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A warm bumbarrel

Posted on 17th March, 2020

My first day of Boris’ self-isolation diktat has been brightened by the discovery of a bumbarrel in the greenhouse. Before you reach for Google, bumbarrel is an old country name for the Long-tailed Tit – those tiny bundles of white, russet and pink feathers that arrive in your garden in family groups of a dozen or more. I soon cornered it and popped it in a bag for a few moments while I prepared to put a tiny, numbered ring on its leg. I weighed and measured it too before sending it on its way within minutes of catching it.


We ring the birds so that we learn how long they live (for this species, typically two years – but only if they are the one in four young that survives its first year), where they go (not very far) and many other aspects of their lives. The one I had in my hand weighed just 7.9g – a healthy weight and a little above average. This weight was soon explained when I blew gently on the bird’s tummy to part the feathers. A small patch of bare skin was starting to appear where tiny down feathers had fallen out. This, then, was a female bird preparing to lay eggs. The extra weight represented the additional nourishment needed to produce her own weight in eggs - six to nine of them - at a rate of one a day. So that explained why a pair of these Hedge Mumruffins (another old country name) had recently become regular visitors to the fat block on my garden feeder.


I may be lucky enough to find their exquisite nest – a tiny, barrel-shaped (hence the name) construction of moss and lichen, bound with spider silk and lined with up to a thousand feathers. There is no entrance – birds just part the sides as necessary. Many of the feathers are from the female’s breast – this not only lines the nest, but exposes her bare skin (which becomes distended with engorged blood-vessels near the surface) to form a brood patch. This allows direct contact of her skin on the eggs so she can maintain the optimum temperature for the chick to develop.


And, just like Boris is exhorting us to do in the present crisis, the extended family – last year’s young, siblings, uncles and aunts all pull together to help the parents feed and care for their brood. This behaviour is almost unique amongst birds – let’s hope it’s more common amongst us!


Here, in a shrub in my garden last year, are a family of recently fledged Bum Towels (another name) lined up in an orderly queue waiting for the family to feed them.


So as all of us are set to spend more time at home over the coming months, we can at least be sure of entertainment from bumbarrels and the many other birds busily reproducing in our gardens.


And if, safely cossetted behind the double-glazing we yearn for the outdoors and the countryside - why not turn to the poetry of John Clare, known in his time as The Peasant Poet? Here is his poem about the Feather Poke (yes - yet another one!).


                                                  Bumbarrel’s Nest                                                        

The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,

Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest

First with a shade of green though winter-dashed –

There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest

Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied

And warm and rich as feather-bed within,

With little hole on its contrary side

That pathway peepers may no knowledge win

Of what her little oval nest contains –

Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red

Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes

Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song

Of the old birds who call them to be fed

While down the hedge they hang and hide along.


John Clare




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