Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Feathered friends

A jackdaw keeps a beady eye on what’s occurring down below
I always thought I was an autumn/winter person. Solitary by nature, it seemed appropriate that I’d gravitate toward a time of year that hardly anyone else appeared glad to see arrive – and it’s true that I feel much more at home in the cooler months. But...these last few days, it's like I've been mainlining spring; within moments of stepping outside, the heart is thumping, spine tingling, and all the while I’m breathing so deeply I wonder if I’ve grown a third lung. Must be the sap rising in me. That can happen when you hang around plants too much.

The spring equinox is now past, and although the clocks won’t change until the weekend, already the longer days make a big difference to how a gardener feels – there’s so much more time to get things done, and you can even get in a quick stint in the garden or greenhouse before work. I wonder if it might be the activity of the birds that makes the most difference in the March landscape, although perhaps this is easy to miss as we rush about our daily business. But the outside world has become a much noisier place over the past few weeks – it’s a racket, albeit an invigorating one. The garden is full of jackdaws plundering the still untidied borders for nesting material, while our resident pairs of collared doves flap about, cooing rather stupidly with a renewed sense of urgency. Sparrows commute every few moments between the pyracantha hedge in the courtyard and the gaps under the eaves, and the hedgerows are packed with blue tits, their bobbing flight keeping pace with you until they lift themselves above the top of the hedge to perch on the branch of an oak tree, a comfortable vantage from which to trill a sound scolding in your general direction.

We have wood pigeons too. Just daring us to plant brassicas
Robins have been keeping me company all through the winter, shadowing my tickling fork and gratefully extracting earthworms of unlikely length from the worked soil. But now, having kept a low profile over the winter, muttering away to themselves in a hedge, the blackbird is starting to become my regular garden companion. I have missed his song, and his bright, black, gold-ringed eye, glimpsed in the corner of my peripheral vision as I furtle about in the beds. Mrs Blackbird too, growing ever more confident until she becomes quite tame, sticking close by while the gang of much larger jackdaws have taken flight, cawing, to their perches on the chimney pots. I’ve not seen a thrush in the garden for years, though I live in hope.

Mrs Blackbird, gathering nest material

There’s a competition running at the moment to decide Britain’s national bird. You can vote at www.votenationalbird.com/ for your preferred option from the shortlist of ten – the robin (odds-on favourite) is joined by the blackbird, hen harrier, swan, barn owl, red kite, puffin, kingfisher, blue tit and wren. Some impressive contenders – I’m unlike to forget the red kite that hung in the air over above my head as I worked a few weeks ago  – but I can’t help feeling that winner should be more ubiquitous than necessarily handsome. Mercifully the feral pigeon, which would surely be returned as the result under this criteria, is not on the list. I think I’d go with the blackbird, but don’t let me sway you. I will say this, however: the puffin’s never going to get it, let’s face it. It’s a wonderful bird with a fascinating song, but who wants their country to be represented by a creature that looks like Dustin Hoffman in a dressing gown?

Sadly, the sparrow didn’t make it through to this stage. I keep hearing that the sparrow population in the UK is in terminal decline. I think they’re all in my garden.

A fluffy-looking female house sparrow – a bit too early for a fledgling

The male sparrow, having a peck at the flowers on Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'