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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Bird is the word

Posted on November 26 2011 at 2:48:51 0 comments

The heron

Mary Green introduces some of our feathered friends.

We are having a mild November as I write this, so let’s hope we have a gentler winter this year for the benefit of those who have to get out and about and keep warm at home.

The tree colour lasted well into November, with a particularly good show from the wild service trees, standing out in an apricot-red colour. They set berries well this year, like everything else. I ate some of these – they used to be called “chequers” – in November when they were well “bletted” (almost rotting), and they were delicious.

I promised earlier in the year to write a little more about birds. This time I’ll look at some of our non-garden birds – some of the big ones! The lives of all have been very much influenced by human activity.

Probably the best place here to see birds in the winter is along the canal, or by rivers and reservoirs. Almost every day I have been out recently I have seen the heron standing on the towpath, or in a field, or even on a canal boat. He is very unafraid and won’t fly off till you get quite near.

This is one of the birds we talk of with the definite article – “the” heron – because, I guess, it is a bit special. (We never say “I saw the duck!”) Yet it is very common – our commonest large predatory bird, nearly as big as a golden eagle – and very recognisable. They have often been referred to as standing like priests in black and white, serious looking, and in flight they look almost prehistoric.

There are a dozen or so round here; elsewhere in wetland areas you may find “heronries” of scores of birds. Some of these sites have been used continuously for centuries. The birds commonly make huge nests in tall trees, but can also manage on the ground. They are very communal at nesting time – which is a good reason not to put out a plastic or stone heron to keep them out of your garden! They are very gregarious birds.

Herons have a chequered history. For many centuries they were eaten and considered an important part of a banquet. They were also the prey of choice for the sport of falconry, probably because they were so big they offered a challenge to the falcon. Since falconry was an upper-class sport, heronries were protected for many centuries and the species thrived.

Herons live mostly on fish, which they catch very expertly. This led to all sorts of myths about using bits of heron as bait when fishing, because people thought they must have some kind of special attraction for fish (they don’t!). Unfortunately, when fishing as a sport became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, it led to people killing herons, and a population decline. Since they became protected, they have been on the rise again.

People with garden ponds don’t like them, of course, because they eat goldfish. They will take young birds, especially mallard ducklings and moorhen chicks, and love eating water-voles. So they are a bit of a villain as well as a much-loved beautiful water bird.

Swans, Canada geese, mallards, black-headed gulls and moorhens are also common on our inland waters. If you want to see a wider variety you need to go to a wetland area, the nearest to us being at Upton Warren, with even better ones near coasts.

The best times are autumn and spring. In autumn, huge flocks of water birds migrate and settle temporarily; in spring new migrants arrive and many breed in England. Even on our canal I have seen strange geese – barnacle and greylag – and some unusual ducks. These probably come from non-wild collections in the area, and some are cross-breeds with farmyard ducks and geese.

Even our ordinary Canada geese are interesting. They don’t migrate and often stay put in an area all their lives, but they do move about in big flocks. We have lots grazing and swimming here, then they can disappear for weeks or months. In early autumn I spent a pleasant evening sitting outside a canalside pub watching them wheeling and honking in big skeins, almost as if they had a migratory instinct but nowhere to go.

Ducks and geese live very communally, though the males fight in the mating season. You sometimes see mallard ducks or female Canada geese looking after lots of ducklings or goslings – not just their own – in a sort of bird crèche. And in very cold weather they band together and keep a patch of water ice-free.

I recently visited the RSPB reserve at Saltholm on Teesside. This is an extraordinary place, in the middle of the petro-chemical industry but with a huge variety of water-birds on former salt-producing marshes. We saw flocks of greylags and barnacle geese, golden and grey plovers, bar-tailed godwits, white egrets, whooper swans and many kinds of ducks. There was even a rare glossy ibis there, though I didn’t see it – couldn’t get near it for the twitchers!

If you walk up from the canal into the fields, you will probably see pheasants. They are another really easily-recognised species, and part of what we think of as the English scene. Yet they are really an Asian species. They were first brought over by the Romans and then again in the middle ages from France. They were always a food species, and gradually became the number one bird shot for sport. Most of them are bred and reared by people rather than in the wild.

This had a big influence on landscape and other wildlife. Part of it was beneficial. With the decline in traditional use of timber, many woodlands which would have been neglected continued to be well-managed to provide cover for pheasants.  This maintained a good environment for other plants, animals and birds.

Even today, we can see this locally. Shortwood, between Alvechurch and Tardebigge, is managed for shooting. This means the trees are thinned and used, sold locally for firewood, a good sustainable fuel, and the woodland thrives.

Rough land that wasn’t suitable for crops was also made use of for pheasant shooting. In more recent times, special fields or field margins of high-seed-bearing plants have softened the edges of intensive arable farming, again to the benefit of other insects and birds.

Unfortunately there was a down-side. At one time birds of prey such as kites and peregrines were destroyed lest they kill young pheasants. Even song-birds were cleared because they competed for pheasants’ feed. This is not allowed now, though it still accounts for a lot of wildlife crimes.

There’s no doubt the pheasant is a beautiful, striking bird which looks particularly good in autumn among the reds and bronzes, and lives well in our climate. It’s only people who’ve made it a threat to other species.

Other game birds have had even greater impact on wildlife, though not round here. The moors and fells of northern England and the mountains of Scotland are as they are partly due to the pursuit of the grouse. Again, grouse moors are beautiful environments with heather and other acid-loving plants, but the land is deliberately impoverished and lacks biodiversity. Forests were felled and small farmers driven out to create grouse moors.

My next bird you know by sound – the cuckoo. It is a summer visitor that breeds here. I used to hear it here in Withybed every year, but rarely now. I hear it all day and night when I visit Scotland in May. Everyone knows that the cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of particular birds. It even adapts its egg colour to be similar to theirs.

These birds – mostly reed warblers and meadow pipits – have been driven out of large parts of England by intensive farming and drainage. However, this may not be the main or only reason for cuckoo decline. There is some evidence that cuckoos can adapt to the nests of other birds such as hedge sparrows.

The other reason is a particular foodstuff that cuckoos like – the larvae of certain moths such as the tiger moth and ermine moth. These are the well-known “woolly bear” caterpillars, which again I remember from my youth, but it’s ages since I saw a tiger moth in my garden. In Scotland, though, and the west of Wales, on recent walks I saw woolly bears all over the paths. So this may be a cause. It may also be climate change – the gradual warming has allowed cuckoos to have a more northern settling pattern.

Whatever the reasons, we have been instrumental in them. So if you want to be sure of hearing cuckoos, go to the Celtic fringes and find a place with trees and open grassland, or reed-beds, which hasn’t been intensively farmed. Or cross your fingers, because there may be a visit here one early morning in May next year.

If you are lucky enough to see a cuckoo – I did this year, being chased by other birds and calling loudly – it looks very much like a sparrowhawk. Perhaps it is disguised as a bird of prey for safety. Several centuries ago people hadn’t understood bird migration. They believed that the cuckoo metamorphosed into a sparrowhawk in the winter. In a similar way, the barnacle goose was thought to be bred annually from barnacles, those little shellfish.

All birds have folklore. The cuckoo was always the bird of adultery: men whose wives were unfaithful were called “cuckolds”, and were supposed to be mocked by the cuckoo call.

At this time of year, we are very aware of the folklore of other birds. The robin is the “king of the birds” and represents the spirit of life overcoming the dark of winter. In ancient Celtic mythology the robin killed the wren, representing the overcoming of its rival king, at the midwinter turn of the year. The “hunting of the wren” ritual was still enacted in living memory in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Because of this the robin became the Christmas symbol, now representing Christ the king. The wren legend was Christianised too. It says the wren betrayed the whereabouts of St Stephen at his martyrdom. The wren is therefore ritually “killed” on 26 December, St Stephen’s Day.

Another legend says that after the betrayal, the wren was cursed to be unable to fly above hedgerow level. Of course, the wren really does fly low and not up into trees, and the robin really is the most prominent bird of winter. The cuckoo is not so much an adulterer as a practitioner of forced adoption! So there is reason behind all the superstitions.

When you look at your Christmas cards, I wonder how much wildlife you will see. There will be snow scenes, of course, of an idealised England (probably not the wildlife-rich Tees mudflats surrounded by industry!). There will be the robin, the king of the birds, and possibly its rival the wren. There may be doves, the traditional symbol of peace.

There will be holly, the king of the trees for the season – another fire-king of winter like the robin – and ivy, the dark counterpart like the wren. Christmas trees, though Victorian in their present form, are a continuation of the old tradition of bringing evergreens like yew and holly in to decorate the house, showing life in the midst of darkness. Perhaps pictures of pheasants or the Christmas goose may remind us of how we have always eaten birds, and sometimes ironically preserved them because of this.

I hope everyone has a really happy Christmas, enjoying human company and wildlife. I have enjoyed writing these articles this year, and am always pleased to hear from people who enjoy reading them. Next year I will broaden out my scope to include some other aspects of country life as well as wildlife.

And look out for my walks in the new Village 2012 publication!

My poem is one I wrote recently, and seems suitable for the time of year.

In praise of grey

Sometimes, in the middle of vividness -
Sun on bluebell sea, orchid-purple silk -
I crave winter trees, taut and bare
Bristling my skyline like raised hair
Mist on the sea, foghorn-ghosted
The wild west wind bending the blackthorn
Or that quiet winter weather when
You feel the blood slowing in the twigs
Ragged sky over water, the surf
Sighing back from the grey shingle
The wild geese wheeling in huge flocks
Calling madly and forlorn, pointing
Their skeins to ice and Arctic skies
And anyway, today, grey is the colour
Of all my true loves’ hair


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