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WATCHING BIRDS

I have to admit I still don’t like to use the term “birdwatcher” to describe myself.  I think it’s because of the connotations I’ve associated with it over the years. In my mind, birdwatchers are people who specifically go somewhere away to see birds. They have binoculars. They can get a bit obsessed with seeing the rare and unusual. They keep lists of what they see and when they see it.

Me? I like to watch what’s in the garden from the comfort of my house or settled on the patio with a cup of tea. I try to understand what’s happening from the point of view of bird behaviour and get the perfect photo in the split second a bird has paused. Woodpigeons entertain me as much  woodpeckers. It’s less “listing” and more “casual looking”.

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We have actually experienced a spate of summery weather this year, and the birds have been flocking to the garden in considerable numbers to grab a bite at one of three feeding stations set up around the house. There are the usual suspects: the robins, woodpigeons, blackbirds, and house sparrows. The birds whose names make teenagers snigger: blue tits, coal tits, long-tailed tits, great tits. Super-intelligent members of the corvid family: crows, jackdaws, jays, and magpies. And, every so often, a colourful goldfinch, green woodpecker, or greater spotted woodpecker will make an appearance. (Okay, maybe there’s a little listing).

With three feeding stations and a commitment to keeping them stocked year round, I go through a lot of fat balls and suet. I gave up on seed a while ago as it was just too messy; the larger crumbs are much easier for the birds to collect from the ground, and the badgers tend to hoover up whatever is left. I am also quite zen about what shows up at the feeders: I do not discriminate based on species and find the squirrels just as entertaining as the feathered contingent (and certainly far more acrobatic; you try grabbing a meal while hanging by your toes). However, the rapidly disappearing food means I can occasionally be found muttering about “little pigs”, “mini dinosaurs”, and  “piggy dino birds” under my breath as I restock the feeders… but in the most affectionate way possible.

In observing behaviour, it’s fascinating to see what they get up to. There is usually a clear pecking order: the little blue tits get out of the way of the marginally larger house sparrows, who in turn give way to the blackbirds. The robins tend to zoom in and out as and when they desire. The woodpigeons land like a jumbo jet among biplanes, completely dwarfing the others. However, their balance is such that they typically avoid the feeders and keep to the ground, cleaning up after the others. The jackdaws are incredibly skittish and fly away the moment they catch me watching from a window. However, they, and some of the other corvids, have worked out that it’s easier to peck at the fat balls until they crumble then gulp up the fallen pieces from the ground.

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During the recent run of very hot weather, I put out a few Tupperware containers of water to supplement what is available to drink in the pond. While not quite what I was intending, these have turned into popular bird baths. Their enthusiasm for a wash—and my desire to get the containers back—has encouraged me to order a proper one. A new garden feature has also been pressed into service by the birds (and the bees) as a drinking fountain, and an outdoor table has turned into a climbing frame and perch. I sometimes wonder whether the garden is just viewed as an avian playground.

Usually I would find the idea of giving names to wild birds laughable. How can you tell them apart? But that was until I met Cassidy. She is a blackbird that has absolutely no fear of humans. The other birds head for the bushes the moment I open the door. If I’m on the patio, birds will venture to the feeders, but they keep an eye on me while doing so. If I move quickly, or talk, or do something with the camera that they don’t approve of, they will be off.  Not Cassidy. Instead, she has taken  to hopping through the garden (hence the name) and will pass incredibly close to wherever I may be.

She also keeps a completely different schedule to her compatriots. Most of the birds feed around the same time (harder for predators to focus on just one), and are quite active the first few hours of the morning and last few hours of the evening. She doesn’t seem to mind being the only bird in the garden at midday but, from an evolutionary standpoint, I recognise that this is concerning behaviour. While fortune may favour the brave in the human world, in avian society it tends to be the quick-to-retreat who live to fly another day. It’s likely that she will meet an unfortunate end if she continues to rebel against the norm, but I am enjoying the privilege of watching her while it lasts.

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I think this gets to the heart of why people become birdwatchers or, in my case, watch birds. Getting incredibly close to a wild animal is a privilege, and birds allow you to do this anywhere, at almost any time, without the risk of teeth or claws. Or perhaps it’s simply the childhood love of dinosaurs transferring itself to their feathered descendants. Whatever the reason, I feel fortunate to share my garden with these lovely creatures, regardless of their appetite.

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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MissElaineous Blog: Escape & Explore & Discover & Enjoy