Monday, 6 April 2009

Bird Watch - March 2009

As it was the first weekend in April and the weather was so nice it seemed an appropriate time to tidy up the garden that I had badly neglected since November time last year. The lawn needed cutting but before I could do that there was the little matter of clearing up all of the winter mole damage that I had left undisturbed for the past three months. There were a couple of nice big loamy hills in the middle of the lawn and I cleared that away to the vegetable border and that left some ugly bare batches in the middle of the grass but the really bad damage was along the edge of the lawn where the mole had dug a long subterranean tunnel that ran the entire length of the garden.

After clearing the excess soil away I tried to get one of those nice straight edges to the lawn but this proved virtually impossible because of the extent of the damage. The soil is very fertile and extremely friable and the work of the mole had killed the grass and there were no creeping roots to bind the soil together to help me get a straight line and the edge kept collapsing back into the freshly dug border. What a mess! Thank you mole, thank you so very, very much!

While I was working to try and find a solution I was suddenly joined by the sociable blackbird who swooped in as silently as a stealth fighter plane and with that distinctive raising of the tail to slow him down on landing just like the flaps on the wings of an aeroplane he hopped into the tilled soil and gave a celebratory cheap. “Hello there” I said and then looked around to make sure there were no neighbours around who might think I had lost my senses “have you got any ideas?” The bird cocked its head as though in recognition, blinked its banana yellow eye and then turned its gleaming coal black body away from me and started to assist in the job of turning over the soil. Within seconds he had a worm that he swallowed effortlessly and then almost immediately a second which he dispatched with equal speed and relish. He is quite unafraid of me and was happy to continue to help and to get really close to where I was working so that he could be sure to spot the little garden delicacies as they were exposed by the work of the spade.

And like a Billy No Mates I continued to chat away to him:

Are you building a nest in the garden this year? No response just another cock of the head to one side and then carry on scavenging, obviously giving nothing away about this year’s domestic arrangements.
Did you know that in old English the Blackbird was called the Ousel, and that sometimes in Scotland it is called le Merle, as it is in France?” Not a flicker of interest in this interesting little fact.
“And do you know that the Blackbird is the national bird of Sweden?”

The bird wasn’t overwhelmed by this piece of information either but it is an interesting fact about the Blackbird that it is indeed the national bird of Sweden and although many World countries have national birds this is the only one, apart from the English Robin, that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden. Many countries, especially those in the tropics, prefer their national bird to be a colourful specimen like parrots, the French have the Cockerel and the United States has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful. The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by both Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

Soon my gardening companion was either sufficiently fed or bored by my conversation and he was gone.

Edging the lawn was a hopeless failure so I downed tools and went to the garden centre to seek a solution. I bought some of that plastic lawn edging, which I find is generally pretty useless and gets splintered up by the mower the first time you get near it but as it was only £1 for nine metres it wasn’t as though I was risking a huge financial investment. At the same time I bought some grass seed to try and repair the bare patches.

The green plastic edging went into place surprisingly easily but it was definitely not straight, but at least I now had something to work with and I built up the damaged edge of the lawn and when I was satisfied with that I opened the box of seed and began to sow. I had barely started when I heard the distinctive “whoaa, whoaa, whoaa” of a Collared Dove as it landed close to me and examined the seed that was going down. I hadn’t thought of that, that the birds may not be able to distinguish between the food I put out for them to eat and that which I put in the garden and would rather like them to leave alone.

The story of the Collared Dove is interesting. When I was a boy there were no collared doves and they certainly didn’t get a page in my dad’s book of British birds but now there are hundreds of the buggers. Actually the Collared Dove only arrived in the United Kindom one year before me when in 1953 it was spotted for the first time in Norfolk. After that the spread of Collared Doves across the United Kingdom has been very rapid. From the first breeding report two years later the species was subsequently reported breeding in Kent and Lincolnshire in 1957, with birds also seen as far north as Scotland. Two years later Ireland was colonised and by 1970 there may have been as many as twenty-five thousand pairs in Britain and Ireland and between 1972 and 1976 the population increased five fold. The Collared Dove, it turns out, is one of the great colonisers of the avian world. After it was introduced into the Bahamas in the 1970s it managed to spread to Florida in the United States by 1982. Its stronghold in North America is still the Gulf Coast, but it is now found as far south as Veracruz, as far west as California, and as far north as British Columbia and the Great Lakes.

I’ve grown to like the Collared Dove and it is one of the most reliable visitors to the garden but I don’t generally engage in conversation with them in the same way as the Blackbird. Two or three pairs live close by and just last week I caught a couple of them having a wing trembler on top of the garden fence so I expect there will be even more of them by the Summer. Anyway this one couldn’t believe his luck when he saw the seed being scattered all over the place and he didn’t even have the good manners to wait until I had gone into the house before he started filling his beak with my new all purpose grass seed. It’s entirely my own fault I suppose and I really can’t complain because I do enjoy the company of the birds in the garden so I just put down a bit extra in the hope that some of it at least might get missed and start to grow before being consumed.

I’m not very optimistic however because since then the Collared Dove and all of his mates have been back regularly to finish it off and I suppose I will have to give up on seed and buy a couple of turfs and do a bit of patching instead but that will be a job for the Easter weekend.

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