Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Crows of Coldfall Wood

Crows 9I have always loved crows. There is nothing delicate about them, nothing melodic or dainty. They are big rambunctious bruisers, adaptable and ready to feed on anything. Two crows are omnipresent outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken at the top of my road, and have brought up a whole brood on chips and the remains of Bargain Buckets. On Friday morning, a pair of crows were perched alongside the southbound platform at East Finchley station, eyeing up a dead rat between the tube lines and trying to decide how long it was until the next train.

Coldfall Wood has a large population of crows – I once counted thirty quartering the playing fields, stopping occasionally to hammer the frozen ground with their chisel-shaped beaks.

Gulls Crows Holly Coldfall Wood 013But on Monday, the woods were filled with sunshine, which gradually increased to a kind of crescendo that lifted my spirits.







As usual, I was walking with my camera, wondering what the story would be for this week’s blog. Because there is always a story, I just have to recognise it. Maybe it was the wren, picking his way through the coppiced wood?

Wildlife Photographer of the year?

Wildlife Photographer of the year?

And then my camera battery started flashing red, and I decided that I would give up and head home. I crossed the bridge over the Everglades winter pond, and something made me look through the trees to where the stream tumbles through and over the tree roots.

Crows 15Crows were gathering in the shallow pools. They seemed a little nervous. Then, one of the crows ducked her head under the water and started to bathe.

Crows 11The water flew up like a liquid fire-work, the sun catching the droplets as they cascaded down.

Crows 10The other crows picked through the debris for food, or waited patiently for their turn.

Crows 16 It seemed like a ritual, something that the birds did regularly for reasons that went beyond just keeping their plumage clean, and I felt as if I shouldn’t be seeing it. There are some things that are not ours to look at, and sometimes creatures just have to be left alone.

Crows 3The inequality of our relationship with other animals is clear – we use them more or less as we feel fit. But it is difficult to look into the bold stare of a crow and not recognise that there is ‘someone’ there. And where does it lead us, this recognition? If it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, a little guilty, inclined to put my camera away and leave the birds to complete their bath in peace, surely that’s no bad thing.

Crows 14
























Wednesday Weed – Snowberry

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)

I have spotted this shrub in several places in East Finchley – in Cherry Tree Wood, in the cemetery and here, in a lane that I discovered a few months ago.  At this time of year, its berries glow with such an intense white that they almost seem to be phosphorescent.

Snowberry 2This North American shrub was introduced into the UK in 1817, and it has an interesting history. It was often planted on grand estates to provide cover and food for grouse, pheasant and partridge and is described by Oliver Rackham as a ‘gamekeeper’s plant’. Other birds, such as blackbirds, will eat the berries if nothing else is available. In its native North America, however, the fruit is eaten by bears, bighorn sheep and white-tailed deer, and pocket gophers dig their burrows underneath it.

A pocket gopher (Yellowstone National Park; Gillian Bowser; 1990)

A pocket gopher (Yellowstone National Park; Gillian Bowser; 1990)

Snowberries are toxic, but their extreme whiteness (which has led to the alternative name ‘corpseberry’) seems to put people off from tasting them. Indeed, in some Native American traditions, the berries are the preferred food of the dead. However, it has also been widely used by many peoples of North America, as a medicine for humans and horses. The wood of the Snowberry was believed by the Nez Perce tribe to protect infants from ghosts if woven into their cradles. Thompson Indian babies were washed with a soap made from Snowberry, and people of the Makah tribe believed that it would deflect witchcraft if the leaves were chewed and swallowed. There is a rich folklore attached to this plant in its native land, demonstrating yet again that even plants which we disdain as poisonous may be used if (and only if) the people working with them have a deep understanding of their chemical properties.

The plant reproduces via its berries (the seeds being spread by birds and other animals), and also via suckering, so it spreads easily, and I’m sure that the plant in these photos had crept under the fence from the neighbouring gardens.

Snowberry 5The berries have a very hard coating, which means they can lay dormant for up to ten years, just waiting for the time to be right to germinate. Apparently, they make a satisfyingly loud crack when stamped upon, and the seeds inside look like snow. I might experiment with this if I can find a quiet corner and an unloved single snowberry to test.

In Shropshire,  the plant is known by the delightful name ‘Lardy Balls’. Lard was sold in the market incased in pigs bladders, which looked like big white balls. This is rather less romantic than ‘ghostberry’ or ‘waxberry’, which are other alternative names for the plant.

In spring, the bush has attractive but unobtrusive pink flowers, which are popular with bees – this plant is, after all, a member of that pollinator-magnet, the honeysuckle family.

By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By H. Zell (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Snowberry is unique in the UK in having waxy-white berries – the only plant that I can think of that even comes close is the Mistletoe. It has an eerie quality, especially when seen as the sun  is going down on a winter’s evening. I am trying to pay a little more attention to how plants make me feel when I spend time with them, and with Snowberry I sense a kind of quiet patience, as if the plant is just waiting to be recognised for its sterling qualities. Or maybe that’s something that we all secretly long for. Whichever it is, I have grown very fond of this North American immigrant, thriving so far from home.