Our Feathered Friends

3D front cover of Linnaeus by Theodor Magnus FriesThe weekend of 26-7 January was the weekend of the Great Garden Birdwatch in the UK. Organised by the wildlife charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, it is a survey which enables the RSPB to get an overview of bird populations across the country.  (Of course you don’t have to do it in a garden – parks, allotments etc. will also do.)

So, rising at the unfeasible hour (for a Sunday) of 8 a.m., I staggered down to my fully equipped ornithological hide, which consists of my comfy chair by the French windows, coffee and a croissant and binoculars at hand, Winterreise on the radio, all ready to do my bit for ecological research. I had already filled the bird feeders, and scattered ground bait in the form of a heel of home-made focaccia bread filled with (Italian readers look away here) pumpkin and sunflower seeds. (Well, we like it …)

I have been doing the Watch for several years now, and some sessions have been very frustrating: you are supposed to observe for one hour only, and it not infrequently happens that nothing shows up in the allotted period and then they all gather to mock at one minute past the deadline. This year, however, there was a good turnout of all the usual suspects, plus a squirrel. He and the robin liked the focaccia: the blackbirds might have done too, if they had been able to share instead of spending their time driving each other off it.

When you play the game of ‘jobs that didn’t exist twenty years ago’, the wild-bird food industry must figure quite large. When I was small, to eke out the breadcrumbs, there was ‘Swoop’ mixed grains (who remembers ‘Swoop’?), peanuts in the shell from the greengrocer, to be strung and hung up, and the occasional (supremely exotic) half-coconut. (The drilling of the holes to drain off (and then drink) the juice, followed by the thrill of hurling the nut repeatedly against a hard surface to break it up were at least as much fun as watching the bluetits hanging upside down on it later.)

These days, by contrast, there is a multi-million pound industry offering everything from nyger seeds for goldfinches to a new and gruesome-sounding amalgam of ground-up mealworms and various seeds, in pellet form, from one of the horticultural giants that has recently entered the business. I have just looked up nyger seed (or niger or nyjer or whatever), and discovered that it is Guizotia abyssinica, originally from the highlands of Ethiopia. It produces an edible oil, and is also grown in south India, where it features as a spice in chutneys. But in the west, it seems to be used exclusively for bird food, and a staggering tonnage is imported (after heat treatment to kill off any accidental admixture of Federal Noxious Weeds) to the USA and Europe (let’s hope at fair-trade prices – though one of the importers is, surreally, Switzerland), and increasingly it is being grown as a significant cash crop in Britain and the USA as our urge to feed the birds shows no sign of abating.

You may well ask why native British goldfinches go for a seed from highland Ethiopia, but it seems it closely resembles the thistle and teasel seeds which they would otherwise be laboriously picking from any (weed) seed heads they can still find at the edges of fields. Thus a bird which was rarely seen in British gardens has become one of the most common in some areas; meanwhile the ‘boring’ and omnivorous house sparrows and starlings have become rarities on the urban scene.

You may also ask when I’m going to start cunningly weaving must-read CLC books on the subject of bird-watching into this meander.  Well, obviously, Gilbert White, on whom I have written before. You can open his great work on any page and find something fascinating and/or enchanting.  For example: ‘The people of Hampshire and Sussex call the missel-bird the storm-cock, because it sings early in the spring in blowing showery weather; its song often commences with the year: with us it builds much in orchards.’ Mistle-thrushes, whose numbers appear to be declining, are a focus of the RSPB’s research this year. I don’t see them in my garden, but we do get then outside our office window (we are lucky enough to look out on the Press playing field), as well as redwings and fieldfares.

Where do some birds go in the winter?  ‘… a clergyman, of an inquisitive turn, assures me that, when he was a great boy, some workmen, in pulling down the battlements of a church tower early in the spring, found two or three swifts (hirundines apodes) [tr. footless swallows!] among the rubbish, which were, at first appearance, dead, but, on being carried toward the fire, revived. He told me that, out of his great care to preserve them, he put them in a paper bag, and hung them by the kitchen fire, where they were suffocated.’

Did White feed the birds? (He had a tame bat to which he fed insects and raw meat.) He notes the difficulties faced by birds in harsh winters: ‘… there is a total failure of that wild fruit [haws], so conducive to the support of many of the winged nation. For the same severe weather, late in the spring, which cut off all the produce of the more tender and curious trees, destroyed also that of the more hardy and common’. But I don’t believe his journals mention putting out scraps: any waste food would presumably have gone to the pigs or the chickens. He certainly has strong views about the depredations of birds among the crops and fruits on which the human population depended, and no compunction about shooting, trapping and snaring, for scientific purposes as well as to protect the crops.  It would be interesting to know when the habit of feeding wild birds became widespread: it was certainly established in the late Victorian period, when scattering crumbs for the birds became a commonplace of illustrations in childrens’ books and on Christmas cards.

But White would have definitely enjoyed doing the Garden Watch – as he boasts: ‘Selborne parish alone can and has exhibited at times more than half the birds that are ever seen in all Sweden; the former has produced more than one hundred and twenty species, the latter only two hundred and twenty-one. Let me add also that it has shown near half the species that were ever known in Great Britain.’ That’s you told, Mr Linnaeus!


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