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A monthly commentary on birds in and around The Farleighs.

 

I have lived in East Farleigh for more than thirty years. As well as witnessing the steep country-wide decline in bird life over that period, I've become closely involved in monitoring the changes and in finding ways to conserve what we still have.

 

And there are good things happening too, so I hope this contribution presents a mixture of what makes the study of birds so interesting, especially of those still seen around The Farleighs.

 

Ray Morris

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Seasonal changes for The Farleighs’ birds

Posted on 1st September, 2018

The warm moist weather we have been experiencing (enjoying?) since the heat wave finished can bring mixed blessings for our garden birds. Ground feeders like blackbirds and thrushes benefit from soft soil from which to extract worms. The soil is easier to probe and much sought-after insects aren’t buried too deep to avoid drying up in the heat.

 

 

Wild fruits such as blackberries and elderberries are swollen and ripe, and are an excellent, sugar-rich food to help migrant birds like blackcaps lay down layers of fat ready for a long migratory flight to the Mediterranean or Africa. And, even if they are staying here, if you look carefully at young starlings the brown faces of many are stained purple with juice, such is the fruits’ attraction. Hence, the multi-purpled-spotted car bonnets to be seen at this time of the year too - bad news for owners of white cars!

 

 

With its orchards and marshy coastline, Kent in general is a good stop-off place for birds from as far north as Greenland and the Arctic tundra on their southbound migration, so almost any species could turn up along the Medway valley.

 

Across the northern hemisphere the numbers of birds will be at their peak, as many of the summer visitors and their young are still here to add to the myriad offspring of our resident species. A very rough estimate of Britain’s blue tit numbers, for example, based on various long-term breeding and nesting surveys conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) suggests they peak at this time of year at an astounding 20 million birds. But half the adults and nearly two-thirds of the juveniles will not survive the winter to breed next year due, mainly, to starvation and disease. So now really is the time that you have the greatest chance of seeing unfamiliar birds!

 

Sadly it’s not necessarily all good news for garden birds; the warm, damp conditions are ideal for the spread of disease. So make sure feeding areas and containers are kept clear of old, rotting food and bird droppings. If possible, move the feeders around the garden to prevent parasites and bacteria building up in the soil beneath them. If you suspect you have a sick bird – it might appear lethargic and not fly away as you approach, or it may be fluffed up and have food stuck around its bill – stop feeding completely for a couple of weeks so the birds disperse. At this time of year there is plenty of natural food around so they won’t miss the free handout you are providing – even though you may miss the pleasure of seeing them in your garden.

 

It’s worth bearing in mind that while you may be picking blackberries in the hedgerows, or just taking a leisurely stroll to the local pub for Sunday lunch, some of these millions of birds may be overhead and easily visible. It could be a flock of swallows and house martins en route to South Africa, possibly followed by a hobby – a beautiful falcon that specialises in catching dragonflies, swallows and even swifts on the wing.

 

It’s worth bearing in mind that while you may be picking blackberries in the hedgerows, or just taking a leisurely stroll to the local pub for Sunday lunch, some of these millions of birds may be overhead and easily visible. It could be a flock of swallows and house martins en route to South Africa, possibly followed by a hobby – a beautiful falcon that specialises in catching dragonflies, swallows and even swifts on the wing.

 

 

And on a riverside stroll you might just see a common sandpiper skulking along the water’s edge topping up its reserves from the Medway mud before continuing its Arctic-to-Africa migration.

 

Some you see and some you don't.

Posted on 30th July, 2018

This is the time of year when some bird species can appear unexpectedly in gardens while others seem to disappear completely. Young birds have increased by large numbers, although only about a quarter will survive long enough to breed next spring. Many young leave the area in which they were hatched to find new and suitable habitat elsewhere, while both adults and young of migrant species start to head south for their wintering areas. So almost anything could turn up in The Farleighs.

 

Your garden could be home to gangs of juvenile starlings foraging for leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy longlegs) on the lawn. The starlings may be noisy and unruly, but they are good for your lawn as the leatherjackets eat the grass roots and damage it. Meanwhile gatherings of sparrows could be enjoying communal dustbaths in your parched vegetable plots. Native thrushes and finches abound in the countryside, while migrant warblers and wheatears from the north pass through, and can be seen in local fields and hedgerows. As small birds migrate at night, migrants are often seen resting and feeding up in the early mornings. Meanwhile, most adults of resident species are silent and hiding themselves away as they go through their annual moult. Replacing flight feathers means their flying is less effective, so they keep a low profile to avoid predators. For a short period too it makes them look a total mess, with feathers missing and others looking totally ragged, until their new plumage is complete. Feather replacement creates a huge energy demand so moulting birds exercise as little as possible to divert valuable food resources to feather production.

 

This moulting female blackcap needs lots of calories to grow her new

feathers - you can see them emerging from the waxy shaft at their base.

The gap created in her wing while a new feather grows will adversely affect

her flying capability.

 

Keep an eye on your local speckly brown young robins and blackbirds as they gradually change from (the not so) ‘ugly ducklings’ into ‘swans’. And dull brown young starlings are slowly morphing into the iridescent, sparkling birds that mass in winter murmurations.

 

 

While all this is going on, if you are lucky enough to have a tawny owl or a little owl breeding nearby, you may catch a glimpse of an immature youngster parked on a post to await its next feed. This is a good time of year to see owls because the young are often stationary and visible for long periods, while the adults are active in the early mornings and late afternoons hunting for, and supplying, additional food for them. Little owls are diurnal as well as nocturnal and it’s always a good idea to look out for them on fence posts, or atop old barns and farm buildings. Even in winter, they can be seen soaking up the warmth on a sunny day. Barn owls (the white ones) prefer to hunt around dawn and dusk and have regular circuits they fly around each day, so if you are lucky you may see them floating silently and butterfly-like along a grassy field margin or over tussocky grass. Another, less conspicuous, owl you may see - but most likely hear its brief "hoo-hoo" call - is the long-eared owl. The long 'ears' are actually for display purposes and aren't ears at all, but they add some 'aahhh' factor and make them look even more human. Their young are also out and about now, like this one ringed for conservation purposes at Conyer, near Sittingbourne, in July.

 

 

A word of warning though: if you come across a young owl seemingly abandoned, it won’t be! Adults will know where it is and be visiting to feed it, so best to leave it be. This is especially the case if it happens to be a tawny owl chick, as the parents can be very protective and will attack an intruder. A pioneering, but unwary, bird photographer famously lost an eye at a tawny owl’s nest!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue tits in the three occupied nestboxes we monitor in East Farleigh churchyard have had a struggle this year. Clutches of six or seven eggs were laid in each. The pair in the box by the lychgate successfully fledged the full clutch; each time I visited, the female was sitting tight on the nest while the male was close by aggressively intimidating me with his calls. Such an attentive male was almost certainly making sure his mate, and eventually their chicks, were well-provisioned with food. It was a different story at the other two boxes, where only two chicks survived in each. In both cases it is likely one of the pair was missing and the remaining bird was unable to find enough food for the whole brood.

 

The same species has also been up against it in my own garden – three nests were predated, probably by a weasel, great spotted woodpecker or magpie. Blackbirds and thrushes have also failed to fledge young so far, but I saw my first young robin today. Nesting in hedges and shrubbery, they are not only prone to predation but also human disturbance – albeit usually inadvertently.

 

With the impact of the Beast from the East, it seems at the moment that birds have had a tough time this year, with numbers of summer visitors like swifts also low. With luck, a benign summer and long autumn, along with a mild winter, will provide the wild food and overwintering conditions necessary to keep their populations up until next year.

 

Let’s hope Ted Hughes’ words about the return of our summer swifts continue to hold true:

 

‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ .....

... They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed   [for now.... my words]

 

from Swifts by Ted Hughes

 

However, my garden feeders are now attracting reasonable numbers of blue and great tit fledglings, with a sprinkling of young house sparrows, goldfinches and chaffinches too, so all is not lost. Given the lack of insects around now (even in the countryside) garden feeders are a lifeline for some small birds – and if you attract birds to your garden they will also tuck into the aphids and other pests on your flowers and vegetables. So it’s worth keeping the bird table clean and replenished.

 

And just as the last of our summer visitors – the swifts – arrive, the first cuckoos are starting to leave us for their African wintering grounds. One of the birds newly satellite-tagged by scientists this year left his summer patch in Thetford Forest on 14th May, and by 15th June was in the south of France, at one point flying 528 miles in just two days. Find out more about our tagged cuckoos here

 

Scientists are working hard to understand more about the migration routes and wintering areas of our fast declining summer visitors. Satellite tracking devices have been fitted to cuckoos for some years now, and even smaller species like swifts can have data-loggers fitted, which track the birds’ movements but each bird has to be retrapped (usually at its nest – they use the same one each year) and the data-logger removed in order to recover the data.

 

 

 

To find out how you can help swifts visit the Swift Conservation website - they are giving a talk at Scotney Castle on 19th July.

Village churches are now a popular choice for artificial nest sites - just a thought!

 

As some of our other summer visitors start to depart in July, the young of some of our resident species are also on the move as many disperse from the area where they were hatched to find new territories for themselves. This is nature’s way of helping to ensure the gene pool is stirred each year to avoid groups of birds becoming interbred. Two Farleigh gardens have already been pleasantly surprised by the arrival of dispersing youngsters, in this case a nuthatch. Nuthatches are scarce in east Kent, but relatively widespread in west Kent and elsewhere in the country up as far as Scotland, and one of only a few native species whose numbers are increasing.

 

These beautifully coloured birds specialise in a life in the trees – finding insects in the bark and using their strong pointed bills to hammer open hazel nuts that they have wedged into larger crevices. They are also the only birds in the UK that can walk, headfirst, down a tree-trunk thanks to their opposing pairs of toes on each foot. They are likely to be found breeding in areas where great-spotted woodpeckers live: the woodpeckers excavate a new nest hole each year, and the nuthatches frequently move in to the old one. However, a bit of DIY is often necessary to reduce the size of the entrance hole, which the new residents achieve by plastering mud around it.

 

The next best thing to having one in your own garden is to make yourself a cuppa, put your feet up and watch an hour of this beautiful bird here - enjoy!

 

 

 

 

“Look at the birds of the air"

Posted on 30th May, 2018

 ... they do not sow or reap ... and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matthew 6:25.

 

And for the next couple of months He will also do His best to ensure the newly-fledged birds you find on the ground are fed – apart from those a sparrowhawk may take to feed its own young!

 

It’s that time of year again when small birds are often found, apparently abandoned by their parents, and people have a natural urge to rescue them. But there is no need, as their parents will almost certainly find them when they arrive with food. The youngsters may not stay where they were left, but they don’t travel far and their contact calls are quickly located by their returning parent.

 

It is not usually hunger that kills baby birds but cars and, especially, cats, so only pick them up and move them to a safe place (preferably in a bush or tree) if they are in danger of either of these. If a fledgling is genuinely abandoned and starving – and this could be because its parents have been killed, it is sickly, or the parents simply can’t find enough food for such a large brood, a natural predator will take it – part of the natural order of things.

 

Five of the three nestboxes in East Farleigh churchyard have blue tits in them. It hasn’t been possible to count the eggs and chicks in all of them yet because the female in one has been sitting tight when I’ve inspected the boxes to check progress, but in the next two weeks the first youngsters will emerge and park themselves around the trees and gravestones. If they stay in the churchyard it won’t be cars they have to worry about: it could be the local moggie. If you have a cat, keeping it indoors early in the morning could save quite a few baby birds as they generally leave the nest at this time.

 

But our heavenly Father feeds natural predators too, and most of these produce their young to coincide with peak food availability, ie when there are plenty of young of other species about. Even the blue tits in their nestboxes are vulnerable, as these photos taken by my colleague Jac Turner-Moss (who is Assistant Warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory) illustrate only too well:

 

 

Jac had been monitoring the nest and knew that thirteen healthy chicks were growing steadily. But while he stood watching, this stoat took seven of them to feed its own young. Which prompts the question ‘If our heavenly Father is providing for the stoat in the same way he provides for the birds, are humans right to label stoats as vermin? Or crows and magpies?’ Answers on a postcard please (or use the comment box below).

 

Elsewhere, turtle doves have returned from Central Africa to breed in the area.

 

 

This beautiful dove (or pigeon – the names are interchangeable, depending on whether or not we humans like them) has declined by 91% since 1995. The stretch of Kent from Marden to Ashford has been declared a Turtle Dove Friendly Zone where farmers are being encouraged to leave weedy patches, or even provide additional seeds for them, in May and June. This will help them raise the maximum six young they are capable of producing to keep their numbers up. They only produce a clutch of two eggs, so they need three successful broods before they return to Africa. If you see one of these gentle doves or hear one purring, please let me know.

Visitors to the Medway valley

Posted on 27th April, 2018

Spring has finally arrived and the breeding season is under way. In mid-April, blue tits were already building nests in the five recently-erected nestboxes in East Farleigh churchyard – and I expect to find clutches of up to fourteen eggs when I check the nests at the start of May. At the same time, the great tits using the nest boxes in my garden were a little more advanced. When I checked them, the nests were complete, but looked empty. However, a probing finger revealed that each contained three cold eggs (half the full clutch of 6 – 8) buried deep in the animal-hair lining of the nest cup.

 

Male Great Tit feeding his mate as she incubates.

Note the animal hair lining of the nest - Blue Tits use feathers instead.

 

Virtually all small birds lay one egg a day, first thing in the morning after the shell has been added to the egg overnight as it descends the oviduct. The parents (usually, but not always, the female) only start incubating them when the clutch is complete. Great tits, however, have evolved the practice of concealing the eggs, out of sight of potential predators that might just happen upon the nest, until the last egg is laid and the female starts sitting on them. Watch this space for regular progress reports.

 

The explosive sound of a singing wren can be heard in just about every month of the year. But it is now finally getting down to mating, and raising young in a tiny domed nest in a crevice in a tree trunk, or tucked away in an untidy outbuilding. I’m currently watching one in an inaccessible corner of a girder under a tiny bridge. The male wren constructs several nests then, when he has attracted a mate, he allows her to choose the one she wants to breed in, and she furnishes her chosen nest with moss, feathers and lichen. Before you think “Ah, how sweet”, you need to know that while she is busy at the avian equivalent of Ikea, he is looking for another female to install in one of the other nests. Being so small, wrens are very vulnerable to long spells of freezing weather so having multiple mates and breeding attempts is an effective strategy for maintaining the species’ numbers.

 

Just when you need the rope!

 

If you happened to miss David Attenborough’s fascinating programme about eggs a few weeks ago it’s worth seeking it out on iPlayer.

 

A cuckoo was reported in the village on 11th April and has been heard almost daily since, and the explosive song of the blackcap (like a robin on steroids) is a daily feature in most gardens with a reasonable size tree. The swans on the river at East Farleigh almost certainly have eggs? Some village swan-watchers were concerned about one that often seems simply to be floating with its head tucked under a wing. Although many UK mute swans have been affected by avian flu this winter, there have been no signs in Kent’s swans, so it is unlikely to be ill. In this case it is probably a male who has little to do while his mate incubates the eggs. So he is just loafing: no comment needed ladies!

 

Another exciting visitor seen in the valley (perched on the pylon near Barnjet Priory on the other side of the river) is a peregrine falcon. Peregrines like nothing better than a plump pigeon, so they are now doing well in the South East where tall buildings and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of pigeons are to their liking. You can watch live video of the pair nesting on a specially constructed platform here. Norwich Cathedral Peregrines

 

Unfortunately these wonderful creatures are still relentlessly illegally persecuted, along with other birds of prey, in parts of northern England and Scotland where grouse are intensively reared for shooting for sport. So keep your eyes peeled for the fastest animal on earth, above us here in The Farleighs!

Does the early bird get the worm?

Posted on 24th March, 2018

Possibly. But as I wrote this for the Lifeline print version on 15th March, I’d just heard that the first chiffchaffs had arrived in Kent – as predicted in last month’s 'Feathers. Tiny, 7g scraps of flesh and feather that have flown from central Africa to make the most of our spring and summer. This one, that was ringed near Luddesdown, had a ‘pollen horn’!

 

This is the name given to the sticky accumulation of pollen and nectar above the bird’s bill. It gets this after repeatedly searching flowers for nectar to drink and any insects to eat. By analysing the pollen, scientists have identified nineteen different plants, dominated by eucalyptus, prunus and citrus, that the birds are relying on to fuel their migration journeys. With this information, conservation at their migration stopover sites can be helped by encouraging their favoured species of wild, and garden, plants

 

These birds are taking a gamble though, as we had a further two days of snow just a few days after they had arrived, when they would have been hard pressed to find the tiny insects they feed on, let alone a worm. But it must be worth their while as chiffchaff numbers have been increasing in recent years along with just a few other small birds – blackcaps and long-tailed tits included. But as the latter don’t winter in Africa or around the Mediterranean, it is likely that their numbers will have suffered in the recent weeks of freezing snow. Although you may have daffodils and crocuses already blossoming, warm weather is still some time away, during which all birds will struggle to find enough to eat in our food-impoverished countryside.

 

Sadly, as I’m writing this blog post, news has just emerged of a 30% drop in populations of farmland birds in France in the last ten years. Not entirely dissimilar to what has happened in the UK. As I’ve written before, enlightened farmers now plant special crops that are left through the winter specifically to support wildlife. Sunflowers often form part of, or even all, the crop. The large, oil-rich seeds are nutritious for both us and birds, and are a favourite of chaffinches and greenfinches in particular, two species that are declining in the UK. They also attract bramblings, close relatives of chaffinches that come here to avoid harsh Scandinavian winters.

 

This field of sunflowers in nearby Marden has attracted up to a thousand birds at a time this winter – a wonderful spectacle, especially when the local sparrowhawk skips over the hedge and they all take to the air in panic.

 

It would be an interesting activity for children (or older villagers enjoying an extended childhood) to select some sunflower seeds from their bird feeders and plant them up for the sunflower display this summer. As well as brightening up the village, the giant blooms would attract beneficial insects and the ripe seed heads could be left for the birds.

 

Meanwhile, especially as yet more snow and cold is forecast for Easter weekend, please keep your garden feeders topped-up while listening out for the first cuckoo. In recent years I have heard my first in East Farleigh round about April 17th. At the moment, cuckoos being satellite-tracked by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) are just preparing to cross the Sahara, so they still have a lot of flying to do! You can follow their progress here:

 https://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bird for All Seasons?

Posted on 25th February, 2018

East Farleigh has links with Sir Thomas More’s family – More was Henry VIII’s Chancellor and the subject of the film ‘A Man for All Seasons’ - and March is the month when we can hear ‘Birds for All Seasons’, as well as single-season visitors, around his daughter’s former home at Gallants Manor in Gallants Lane.

 

Our resident birds, like blackbirds and great tits, are all noisily advertising their readiness to breed. Females are being invited to share the males’ territory and help raise his young.

 

 

But it’s not all one-sided: like humans, the female is looking beyond a flashy-sounding song. She is searching for signs of health (the bright yellows of the male blackbird is an indication he has a good immune system) and a territory with secure nest sites and plentiful food (how many safe nest holes and potential caterpillars are on offer for the female great tit?). Scientists think, for example, that the colour of the male blue tit’s crown indicates the quality of the territory he controls: blue tits’ vision extends into the ultra-violet range so females really can spot the difference.

 

 

At the same time, on your walk through the village orchards, you’ll hear noisy winter visitors like fieldfares (a larger relative of blackbirds and thrushes) still ‘chak-chaking’ among the remaining apples. They are fattening-up in preparation for their return flight to Scandinavia – running out of energy halfway across the North Sea will put an end to their chances of raising a family.

 

As they leave, our first summer songbirds begin to arrive. In fact, as I write this on the last weekend of February, swallows and house martins have already been recorded in southern Europe, so they are well on their way back from their winter quarters in South Africa.

 

 

 

One of the first birds to arrive in the village is usually the chiffchaff. Males will start returning before the end of the month to lay claim to the best territories and advertise the fact with their incessant “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff” song. They also need to feed voraciously on still-scarce insects to replace their reserves after the long flight from Africa. Like the blackbirds and great tits, they too need to look their best to impress the females who arrive a week or two later. 

 

But as I remarked in last month’s Farleigh Feathers, winter isn’t yet over; in the coming week we can expect really cold weather, with probably snow, blowing in from the north-east. This will restrict the early migrants to southern Europe for a while longer, but spells potential disaster for our small resident birds. They have just about exhausted the natural larder of seeds and insects, without which they will struggle to lay down enough fat to see them through the freezing nights. So they will depend more than ever on your garden feeders being kept topped-up with high calorie food (bread just won’t ‘cut the mustard’). If you run out of sunflower hearts or fatballs, a handful of porridge oats is always a good standby. They will also find unfrozen water difficult to come by; they need it just as much as we do, so keeping the birdbath free of ice could be a life-saver.

 

February: Not homeless, but in need of shelter

Posted on 28th January, 2018

In February, with the worst of winter possibly yet to come, birds are faced with a dual pressure. The first stirrings of mating behaviour are being felt; if you look at the male house sparrow’s bill it is turning black again as his testosterone starts to build up, and his black bib is getting more noticeable to help him attract a mate. By the end of the month tawny owls could already be sitting on eggs.

 

 

A second pressure is still the need for a sheltered roosting site to survive the long nights. So in a giant, industrial-scale glasshouse somewhere in Kent, where strawberries are grown all year round, hundreds of pied wagtails slip through the vents each night to roost together among the plants. That little bobbing, black and white bird hunting scarce insects in your garden during the day could just be one of them!

 

 Like the wagtails, many birds are still gathering in flocks to roost or find food, and are easily trapped. So it is a good opportunity to gather scientific data about their lives by collecting body measurements to gauge their health and fitness, and fitting a tiny ring with a unique number that will identify them as an individual if they are caught again, or found dead. They are then released unharmed. The pied wagtail in the picture was trapped at roost in the glasshouse, measured and ringed, then kept in a safe place overnight to be released at the greenhouses the next morning none the worse for his experience.

 

 

Enlightened arablle farmers ensure some stubble fields are left unploughed through the winter for the birds to forage in when natural resources are used up. As the populations of most of our farmland birds have declined, in some cases up to 90 per cent, in the last fifty years, some farmers are now paid extra to grow a special crop like sunflowers to leave as overwinter food for them.

 

One such farmer is Peter Hall in Marden, where huge numbers of birds are drawn to his fields for food. Flocks of more than five hundred chaffinches and bramblings (a winter visitor from Scandinavia) are common. Recent ringing sessions there, for example, have demonstrated the way in which many birds fly long distances to find food. A reed bunting trapped and ringed in West Sussex only a few days before, was recently re-trapped in Marden. This shows that bird populations will continue to decline unless there are resources for them across the landscape, not just on tiny pockets of land in a few scattered nature reserves.

 

 

So keep your eyes open on your next winter walk: who’s doing their bit for the birds around the Farleighs?

January: Looking well fed

Posted on 30th December, 2017

A winter paradox of garden birdwatching is the sight of robins and blackbirds eyeing the goodies on the bird table above them. At first sight they look as well fed as any Christmas card bird, but their rotund shape belies the the fact they are desperately trying to lay down sufficient fat to see them through the longest and coldest of winter nights. Their plumped-up feathers trap as much air as possible to insulate them during the day. But they will only survive the night by burning body fat to keep warm. A bird like a blue tit can lose up to half its bodyweight overnight just staying alive.

 

 

Their appearance may mimic portly, post-festivities humans, but to survive they still need well stocked birdtables - or berry-laden hedgerows, if there are any left un-flailed.

 

This year’s abundant garden crop of pyracantha berries has been just about stripped by the blackbirds, no doubt with the help of an occasional, locally-scarce, mistle thrush aided and abetted by wintering fieldfares and redwings. The next item on their standby list will be ivy berries. This much-maligned plant may need keeping in check, but cutting it back while it still has berries removes another lifeline for desperate birds. As one of the latest flowering plants it’s also a valuable source of nectar for late summer bees and insects, then of nourishing black berries for wintering birds.

 

 

I feed a variety a food to birds in my garden, but the one guaranteed to appeal to just about every species is my own mix of 500g of ‘value’ porridge oats with half a bar (125g) of lard stirred into it – just zap it the microwave for a few minutes first to melt the lard. It works out cheaper than most other quality bird food and is high in the important ingredient – fat.

 

Another essential for birds is access to water. Species that are mainly seed-eating can’t get sufficient dietary water from seeds alone, but all birds depend on maintaining their feathers in optimum condition to keep them warm. Even in freezing conditions bathing is part of their daily routine.

 

 

Part of the post-bathing ritual is preening the feathers; this ‘zips’ the feathers back together again. While the birds do it, they also apply a coating of oil to the feathers which they get by wiping their bill over their preen gland, a small organ in the skin on their rump. As well as helping to waterproof their plumage, the oils contains antibiotic chemicals to protect them against parasites such as feather mites. One scientific study found that male house sparrows with the largest preen glands were most successful in attracting mates, possibly because their plumage was in optimum condition, indicating they were healthier and stronger males. A seemingly insignificant activity, therefore, could have a significant life-changing impact.

 

So, as well as helping birds with additional food (in regularly cleaned feeders) to complement your untidy, but bird food-rich garden, remember to provide access to water.

 

December: Two Turtle Doves ....

Posted on 27th November, 2017

But only if you are very lucky. Nowadays, the second day of Christmas gift from the traditional song is highly unlikely to be given by anyone’s true love. Apart from the fact they spend their winters in sub-Saharan Africa, these beautiful doves have declined by 91% in the last twenty years. Their scientific name Streptopelia turtur comes from their gentle ‘turr-turr’ song. You may be lucky to hear one in the village in the summer, although I haven’t heard one here for two years now, but they can still be heard in Kent which is one of its last UK strongholds.

Click for an (almost) forgotten sound of summer

 

The area between Ashford and Marden has been designated a ‘turtle dove friendly zone’ where many farmers are catering for their special needs. They need weedy patches of bare ground, with tall, thick hedges for nesting - as explained on a recent BBC World At One broadcast  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05p32nk - something becoming increasingly hard to find in our intensively farmed and ‘tidied-up’ countryside. A delayed Christmas gift of seeing a turtle dove next summer would certainly be one worth waiting for!

 

A number of birds are included as gifts in the seasonal song, although no-one really knows for certain why. A plausible theory is that the original ‘numbers’ were chosen to represent religious symbols at a time when these were banned during The Commonwealth. The two turtle doves, for example, represent the two testaments of the bible, the six geese-a-laying is code for the six days of Creation, and so on.

 

 

The single partridge in a pear tree is the resurrected Christ lifted aloft – pear tree rhyming with ‘perdix’, the French for partridge. Sadly, the partridge in question is the Grey Partridge (known as the English partridge), yet another endangered species as a result of modern farming practices. The commoner Red-Legged (or French) Partridge is an introduced species ‘farmed‘ for shooting purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

A bird that is fortunately still very common is the wren – I doubt there is a garden anywhere in The Farleighs, or in any village from here to the northernmost outpost of the UK, that doesn’t shelter this tiny bird. You probably hear it more often than see it, as it tends to keep out of sight in a never-ending search for food, hence its scientific name Troglodytes troglodytes - the cave-dweller. It too has been the subject of a Boxing – or St Stephen’s - Day custom for centuries. No-one really knows the origin of ‘Hunting the Wren’: a pagan ritual to mark the winter solstice, or a Christian one to mark the apparent part the bird’s unusually loud song played in disclosing the hiding place of the Christian Stephen?  As a result, Stephen was allegedly stoned to death, a fate that used to befall the unfortunate wren captured as part of the ritual. Apparently the custom is still partly enacted in parts of Ireland and Wales, but with a token, not real, wren that is carried from house to house by children soliciting sweets!

The familiar Robin, of course, is probably the bird most associated with Christmas – being featured on countless Christmas cards, decorations and even a Waitrose TV advert! Many people refer to the one in their garden as ‘our‘ robin as it is there keeping them company throughout the year. But there is a strong chance that ‘our’ robin has moved to warmer parts of Europe for the winter, and its place taken by a Scandinavian bird enjoying the usually mild Farleighs weather! If we are lucky, robins (and wrens) will serenade us on our post-Christmas dinner walk around the village.

 

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to hear or see a turtle dove or grey partridge in the coming year – please let me know. It’s important for conservation bodies and landowners to know where these species are so that appropriate action can be taken to ‘bring them back from the brink’. Celebrating Christ’s birth would be so much more meaningful if, for the rest of the year, we took more care of the world He created. Happy Christmas.