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Our Friends, The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock, director of that classic movie, The Birds, had what I'd call an ambivalent relationship with our feathered friends. On one hand he obviously had great respect for these creatures, whose roots go back to the dinosaur era. He observed them and their habits, and created a movie with them as the real stars, willingly terrorising humans. On the other hand, he was just another Hollywood director, using them as props on another blockbuster. Whatever way you see them though, they are everywhere, and the pandemic, with its subsequent confinement of human beings has seen birds come to the forefront of the natural world, and we in our locked-down state have had a chance to observe them closer. As something of a bird appreciator, I thought I'd share some musings...

They're All Around Us

In the pre-pandemic "old days", as lovers of all things in the Natural World we've striven hard to encourage the presence of birds of all shapes, sizes and varieties in our little Yorkshire garden. As the front patch is really too small for anything useful we decided to put in a bird feeder or 2, and give the feathered friends some help over the Winter and into Spring. I put in a rather nice tall pole and added a couple of brackets to hold the feeders. We had our first visitors a few days after that.

Initially we started off with the usual feeder stuff - sunflower, nyger and other non-specific seeds, and moved onto peanuts and suet balls as Winter approached. We were vigilant and kept everything topped up, which, curiously didn't seem to take long as the feeders were staying mainly full. There was very little take-up of our culinary offerings: but why? A search of the Internet revealed that not only could birds be selective about what they ate in different seasons, but different breeds of birds had selective diets too. Realising that this situation had the potential to see a whole row of bird feeders potentially installed, each with different food (like a Pizza Hut salad bar), we decided that enough was enough and we'd have to find a food that everyone liked! More research and we came up with .. mealworms.

Now it's obviously not practical to hold down a day job and cultivate fresh mealworms, so we looked to see if anyone local sold them in dried form. Of course they did, and at a price. We bought a 250g bag of dried mealworms from a local Wilko and filled up the bird feeder when we got home. We didn't have to wait long before we heard a tremendous din outside: we rushed to the window to see a small flock of starlings fighting over the latest tasty treat - so much so in fact that they emptied the feeder in under half an hour! Well now, that was a success - and we patted ourselves on the back that we'd finally "come up with the goods". Of course, we were so naiive in the early days: "rod" and "back" were 2 words that came to mind, and it dawned on us that we'd now committed ourselves to feeding the birds on a (very) regular basis, although sadly not at "tuppence a bag". It was actually rather exciting though, seeing the flock arriving on a regular basis, and the "pecking order" soon became very apparent. There was some clue to the hierarchical nature of the flock as well.

Feeding the Five Thousand

In "The Birds", certain species had defined roles, such as communicating, and attacking. In our case, if the feeder was empty in the morning (it usually was), we'd see an exaggerated flapping session as some of the bigger birds unsubtly hinted that we might want to get their breakfast ready? Then they'd vanish while I filled and replaced the feeder with more worms from our rapidly-diminishing stock. A few minutes later, a blackbird would start relaying the news that breakfast was served, always using a consistent bird call. As soon as this had stopped, the starlings - always the starlings - would descend en masse and start to squabble over access to the feed holes. Usually, they'd empty most of the feeder before flying off and getting on with the rest of the day, leaving what was left to smaller birds. They'd also usefully scatter a number of worms on the ground, and although there are some species that prefer to eat that way, the large number of cats in the area soon made that a no-hoper. Eventually, smaller hedge/hole-dwelling creatures would come and mop these up during the night, so hopefully everyone was happy.

Please Stop Pushing At The Back!

Of course, as time went on and our reputation amongst the local bird population as good, regular providers grew, the situation started to get a bit out of hand. We had so many starling fights at the feeder we decided to buy another, so that more guests could feed at once. That worked well for a while until we found our worm stocks diminishing at an alarming rate. One Autumn we bit the bullet and ordered a bulk bag of dried mealworms from a seller on eBay. Okay, so it cost around 40GBP but it would, and did, last us all through the Autumn, Winter and into Spring. It also saved us money by not buying small bags. That was good for everyone and meant that we didn't have to buy mealworms every time we went into town. However, as with all things that initiate expansion and then subsequently grow to fill the extra space(+1), we still had a problem.

By now, the word had got around the local (bird) community and we were starting to see other species of birds visiting. Not the twee, brightly-coloured darlings that you see in the ads, but honking great pigeons which were invariably the size of small cantaloupes, but with wings. They'd normally try landing on the feeders in a manner that resembles a 747 trying to land in a crosswind. After a few months they finally figured out that if they waited in the birch tree just opposite the feeders they could take their turn once the starling mob had finished dining. At least that was the theory, but when it was cold and food was generally in short supply, we'd see the corpulent couple actually knocked out of the tree by the magpies who also wanted to join in. Terrible! The magpies would then get attacked by the many jays and crows in the area that didn't want to actually feed, but just to get rid of the magpies... And if that wasn't enough, many of the smaller (sparrow size) birds were being excluded altogether. At the same time, the pigeons had a last-ditch attempt at getting some food by landing in the conifer on the other side of the feeders. But no, their weight was too much for the thin conifer branches and they left empty handed bellied. Time for a rethink.

A More Scientific Approach

By now, it was very obvious that we humans were missing out on the delightful smaller birds - yes, even that master of the split personality, the Robin Redbreast. If only there was a way that we could confine the larger birds to one feeder and have another just for the smaller ones... And you know, there was! Someone in the US had had the same problem and designed a feeder with spring-loaded perches that would close the feeding aperture if a large, heavy bird landed on them. Smaller ones would be fine. Money changed hands and the new feeder duly arrived and was installed. Great! For a day, the usual starling mob tried, and failed to get to the worms held therein. We even had a few finches come and visit and actually get something to eat; success!! And then it happened. We woke up to a nearly-full feeder and went about our day jobs. By 4pm, the feeder was nearly empty! What?! Unless the entire sparrow population in the area had all visited at once we were at a loss to know what had happened.

That evening we watched from behind net curtains and were amazed to see a small group of adult starlings (too heavy for the new feeder) waiting in the birch tree while young, lightweight starlings sat on the spring-loaded perches and flicked all the worms onto the ground from where the adults greedily pecked them up. The youngsters got their share of course, so once again, everyone was happy. Yes, I guess even us, as we marvelled at the intelligence of these creatures. Nice try, and fun while it lasted...

A Close Encounter In't Back Garden

Not all the excitement is to be had in the front garden: this time it was the leafy back garden that provided the entertainment. The thing about the back garden is that although it's very sheltered, and leafy, we hardly ever seem to get any birds there. We can't really say why this is happening but we surmise that it's the roaming feline hordes that scupper this. Nevertheless we do occasionally get some bird action there, the last episode involving our cat, a fledgling and the Missus. Needless to say it didn't end well and to be honest, we think that word got around the neighbourhood that "young birds that visit there don't come back". So imagine my surprise the other day when the Missus called up and asked "If I was busy...". Well, yes, but hey, and I nipped downstairs to see her there with stepladders: invariably a bad sign.

The back story here is that for the past few weeks, we've observed a couple of smaller birds setting up a relationship in the tree at the back. The male does his usual territory statement in the morning, then settles down to expressing his love in the afternoon. In the early evening we've observed this couple setting up home in the wall just under the eaves, via an old overflow pipe. Marvellous! Anyway, they've managed to raise at least one chick and somehow, somehow this tiny creature (imagine a feathered grape) somehow appeared in our kitchen extractor fan housing! Well, this obviously caused consternation all round, and despite memories of the previous encounter we resolved to get this chick out and hopefully back to Mum. Every now and then it would hide, then come fluttering up to the fan grille. Still no idea how it got in there, but the only way it was coming out was if we took the grille off.

All well and good, but despite the screw covers coming off easily for a change, the screw heads were inside the housing. Brilliant! So I grabbed the garden secateurs and nibbled a couple of vanes out, leaving a hole big enough for the little fella to fly out of. That was the intention, but the reality was different: despite the hole being plenty big enough he just cowered there in fear, even when we stood back. Not wanting to handle him I decided the only course of action was to force him out, and this meant switching the fan on! This wasn't as bad as it sounds as the fan impeller was protected. After a few moments, out he came and made a hurried break for the safety of the hedge. At this point we withdrew, and a couple of hours later both the chick and parents seemed to have calmed down and presumably returned to safety. A very exciting episode all in all, but not one we'd care to repeat. I sealed up the fan temporarily with that great fix-all Duck Tape. Hopefully I won't need to use it again.


And now of course we're well into Summer. Surprisingly we're still feeding the birds but will be winding down as of this weekend. We love to see our feathered friends, but we don't want to create a culture of dependency. One of the benefits of having a lockdown has been the noticeable decrease in pollution, and a subsequent increase in insect populations. Not the same as we had decades ago but a noticeable increase nonetheless. The birds should now be feeding on these, but we'll be there to step in and help if needed. Even the pigeons are looking a lot more sleek and shiny this year, so our efforts in feeding them has also paid off. We love "our" birds, and the more we see of them the more we can hopefully better understand them. And now of course it's time to refill the feeders!

Thanks for reading, and if you decide to start feeding birds you will hopefully have found this helpful, or at least be aware if you're going to be feeding birds you'll need deep pockets!


The Birds at IMDB.com
"Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag"
The Birds: The Crows Attack
Dinosaurs shrank and became birds
Maltbys sell dried mealworms by mail order

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Last Modified Tue, 30 Nov 2021 15:35:05 GMT