Category Archives: London Birds

Accidental Beauty

Dear Readers, this week I have been filled with rage, horror and sadness at the unfolding tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. The completely needless deaths, the cynicism of those in power and the divide between rich and poor in the capital in particular and the country in general has made me feel physically sick. I look at the photographs of the dead and missing, and I see everything that makes London rich and meaningful to me: the handsome Syrian man who had finally reached ‘safety’, the woman sitting in her tiny sitting room like a queen surrounded by the beautiful things that she had made and scrimped to buy, the elderly man sitting serenely with his grandchildren. I donate, I sign petitions, I look at the faces of the refugees that are in my English class and I know that it’s not enough. It’s never enough.

And then, I walk. Because unless I reconnect to the real world around me, I can feel myself starting to grow thin and tattered, and I need to be strong. I have people who depend on me, and things that I believe in, and I need to have my feet on the ground in order to  serve them.

Community is not just some abstract concept, though the way that the word is sometimes bandied about might make you think so. For me, it starts with the soil under our feet and the plants that grow in it, and the creatures that visit it. Each garden  has its own style, the inhabitants of the houses announcing their particular tastes and preferences through the things that they plant, and the things that they allow to remain. The grace and beauty of an area comes often through the accidental juxtaposition of different elements, the way that things just ‘happen’.

The lavender is in full bloom outside my front door. This year I thought that it had grown too  woody and was thinking of replacing it. Then the bees came.

A few days ago, I came back from the shops and a little girl had paused outside with her Mum. She was counting the bees.

‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven!’ she shouted, her voice rising higher with every bee spotted. ‘They’re so happy!’

And so, I think the lavender is reprieved, again. Bees like a lot of flowers, all of one kind. They can remember up to three different ‘designs’ of flower type, but when they encounter a fourth, one of them has to go. I sometimes think that humans can’t hold too many paradoxical ideas in their heads at the same time either, so it doesn’t do for us to feel superior.

I note that there are several very interesting plants just coming into flower. The Passionflower is said to include the crown of thorns,the nails and the scourge from Christ’s crucifixion.


The solanum is a member of the nightshade family.

This jasmine is exquisite, and flowering much better than mine which produces masses of leaves and nary a flower in my north-facing garden.

But wait, what is this? Has the summer of love returned to East Finchley? I feel my spirits lift.

What a very fine camper van. I hope that the inhabitants will wear their tie-dye teeshirts and loons to keep the ambiance consistent.

I particularly like the sign in the window.

Further along the road is my favourite hebe: I would say that it flowers for ten months out of twelve, and is a go-to pitstop for early emerging queen bumblebees, and those in need of a snack in the winter. I do hope that the owner of the house knows how much the plant is appreciated, and how valuable it is.

I cross the road to have a look at where someone has planted up the tree pit on the corner. I love these acts of unnecessary kindness. Goodness knows we need it, and cosmos is another great choice for pollinators.

The air is heavy with the sickly-sweet smell of privet flowers.

There is a big patch of a yellow-flowered daisy-like plant, possibly a santolina – always a favourite with hoverflies, who can’t cope with the complicated flowers of lavender and foxglove.

And goodness, haven’t hydrangeas come a long way? I remember when they were big, blousy flowers in blue or pink, according to the soil. I have a climbing hydrangea in my back garden, and in five years it has reached the level of the loft on the second floor. But look at these! Truly East Finchley is a hydrangea hotspot. I’ll forgive them for having no wildlife value whatsoever.

Oh, I spoke too soon. Look, somebody loves them.

I love the accidental beauty of some of the paths, where yellow corydalis and ferns, bellflower and green alkanet have created something as pretty as anything you could create on purpose.

There is one garden that is different from all the others around here, and I stopped to admire it.

I was taking some photographs of the Queen Anne’s Lace (Cow Parsley) when the owner of the house walked up to the front door.

‘What a lovely garden!’ I said, ‘I love how fresh it looks’.

The man looked a bit sheepish.

‘I keep telling my son to tidy it up’, he said, gesticulating at the bits and pieces that were laying about, and which I hadn’t even noticed.

‘I think it’s gorgeous’, I said, but he wasn’t convinced. And so I’m glad that I have a few photos of it in all its glory, before the strimmer gets into action.

I love these glass birds, nesting in a terracotta pot.

And a bank of trailing rosemary provides a home for lots of spiders, judging by the webs.

A blackbirds sings from a chimney pot, but then the air is filled with the racketing of a helicopter. The sound always fills me with a sense of foreboding. Helicopters mean a terrorist attack, or a terrible accident, . But then it veers away, and peace returns, and the blackbird is still singing.

At the corner of the road is a huge ceanothus (California lilac) bush, absolutely alive with bees. There are clouds of hoverflies, and each one seems to be laying claim to a few inches of flower. They may, in fact, be males, each one guarding some flowers in the hope that when a female comes to feed they’ll be able to ‘persuade’ her to mate. I took a short film to give some idea of the hectic activity.

And then, I spotted this lovely front garden.

This is just my kind of garden – a mixture of plants, not too tidy, full of life. The front door opened and I complimented the owner on her quirky choice of plants.

‘It’s a happy accident!’ she said. ‘Most of them have self-seeded, or just appeared’. And she told me about when her cat caught a pipistrelle bat (fortunately unharmed, and subsequently released) and when her son took a picture of a local fox asleep on her shed roof. When the picture was enlarged, it revealed her cat sitting happily next to it.

I am reminded that this week is the anniversary of the murder of MP  Jo Cox, with her famous quote that ‘we are far more united than the things that divide us’. She was right, of course. But  we should recognise cynicism and venality and disdain when we find it, for the sake of the most vulnerable, the people who are ignored and treated with contempt, the people who may have lost their lives for the sake of a few pounds more expenditure on fire-proof cladding.  There are so many experiences, so many different perspectives and stories, so much richness that is never reflected because it doesn’t fit with the way that the media moguls and the powerful view the world. I hope that things are changing, that Grenfell Tower will be the point at which people say ‘never again’.  I look forward to the music that will arise when all of us are heard.


Right Place, Right Time

Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

Dear Readers, I am off to Canada at stupid o’clock on Saturday morning, so I am posting this on Friday evening in order to gain a few precious moments of sleeping time. Normal service will be resumed on my arrival on the other side of the Atlantic.

Dear Readers, sometimes luck is on our side. As I walked home along the County Roads on Sunday, something made me look up at some birds perched on a TV aerial. They were whistling to one another in a way that wasn’t right for a starling, the usual occupants of these elevated vantage points.

Waxwing calls

And then, I realised that one of the birds was gobbling down berries from the tree on the corner, and had to run down the road to my house and grab a camera before the visitors disappeared. Because, gentle readers, these were waxwings, and I’ve only seen them once before, during the harsh winter of 2010, when they visited this self-same tree.

Waxwings are Scandinavian visitors, who ‘irrupt’ into the eastern UK when the berries fail in the northern taiga. I was surprised to see them so late in the year, but relieved that there was still some food for them: by now, passing redwings have often stripped the street trees. A single waxwing can eat 1000 berries in a single day, so they tend to frequent places like supermarket carparks where the hedging is often of plants like cotoneaster or pyracantha. In Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey point out that the birds have been recorded defecating every four minutes as well, which I imagine would produce a very colourful abstract painting beneath any trees that they were feeding from. They can  metabolise the alcohol in fermenting fruit, but may become intoxicated, flying into walls and crashing into snowbanks. Couple this with their punkish quiffs and ‘fur-coat’ plumage, and their Goth-style eye-makeup, and you have a bird which is as eccentric and exotic as any late-night reveller in Soho.

The birds get their name from what looks like a blob of red sealing wax on their secondary feathers, which you can just about see in the photo below.

The red ‘waxy’ feather tips on a bird about to be ringed and released (Public Domain)

Although this is still a scarce species for the UK, sightings are becoming more common. The largest flock ever recorded was 367 birds at Lakeside Shopping Centre in 2011 (where I suspect there must be a multitude of berry-bearing bushes), and in 2005 160 birds were spotted in the trees around Warren Street Station in central London. It goes to show that you can see the most extraordinary birds even in the busiest and most congested parts of the city. It’s a good reason for always making sure that you look up (but please don’t fall down an open manhole-cover in the process).

Previously, the birds would make landfall in Scotland and work their way south, munching up berries en route. Sometimes, if there is a plentiful supply, they will stay in the area for a few days, but these beauties are always on the move. In ‘The Birds of London’, Andrew Self points out that recently, the waxwings have been coming straight to southern England, which may account for the more frequent sightings in the capital these days. Wherever they came from, my tiny flock stayed for a brief sojourn of about ten minutes, before flying off in a chorus of whistles towards North Finchley (though they did put in an appearance every day until Friday).

The Latin name for waxwings, Bombycilla, means ‘silk-tail’, and refers to that soft, silky plumage which seems more like a pelage than a coat of feathers. The bird is sometimes called the Bohemian waxwing, and this is more of a reference to its exotic appearance than any claim on the Bohemian region. When I was growing up, all you had to do to be considered Bohemian was wear a shawl, smoke French cigarettes or use eye-liner. I think you’d have to try a bit harder these days. The species name garrulus does not, as you might think, come from any inclination for chattering, but because the bird was thought to resemble a jay. I can see that the soft beige-pink colour is similar, but otherwise I think spectacles are in order.

You might think that this beautiful visitor would be a pleasure for anyone, but in the past, their arrival in winter coincided with outbreaks of cholera and plague, and the birds were thought to bring the illnesses, which led to the Dutch and Flemish name for the species, ‘Pestvogel’. They also ate the juniper berries which were thought to prevent these diseases, which would not have made them popular.

My North American readers might be more familiar with the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum),  a slightly smaller, more yellow bird. The Bohemian waxwing is generally found a little further north in Canada than the cedar waxwing, but there is some overlap, so any lucky Canadian readers might get to see both species as they travel back and forth from their wintering grounds to their breeding areas (the birds, not the Canadians).

By Jason Quinn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) (Photo one – see credit below)

Waxwings are not considered an endangered species, in spite of flying drunk and endangering themselves by eating snow contaminated with salt and antifreeze. They breed in the taiga forests and the high northern plains, where they eat berries and midges (and heaven be praised for the latter). But they are still relatively unusual in the UK, and whenever I see them, I am forced, like the Ancient Mariner, to grab passersby with my bony hand and force them to have a few moments impromptu birdwatching. They’ll thank me for it later, I’m sure they will.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Cedar Waxwing) – By Jason Quinn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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An Unexpected Visitor

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

Dear Readers, just when I think that I’ve spotted every species of bird who is likely to visit the bird table, someone new drops by. And so it was on a sunny evening this week, when I glanced out of my upstairs window to see a jackdaw pecking up the suet pellets. This is the first time I have ever seen a jackdaw in the garden: they are rare birds in London, though when I visit my parents in Dorset they are everywhere, chuckling away and playing above the roofs. I have always been fond of Jackdaws: they are intelligent and adaptable birds, the smallest of the UK’s crows, and they would have been a familiar sight in central London at the end of the nineteenth century. They have often been described as ‘ecclesiastical birds’ because of their habit of nesting in church towers: up to 1889 they bred at St Paul’s Cathedral, and they were also nesting in St Michael’s Church near the Bank of England at this time.  In Wales Jackdaws were considered to be sacred because of their religious nesting places: the birds were said to be ‘shunned by the devil’.  Alas, these days they avoid most of London. There have been various theories as to why, but the usual double-whammy of unavailability of habitat and food is probably to blame. Jackdaws would have eaten grain that was meant for the horses that were once prevalent in the city, and would have used the hair and wool from the many domesticated animals that were driven down to Smithfield to line their nests. I wonder if it is coincidence that the one place in London where jackdaws are regularly seen is Richmond Park, with its herds of deer.

I find the jackdaw a most handsome bird. I love the frosty cape around his neck, and the bouncy way that he jogs about: while crows always remind me a little of Prince Charles as they walk around with their metaphorical hands clasped behind their backs, jackdaws have much more of the Tigger about them. But most of all I love those ice-blue eyes. The naturalist W.H.Hudson described them as ‘small malicious serpent-like grey eyes’ but I can only think that he looked with a jaundiced attitude. To me, the eyes of a jackdaw show a sharp intelligence, and a clarity of intention. This bird had just noticed me standing at the bedroom window with my camera, and was trying to decide if I was a threat or not.

Evidently the suet pellets won over immediate flight. This was a hungry bird, and most of the contents of the bird table ended up on the patio, where the starlings and squirrel made short work of them.

Jackdaws are certainly very chatty birds, and will imitate human speech if they’re in the mood, or sufficiently well rewarded. An ancient Greek and Roman adage was that ‘swans will sing when jackdaws are silent’, meaning that well-informed people will have their say once the foolish folk have ceased their gabbling. In Czechia, there is a belief that if jackdaws quarrel, war will follow. A jackdaw on the roof can mean either a new arrival or a death, depending on where you are in the country. In short, superstition follows this bird as it does so many others, and I am reminded of the Buddhist proverb: ‘Good luck, bad luck, who knows?’

Jackdaws are normally seen in flocks, but  pair for life within this group. A pair will stay together even after multiple cases of breeding failure. Single birds are at the absolute bottom of the pecking order (as noted by Konrad Lorenz in his book King Solomon’s Ring) but if a bird finds a new mate, his or her status depend on that of their partner. As I watched the bird in my garden, I was feeling a little sorry that he or she was on their own. And then something disturbed him or her and a second jackdaw emerged from under the bird table as they both flew off together. Call me a tired old romantic, but it warmed my heart.

There is something very special about witnessing a new visitor to the garden, especially when you’ve been feeding for years and think you’ve seen everything. Hah! Nature has a way of puncturing such pomposity.  I  sometimes think that I haven’t even begun to notice the secret life of my garden, let alone understand it. There’s enough in this little spot of ground to keep me busy for the rest of my life.

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Deep in Their Roots All Flowers Keep the Light (Theodore Roethke)

Spring in the County Roads

Dear Readers, I was at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank on Wednesday, watching a production of Twelfth Night. My first inkling that something was wrong was when I switched on my phone during the interval. As soon as the screen burst into life, I was inundated with messages from my husband and friends.

‘Are you all right?’

Of course, what could possibly go wrong at Twelfth Night (apart from some rather weak comedy of course)?

But soon it became clear that a terrorist attack had taken place on Westminster Bridge and at Westminster itself. People were dead. Someone was in the Thames. Parliament was in lock down.

When I left the theatre, Waterloo Bridge was a chain of red double-decker buses, bumper to bumper, and a crocodile of commuters trudged past, trying to find an alternative way home. Overhead, the helicopters droned like heavy bees.

It all felt all too familiar. I had been visiting the Tower of London with my sister-in-law and her eight-year old daughter when the tube bombings of 7th July 2005 happened. The whole transport network, tubes and buses, was closed down, and the working population of London  took to the streets to walk home, blinking like moles above ground. I remember the wail of sirens as ambulances screeched past, the women walking in their stockinged feet, high-heels in hand.

And years earlier, picking my way through barricades in the City of London after the IRA bombs, the crunch of broken glass underfoot and the window blinds in the Nat West tower flapping like sails.

And later, leaving the station and feeling a juddering through my feet and up into my stomach that could only be an explosion, and hearing that a bomb had been set off at Canary Wharf, five miles away as the raven flies.

And when it feels as if the ground has moved, there is nothing for it but to slow down, to breathe, to return to the familiar. And so today, the day after the Westminster attacks, I walk around my local streets to see what can be seen. I need to move at the pace of a small child, and allow myself to be intrigued.

What, for example, is eating my nettles and green alkanet? It seems too early for a caterpillar but there he is, not sure whether to curl up or not.  I am glad that I showed mercy to the nettles, and will leave them now for this creature to feed on.

I turn left, and notice the violets scattered amongst the broken Victorian paths and popping up at the bottom of walls. I love their strange, five-petalled faces, the purple stripes against the lilac throat, like landing lights for bees. Where have the violets come from? I cannot remember seeing them last year, but today they are everywhere. There is one particularly big patch a few houses up, and I wonder if this is the motherlode, and all the others are downwind, the seed scattered and taking root.

I turn into Bedford Road. There is a particularly fine double-fronted house with two massive trees outside, and the steep, tiered garden is full of woodplants: green hellebore and lungwort, and a bush covered in yellow flowers that look like the blooms of miniature daffodils.

Across the way is some green alkanet coming into bloom. For the first time, I notice that the early flowers are purple or even pink, turning blue as they age, just as the flowers of lungwort do, and I am reminded that green alkanet and lungwort are closely related. In fact, there will be many things on this walk that remind me of the borage family, and what a boon it is.

I’m feeling steadier already.

Some asplenium ferns are growing from a wall further up the road, and I am reminded of the ones that I saw in Somerset, and had never seen in London before. Another thing about walking slowly is that it enables me to make connections, in time and place. For a second I can see a tiny part of the complex web that holds all of us together, for, deny it or not, we are all much more closely related than we think.

The Camellias are in full bloom, and how glorious they look! But the rain will mar their perfection, and never was a flower more easily ripped from its stem. They are a brief glory, but a glory nonetheless.

One house has an enormous plaster pineapple as a gate post. I have always loved it, while having no idea at all what it means. It looks a little big for this particular house, and I would love to know if it was originally on the gatepost of some local mansion. But for now, I just admire it and move on.

The white comfrey outside my friend A’s house is doing very nicely – the flowers are such a brilliant white that I have to turn down the exposure on my camera to get any kind of photo. That whiteness only lasts for a brief time, though, before it’s stained with brown.

The waxy blossoms of the magnolia are just about to erupt and one house has a magenta magnolia with buds that look like elegant hands.

Some twittering on Durham Road makes me look up, and there are a pair of blue tits working their way along a gutter, along with a goldfinch. I suspect that little insects sometimes turn up here, maybe trapped with the dead leaves. At this time of year the tits are so busy. One has taken to pecking at the blossoms on my skimmia, though whether for nectar or invertebrates I have no idea.

The lesser celandine is popping up everywhere.

Outside the church on Durham Road there is a big patch of creeping comfrey. A few years ago this was almost completely eradicated, but here it is again. The blooms start off with a red throat, which goes blue as the flower matures, and they are a magnet for hairy-footed bees and bee flies and bumblebees, even on a cold, breezy day like today.

I always look at the little microhabitats at the bottom of trees. The chickweed is in full bloom already, with its flowers like little stars. The blossom from the early-flowering cherry trees blows along the pavement.

There is one magnificent twisted cherry tree on Leicester Road, that looks as if it could have come from a Japanese vase. It arches over the garage and out over the road as if in a complex yoga pose. I nearly get run down taking a picture from the middle of the road. Such are the dangers of trying to be intrepid in East Finchley.

There is a particularly fine forsythia bush, too.

I am rather taken by the early flowers of yellow corydalis, when they are cream-coloured with a kiss of pale green. Later, they turn sunshine yellow, which is not quite so elegant.

And for the first time I notice the tiny flowers of a laurel, erupting from bunched fists into four tiny chocolate petals.

I turn for home, and can’t resist a final photo of the moss on a nearby wall, the capsules reminding me of the head and neck of a swan, a world in miniature.

And my final, final picture, of rosemary in flower, each bloom a little homunculus, orchid-like in their beauty.

When Death’s trumpet blares from every headline, I need to remember that this is only part of the story. We get so caught up in our own stories, our tragedies and our triumphs,  that we forget that there are different stories to be told.  Other living things are getting on with their lives, preparing for the next cycle of seeds and eggs and frantic gaping mouths, just as they always have. There is such tenderness in the soft shoot of a violet, and yet it has pushed through concrete to get to the light. Life is ferocious and it will not be denied, and I do believe that our urge towards the light is much stronger than our need for the darkness, however much it might sometimes seem otherwise. In the words of Theodore Roethke, that great, vulnerable, brave poet:

‘Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt keeps breathing a small breath.’

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Feed The Birds

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Starlings getting stuck in to the suet pellets

Dear Readers, last week my friend J and are were in the bird food aisle at our local garden centre. How confusing it all is! There is food for finches, food for robins, food for sparrows and food for tits. I didn’t notice any food for pigeons or squirrels, so maybe I am the only person in the world who is happy to have them come to visit. What did strike me was how cynical a lot of this is, and how much money people might spend to keep all their avian charges happy. Don’t do this, people! Let me share with you the food that I normally have available in the garden, and who benefits from each kind.

Sunflower hearts

Sunflower hearts

Firstly, seeds. Cheap seed is full of filler and husks. The birds don’t mind it, but probably half to two-thirds of it goes to waste. It’s worth paying out for the best seed that you can afford. My preference (or rather the birds preference) is for sunflower hearts. These are eye-wateringly expensive, but are taken by all the finches, the woodpigeons, the collared doves and the house sparrows. And also the squirrels, of course. I hope you’ll enjoy this short film, taken during Storm Doris yesterday.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Woodpigeon and collared doves getting stuck into the sunflower hearts. The squirrels pull out the plastic feeding rings, hence the duct tape.

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

Female chaffinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder

House Sparrow and Goldfinch on seed feeder



My second food is whole peanuts, but only from August through to the end of January – there is evidence that if fed to baby birds, the nuts can choke them. If I have peanuts, I can watch the acrobatics of the squirrels, but even more delightfully, I can expect visits from the jays. How the word gets round that the nuts are out, I have no idea, but there we go.

RSPB's buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available :-)

RSPB’s buggy nibbles. Other suet nibbles are available 🙂

My third food is some form of suet, normally suet pellets. RSPB do a nifty variety called buggy nibbles, which apparently contain the remains of insects as well. The starlings adore this stuff, and many of the other birds will also take it, particularly the blue, great and coal tits that are regular visitors, and the long-tailed tits that occasionally breeze past. Another seasonal visitor is the greater spotted woodpecker who hammers away at the suet feeder like Michelangelo wielding a chisel. If I put it on my ground feeder or makeshift bird-table everyone eats it – the blackbirds, the woodpigeons and the collared doves. The foxes will also pop by once in a while for a feed, as, unfortunately, do several cats. I suppose that suet is animal fat, after all.

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

Starling waiting for a go at the suet pellets. The blue bit at the base of the bill tells us that this bird is a male

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it

I love the way that the blue tit holds the suet pellet in his foot while he eats it



The next foods are ‘optional extras’, because I have no children and so can afford to indulge my garden visitors, who will not need supported through university and rarely require nappies. I normally have some dried mealworms, which I scatter on the garden for the robin and dunnock, and mix with the suet. If you really want to see some spectacular ‘bird action’ you could try live mealworms, which you can buy from one of my favourite companies, Wiggly-Wigglers. I have stopped using them because I couldn’t bear to send all those little wrigglers to their deaths, which is just pure hypocrisy because I seem to be able to overcome my moral doubts when they’re already dead. Some people recommend that the dry ones are soaked in water first, which might be a good idea in the breeding season. They are the number one most loved food in the garden and last for about twenty minutes.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

Bird granola, believe it or not.

And lastly, I’m currently feeding something that the RSPB have developed called ‘Bird Granola’. It’s a mixture of suet, seeds and mealworms, and the birds have gone crazy for it. Like all suet products (including the buggy nibbles mentioned previously) it can dry to a solid lump if it gets wet, and can also turn a patio into a skating rink.

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

Female blackbird picking up the crumbs from the birdtable

I also feed things like leftover grated cheese (beloved by the wrens), chopped apples and pears that are past their best (on the ground or bird table, for the blackbirds and any other thrushes that pop in), leftover cake (no icing) and things like rice if it hasn’t been salted. I had good results with some stuff called Flutter Butter (again from Wiggly Wigglers) – you get a jar of ‘peanut butter’ that you can hang up, and which is very popular with the tits. Normal nut butters are too salty for birds, however.

Robin picking over the leftovers

Robin picking over the leftovers

There are also things that I never bother with.

  • Nyjer seed. Yes, I know that it’s supposed to be the thing that the finches love, but in my garden they much prefer the sunflower seeds
  • Anything in a net – birds get horribly injured when they get tangled up in the mesh. I do sometimes put out suet balls, but always in a proper feeder
  • Bread (not much nutritional value generally)

I honestly think that you could get away with putting out sunflower seeds, suet pellets and some chopped apples/grated cheese, and get a very fine range of species if everything else is in place. And what is everything else?

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female chaffinch drinking from the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Female blackbird by the pond

Water – I have the pond (as you know) but I also have a bird bath. It’s surprising how much the birds like to bathe, particularly in winter.

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Woodpigeon in the whitebeam tree

Blue tit in the lilac

Blue tit in the lilac

Somewhere close to the feeders for the birds to perch. I’m lucky (or lazy) because my garden is fairly overgrown, but birds do like to grab something from a feeder or bird table and then retreat to safety. This is worth thinking about when you position your feeding station or table – the spot needs to be open enough so that next door’s cat can’t hide close by, but close enough that the birds don’t feel exposed to airborne predators liked sparrowhawks. I think that  little birds in particular are very attuned to the presence of birds of prey, and they are much commoner than you’d think – I once looked out of my kitchen door and found a sparrowhawk eating a pigeon on the step outside.

Fluffed-up starling

Fluffed-up starling

This is, of course, a very personal view: the birds that visit the garden will depend on where you live, and how urban (or otherwise) your area is. My garden is suburban, twenty minutes from central London by tube, but it benefits from having two scraps of ancient woodland and a huge Victorian cemetery nearby. My parent’s bird feeder at their home in Dorset is monopolised delightfully by the house sparrows who make their nests in their ten-foot tall beech hedge. My friend J was recently visited by a pair of parakeets. I am visited by lots of chaffinches, who are rarely seen in the garden of my friend A, who only lives around the corner. And if you live in the US or Canada or Australia, your guests will be very different. But there is something in many of us that derives great pleasure from helping our feathered neighbours. For me, it’s a small thing that I can put back – we have taken so much in terms of habitat for nesting and opportunities for feeding with the growth of our cities and the intensification of our agriculture. And whose heart doesn’t lift when a flock of long-tailed tits drop by in a chorus of contact calls, or a jay descends on the birdtable in a flash of blue? These moments can give us an instant of wonder and a surge of connection with the world around us.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that the song ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins always leaves me with a lump in my throat. It’s sentimental, sugary-sweet, and these days any old lady selling bird food on the steps of St Pauls would be hauled off for a night in the cells. And yet I still find myself wiping away a surreptitious tear. See what you think.

‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!




To have a garden is to be regularly reminded about death. As I was clearing away the stalks of hemp agrimony last spring, I found the frail, headless corpse of a male blackbird, its decapitation a strong indication that it had been brought down by a sparrowhawk. It weighed heavily in my hand, for I knew this particular bird.

img_9584 At twilight he would cling on to next door’s rooftop television aerial and and pour out his mellifluous song, the notes trickling down like honey. Later, there might be some kind of upset in the bushes, and his maniacal alarm call would set off everybody else. But he was also subtle. I once walked past him in semi-darkness as he sat in the lilac bush, and heard him making a soft ticking call, like a feathered clock. Apparently this call is used to deter other males from roosting in the blackbird’s territory overnight, but it sounded to me as if he was trying to comfort himself, like a lone child whistling in the dark.

And then, after his death, there was a year without blackbirds and darkness fell without serenade. But this year, they are back, in force.

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

Young male blackbird (Turdus merula)

There is at least one adult male, a female, and a young male. The young males have a charcoal black and dark brown livery in their first year, and this chap is regularly seen off by the adult male. But the youngster is determined, and I often see him sitting in the whitebeam tree, shuffling his feathers and looking around anxiously. Although blackbirds are ostensibly monogamous, and mate for life, a study has shown that up to 17% of offspring are not fathered by the female’s partner, so maybe the youngster is just waiting for his chance.

Adult male blackbird

Adult male blackbird

The garden is the adult male’s territory, and in the morning I often see him picking over the patio, or throwing leaves aside in a search for little insects and other titbits. His beak is as orange-yellow as a crocus, and this colour is thought to be an indication of dominance and health: in experiments, male blackbirds react more strongly to orange beaks than to yellow ones, and are largely indifferent to the black bills of first year males. Someone should tell my blackbird that he’s meant to leave the young guys alone.  At any rate, only his mate is tolerated: as soon as he sees another blackbird, the male bows, fluffs himself out, sometimes lets out a semi-hysterical cackling war cry and flies directly at the offending bird. He seems to spend a large proportion of his time in this way. I hope he has the energy left for child-rearing later in the year.

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Female blackbird (Photo One – credit below)

I wonder about the female, too. Blackbirds mate for life, but it could be that she has taken up with this dashing gallant following the death of her previous partner. On the other hand, as blackbirds try to hold the same territory for life, and I saw no blackbirds at all for a year after the death of the male, this could be a completely new pair. The female spends a lot of her time feeding at the moment – egg-laying and chick-rearing is highly expensive in terms of energy, and she’ll need every morsel she can find. Plus, she builds the nest by herself, sometimes in thick undergrowth, sometimes in a shed, sometimes in the most unlikely places, such as a pair of unloved wellington boots or, as I once saw on Orkney, in the radiator grille of an abandoned car. They sometimes seem a bit clueless in the spots that they choose, and many, many nests fail due to predation. Mind you, round here you’d need a gun emplacement and barbed wire to keep the cats out, so any chicks that get to the fledging stage are doing well. Blackbirds apparently have different alarm calls for cats ( a ‘chook-chook-chook’ call) and for aerial predators like the sparrowhawk (a ‘seeeee’ call which is difficult to locate).

The last three crab apples just about to disappear....

The last three crab apples just about to disappear….

Blackbirds are ground feeders – I occasionally see the male perched cockily on my bird table, but they can’t manage the other feeders. They do love berries, however, and work their way through the haws and the hips with great enthusiasm. As I was watching today, the male ate the last of the crab apples, but these are not favourites: sweet and juicy fruit is much preferred, not just by blackbirds but by most thrushes. I once put out some grated apple for a fieldfare who had been downed during a snowstorm, and it was much appreciated. I often throw out apples and pears that are past their best – once they’re all brown and bruised they’re ideal thrush food.

By Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ cover (Photo Two – credit below)

Blackbirds are woven into our childhoods and our folklore. Take the popular nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of sixpence’, for example:

‘Sing a song of sixpence,

A pocketful of rye,

Four and twenty blackbirds

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing

Wasn’t this a dainty dish

To set before a king?’

Because blackbirds were (and still are) so common, they would have been a handy addition to the diet in hard times, but the pie here sounds like a more extravagant affair. Just as married couples sometimes release doves or butterflies at their nuptials, so there was a fashion for slapping a pie crust on top of some cowering birds so that they would burst forth when the lid was cut. I only hope that the blackbirds made their way towards the sky and escaped.

Incidentally, the ‘four calling birds’ of The Twelve Days of Christmas probably refers to ‘Colly (Coaly) birds’, i.e. blackbirds.

img_9584Last night, I stood by the window as dusk fell and the fading sunlight turned all the bricks of East Finchley rose-red. And there, back on the television aerial, was the blackbird, vibrating with song. Listening to him, all my worries fell away. I was reminded of Edward Thomas’s poem, Adlestrop:

‘And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’

A flock of starlings rolled overhead, on their way to their roost in one of the big plane trees on the High Road, and the last twitterings of a charm of goldfinches faded into silence. And I thought about blackbirds, and their short, unremarked lives, and the struggles, both human and animal, that surround us everyday. But also the joy. We must never forget the joy.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Female Blackbird) – By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two (Nursery Rhyme Cover) – By Downloaded from Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by EuTuga., Public Domain,

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

Bugwoman’s Third Annual Report

IMG_5397Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! It started in February 2016 with a rather disappointing revisit to the Abraham Cruzvillegas installation at Tate Modern, which contained soil from different sites in London, and was supposed to provide an idea of the diverse flora from the capital. Sadly, it was rather underlit, and none of the raised beds were labelled, so it was impossible to know where each sample of soil had come from. Plus it finished in February, just before everything started to come into flower! A most frustrating exercise which could have been both artistically and scientifically interesting. Harrumph!  It did provide an excuse for a bracing walk along the Thames, however.

IMG_5528March was all about frogs and this poor little fox, half eaten up with mange. It was the start of my daily walk to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I dropped medicated food to try and clear up the fox’s skin problem. As a result I met a group of people dedicated to looking after the cat population in the cemetery, and the other animals too, especially my friend B. To my surprise, the homeopathic medication sent from the National Fox Welfare Society worked, and I gained many glimpses of the foxy population.

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

The first frogs of the year

The first frog of the year

Fox at sunset

Fox at sunset

By April there was some improvement in the original fox, and she had a mate. Plus, from looking at her underside, it seemed that she had cubs, though I didn’t see them while they were very small.

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)


The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

Yet another fox

Yet another fox

On the Wednesday Weed front, I found some honesty

IMG_5987and some fritillaries.

IMG_6003May brought comfrey and lady’s smock, and a few more foxes


Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)


The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox – the vixen definitely looks as if she’s feeding cubs

And by June, I think this is the first sight of a cub. Plus, we had fledgling long-tailed tits, and a rather surprising creature spotted while on the New River Walk in Islington

IMG_7158IMG_6662 IMG_6639IMG_6793In July, I was off to Austria for our annual two weeks in the Alps. Where it snowed.

IMG_7258Though not all the time, fortunately….

IMG_7221August saw my first visit to Woodberry Wetlands and a trip back to my roots in the East End, to see what had happened to Stratford since the Olympic Games. I was impressed with the wildlife that I saw in both places.  And the fox cubs were out and about in the cemetery.

Woodberry Wetlands

Woodberry Wetlands


Heron and Mute Swan at Woodberry Wetlands

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Another young fox

Another young fox in the cemetery

September saw my first ever pied flycatcher, during a visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.

img_8010I had never seen so many rose hips as there were in the cemetery, either.

img_7989And the horse chestnuts reminded me of my Auntie Mary. How often the fruits of the season jog my memory, putting me in mind of people and places long gone.

img_7954And the foxes were still about, of course.

Dog Fox

Dog Fox

October brought a trip to Venice with an 89 year-old friend of mine, and a particularly wonderful encounter with a young vixen in the cemetery.

img_8087img_8066img_8314img_8247In November, I discovered the joys of a slow shutter-speed on my camera, and had an encounter with a grey wagtail at the Barbican Centre.

img_8613-2 img_8615-2

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

December brought a return to Milborne St Andrew, some very fine Islington cats, and a supermoon. It also introduced me to the hidden meaning of having pampas grass in your front garden.

Ice on a Dorset stream

Ice on a Dorset stream

A very fine Islington cat

A very fine Islington cat



Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Pampas grass

Pampas grass

And finally, January has brought a stroll along the Mutton Brook in East Finchley, stinging nettles and a Very Fine Cat Indeed.

The Mutton Brook

The Mutton Brook

Stinging nettles with small 'friend'

Stinging nettles with small ‘friend’

Bailey, the world's most magnificent cat.

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat.

So, dear Readers, what an exciting year it’s been! If there are things that you’ve liked particularly, do let me know (and yes I will be spending more time in the cemetery on fox watch in the months to come). I am also open to suggestions if I have missed your favourite ‘weed’, or if there is somewhere in London that you’d like me to take an excursion to.  In the meantime, thank you so much for your support, and I look forward to your company in 2017. The world is an uncomfortable place for many people at the moment (including me) and there is much solace to be gained in the plants and animals that surround us.

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.