the Passion, the goldfinch is considered a ‘saviour’ bird and is often pictured with the common fly, which represents the sin and disease from which Christians believe Christ saved them.

The Goldfinch has also featured prominently in European folklore and early English literature. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the Cook was described as being “as merry as a goldfinch in the woods” and during medieval times, presumably because of the religious association, the bird was used by some as a lucky charm to try and ward off the plague.

The snow didn’t last long of course and by early afternoon the sun was out and a rapid thaw had set in. The snow was retreating across the lawn aand with its disappearance the birds began to slip away as well. That’s a shame but at least I had the pleasure of a full morning of satisfying bird watching.

1 comment:

sir henry said...

snow allmost like here in finland