Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 11th December 2020

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Speugs were the first birds to attract my attention as a child.

They nested in numbers in the eaves of the house of my childhood and l remember the sadness I felt every time I discovered the naked corpses of chicks which had either fallen or been ejected from their nests.

Starlings also soon caught my eye. With their cocky, Chaplinesque, strutting gait and quarrelsome behaviour when visiting the bird-table they were a constant source of amusement. Yet starlings surely express the very embodiment of a Jekyll and Hyde nature. On the one hand, they are wholly undisciplined, argumentative and extremely individualistic when descending to the bird-table, but on the other hand, when taking flight they suddenly act as one, expressing astonishing discipline and conforming absolutely to the regimen demanded by the flock.

As a greater awareness dawned of the avian population just outside the window, bluetits, great tits, chaffinches and greenfinches began to enter my life. Then at last, my vision extended beyond the frontier and confines of our garden. Much more exciting were the encounters I now enjoyed with soaring, lung-bursting skylarks, hovering kestrels and most gloriously with athletically darting swallows and house martins. Now watching birds was assuming new dimensions and bird watching was rapidly beginning to become a vital part of my life.

I now observe that in some ways, things haven't changed and speugs are still a regular part of my life. However, there was a severe decline in the UK house sparrow population in both rural and urban areas between 1977 and 2008 estimated as being about 71 per cent.  But while the decline in England still continues, surveys indicate that the population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has increased. House sparrows finally established a small colony here several years ago and that has expanded.  Now, when I go about my morning chores, it is a rarity not to find myself accompanied by the characteristic, garrulous noise of arguing speugs.

Consequently, for many years my garden was utterly bereft of sparrows, except for the regular appearances of those erroneously named, somewhat skulking hedge sparrows, which are in truth not sparrows at all but dunnocks. If ever there was a bird that hid its light under a bushel, it surely is the dunnock. The very name is thought to mean “dun-coloured bird” Yet there is a shy charm about them and a sweet song to hear when spring comes round.

House sparrows, together with their now much rarer cousins, tree sparrows, are clearly seed-eating birds, possessed of blocky little beaks, while dunnocks or hedge sparrows have the fine beaks typical of insect eaters. However, as many observers will be aware these shy little birds, which always seem to be on the periphery of feeding flocks of birds, consume large quantities of small seeds during the winter months.

House sparrows, gregarious and appearing to be short neither on energy nor indeed on noisy banter are cheerful exploiters of man’s rubbish and wastefulness and have managed to colonise most of the world – the ultimate avian opportunist perhaps? Stone Age man doubtless also enjoyed the company of sparrows, just as any community of people anywhere in the modern age, rather than considering them to be commonplace and therefore somewhat banal, will generally find themselves unwittingly playing host to these attractive wee birds. Of course, they profit from our company and perhaps in many ways depend upon it.

In my youth, I remember noting that only the titmice were capable of clinging to the baskets or bags of peanuts placed in our garden. Now, through succeeding generations and through an evolutionary process that some of us have actually been able to witness, both sparrows and finches have gradually strengthened their feet sufficiently to enable them to cling to the nut feeders, albeit with nothing like the aplomb of the tits.

The arrival of the Yuletide month of December takes us inexorably closer to the shortest day yet, with the brief exception of those few days when snow clothed the bens, temperatures have remained fairly benign but very wet Thus, although sparrows, chaffinches and greenfinches are eagerly consuming seed, the titmice at present are largely ignoring my offers of food and I can only presume that they are finding natural sources.

Nor will there be a shortage of natural food for the goldfinches. However, in their case, my decision to keep the sunflower seed feeders stocked up has apparently persuaded them to stay around and their numbers are increasing by the day.  This, of course, is the thistle finch, the gowdspink, the las air-choille or flame of the wood of the Gaels, the seven-coloured linnet or even the spotted dick!

Goldfinches are notably more agile than other members of the finch clan. In stripping flower heads from the likes of thistles, they show themselves to be quite the acrobats as they cling to the plant stems to tease out the nutritious seeds.  Often hanging upside down and demonstrating that they are not that far behind the titmice in their nimbleness. Perhaps, one of the most colourful of our native birds, some might also argue that they are among the most musical. Their murmuring conversation as they fly is said to be reminiscent of Chinese bells, however, goldfinches are not singers of grand operatic arias. They are not blackbirds or thrushes, nor indeed are they Pavarotti’s or Domingo’s. Filling the air with their delightful trilling, more do they provide the operatic chorus, yet their voices are liquid, lilting and when listened to carefully, versatile and constant.

Once upon a time, goldfinches were much coveted for their colourful plumage and indeed, for their gentle colourful music too. Their fate was to be among the most favoured caged birds in an era during which our Victorian ancestors, while recognising the innate beauty of the goldfinch's plumage and voice, could not acknowledge the cruelty of catching and caging a wild bird for the rest of its life. Hundreds of thousands of goldfinches were captured and imprisoned in order that their physical beauty and their musical voices could entertain. Their captors even taught the wee birds to pull threads in order to draw up little buckets of water. Very entertaining, I'm sure, but also despicably pitiless.

Far more sympathetic was their portrayal in devotional paintings by many Italian and French artists, their colour and beauty, if not their voices, captured gloriously on canvas. In words as well, they have also had their moments of glory:

            “Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low-hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black and golden wings
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings."

                   John Keats.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods