Sunday, 19 April 2009

Bird Watch - Rory McGrath & Bill Oddie

There is an enormous amount of activity in the garden at the moment and this is one of the times in the year when it is important to feed the birds because this is when feeding requirements are at their highest as the birds prepare for the breeding season. All of the regulars are here but there have been a lot more Chaffinch this year and the Dunnocks are back in force.

The Dunnock is a small bird that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself and is commonly mistaken for the sparrow. After a period of decline its numbers are increasing and the bird is now up to amber on the RSPB worry list. I was interested to see two Dunnocks flirting in the garden this weekend with lots of chasing each other about, wing flapping and tail flicking in a sort of courtship ritual. And that was exactly what it was because an interesting fact about the Dunnock is that it is really randy and turns out to be the swinger of all birds, quite fond of a bit of wife swapping. Females are polyandrous, breeding with two or more males at once and DNA testing has shown that chicks within broods often have different fathers. This sort of behaviour is quite rare and only found in about 2% of birds because the majority are monogamous, where one male and one female breed and stay together year after year.

Not being absolutely certain who the father of the chicks might be may also account for the fact that It is a common host of the cuckoo and whilst the eggs bear no resemblence to each other the cuckoo eggs are commonly accepted. I have read that this may be a recent thing because other birds have got better at spotting the cuckoo’s egg but I don’t think it can be so because Shakespeare refers to it in King Lear when the Fool (who was not nearly as daft as he looked) provides an interesting assessment of the betrayal of the King by his daughter Goneril with these lines:

“The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That had it’s head bit off by it’s young." [I, 4]

I have been keeping a sharp lookout for nests and was delighted last week to find two down in the secret garden. One belongs to the Blackbird’s who have now nested in this spot for three years running and last night when I checked there were two speckled blue eggs in the bottom. The parents take it in turns to guard the nest and watch the eggs and the male in particular spends long periods standing sentinel on top of the garden shed roof. The other nest is much smaller and I wasn’t certain what it was until yesterday when I saw a sparrow sitting perfectly still trying hard not to be seen. I can’t see inside but I am certain there must be eggs in there too. I am certain there are more Blackbirds in the laurel bush but it is so dense that I can’t see inside but I can hear activity whenever I am in the garden.

I have been reading a book by Rory McGrath who is a keen bird watcher, it is called ‘Great Bearded Tit’ and I recommend it for both information and for humour. The term birdwatching was introduced in 1901 while ‘bird’ was first used as a verb in 1918. The term birding was also used for the practice of fowling or hunting with firearms as in Shakespeare's ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor ‘, ‘She laments sir... her husband goes this morning a-birding’. The terms 'birding' and 'birdwatching' are today used interchangeably, although 'birding' is preferred by many since this includes listening for birds as well as spotting them.

The term 'twitcher', is sometimes misapplied as a description of a birder but is strictly for those spotterswho travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked off on a list. The aim of twitching is often to add species to the list and some birders engage in competition with one another to accumulate the longest species list. The act of the pursuit itself is referred to as a twitch or a chase and a rare bird that stays put long enough for people to see it is called twitchable or chaseable.

Lots of famous people like to watch birds and the list includes the American Presidents, Jimmy Carter, Araham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevet; Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba; the authors Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie, TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson (not absolutely sure about that one) and of course Bill Oddie. There was a time (before I became a bird watcher)when I would have chosen to boil my own head rather than watch Bill Oddie on the TV but now I can’t wait for the new season of Spring Watch even though he won’t be hosting this year.


I have just returned home from an afternoon of golf and I have great news. The Blackbird eggs have hatched and there are little baby birds in the bottom of the nest. They are not especially attractive I have to confess but I am so proud I just don’t care. If they live then they will be independent and leaving the nest in only three weeks and I think that is amazing. If the Sparrow eggs hatch and live they will be away from the nest in just one week but most astounding of all is the Swift, which is independent and can fly in less than a week after it has hatched.

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