Dear Reader, the run-up to Christmas has been especially chaotic this year. My mother had a stroke a few months ago, so there have been lots of trips backwards and forwards to Dorset, where she lives. On every visit Mum looked better and stronger, and I was looking forward to Mum and Dad’s trip to to stay with me in London, where they would spend Christmas being pampered and stuffed full of food. Then, last week, she was back in hospital with a suspected heart attack. It looked as if Christmas would have to be cancelled. But, praise be, it turned out that Mum had not had a heart attack after all, so Christmas was back on again as planned. Well, as you can imagine all this has left me in something of a tizzy, and rather behind with my festive plans. Friday morning saw me fighting my way through the sharp-elbowed hordes on Oxford Street in my rush to catch up. By the time I got home, I knew that only one thing would calm my ‘monkey mind’, and that was to spend an hour sitting in the kitchen, just watching the birds through the window. I wanted to share them with you all, so that maybe you can have a few minutes of peace too.
How beautiful these creatures are, and how frantically they attack the bird feeders. December 21st is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the birds are desperate to pack in as much food as they can in order to survive another long, cold night.
This male Chaffinch has been hanging around the garden for a couple of weeks now. He looks plump, but is very sluggish, and a close look at his feet and legs shows that he has some kind of fungal infection. This has put me on red alert with regard to feeder hygiene, so I’m cleaning them regularly to try to prevent it being passed on to the other birds. So far it seems to have worked, as the rest look very spry. But I do feel sorry for him. He isn’t ill enough to let me catch him and see if a vet can help, but he clearly isn’t well.
The Goldfinches are around all day, and are looking very spruced up. I love the Byzantine black and white feathers on their wings, and their cherry-red faces. There can be up to a dozen in the garden at any time. They seem to coexist happily with the Chaffinches, without too many squawking matches. The same can’t be said for the Starlings, however.
At this time of year, I can see why these birds are called Starlings – their iridescent plumage looks like the Milky Way. Once upon a time, Starlings were migratory, but more and more stay put all year round now, especially in cities, where the temperatures are slightly higher and there is plenty of food around. They are easily the most argumentative creatures in the garden.
Once the Collared Dove appears, the finches retreat to a safe distance, but not for long – they will feed quite happily from the other side of the feeder. This particular bird is very dominant, and will chase away the other doves. He is only ‘trumped’ when a Woodpigeon arrives, and even then gives place reluctantly.
Then, there are the Tits.
They are so hard to photograph properly – they remind me of bees, here for a second and then off again. They will never hang around on the feeder to eat. With them, it’s all ‘grab and go’. This Blue Tit had snatched a seed, but then headed off into the hedge to eat it.
Now, this cheered me up a lot.
This is the first House Sparrow I’ve (partly) seen for quite a while, so it’s good to know that they’re still around. Only last week I was mourning the decrease in their numbers, but here, at least, there is still one, and probably more that I haven’t seen.
I noticed some other birds turning over the dead lilac leaves and rummaging amongst the shales.
The resident Blackbirds are the only pair in the garden, but it will be interesting to see how long they are alone for. In winter, Blackbirds become much more tolerant of other members of their species, and often birds appear from other parts of the country, and even mainland Europe. I once saw twenty-four blackbirds in the single acre of Culpeper Community Garden in Islington, and I’ve seen a dozen in my tiny garden when it’s snowing. But for the moment, these two are alone, and, having eaten every rowan berry and crab apple on my juvenile trees, are now down to foraging in the undergrowth. I’m hoping they make take a shine to the organic pomegranate that I’ve seeded and put on the bird table. Nothing but the best for my visitors!
I was very pleased to see this Dunnock as well. This shy, mouse-like little bird has the sex life of a Borgia, and I shall doubtless do a whole blog post about their shenanigans next year. Suffice it to say that in the spring everything goes bonkers. The male entices the female to copulate by showing her his armpit (something that rarely works in the human world). He undergoes a complete character transformation, sitting at the top of a tree and singing his rather underpowered song with all the gusto he can muster. The female, however, is something of a free spirit, and will mate with a whole variety of males if she can get away from her ‘husband’. There are excellent reasons for this behaviour, as there invariably are in nature, and as soon as I see the Dunnocks in the garden getting excited I shall sally forth with an explanation.
There are few birds more confiding than the Robin, and a walk through Coldfall Wood is often interrupted by the appearance of a strident little ball of orange energy erupting from the holly. They are around all year, but I seem to notice them more in winter, when their chief activity is finding food. A male and female Robin will often have territories that are next to one another in the winter. In the spring, they’ll merge their landholdings in order to provide enough food for their nestlings. In winter, it’s back to separate areas. Having access to a food source is as important for Robins as it is for all the other birds in the garden, and in a hard winter it can really impact on how many survive.
So, after my hour I felt relaxed and ready to jump back into the cooking, wrapping and card writing, with a fresh sense of perspective and a renewed lightness of heart. I wish the very same for all of you.