(Unusual) Birds Of A Feather

On the BBC website today was a story about a Golden Eagle that has apparently made a bid for freedom not far from where I live. The police are warning people not to approach the bird, although why anyone would want to go near a bird with a six foot wingspan and talons like sharp kitchen knives is beyond me. That said, ‘staying inside’, also part of the instruction does summon up the image of a Harryhausen-esque beast swooping down and carrying off a cow or something. Though if we did have a small dog then perhaps it would be safer to keep that indoors lest the last thing you hear is a surprised yelp and the sound of great flapping wings.

I would not be surprised if Eddie (shall we call him that?) flaps his way over here. I have previous with escaped birds, even from childhood. Maybe it was something inherited from my mother. I do not know anyone else who found a canary in the street and had it jump onto her hand. So she brought it home where it happily lived out the rest of its days in our old budgie cage. We always wondered why it did not sing, thinking perhaps it was a little on the traumatised side from its obvious escape from a cage or aviary somewhere nearby. The mystery was solved eventually when it suddenly laid an egg one year. Only the males sing you see.

We used to go as a family down to Allendale in Durham for picnics when I was small, where I would proceed to build (thankfully unsuccessful) dams out of the stones while my parents soaked up the sun (in my head if not reality it always seems sunny, I know that seems unlikely to anyone with knowledge of the North East but it was the 1970s so maybe it really was true). Anyway, one such baking hot afternoon, as I was engaged in my latest aquatic construction project, my mother was heard to ask my father:

‘Is that a pelican?’

My father assured my mother that it was not, in fact, a pelican, as on the whole these are not common on riverbanks in Northern England.

Despite the further protestations of my mother that the bird she had spied on the far river bank was not actually ‘just an ugly swan’ my father was adamant and anyway by that point the point of contention had flown off.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

On the local news that evening it was reported that a pelican has escaped from a local zoological park and was at large in the Durham area.

My mother, being the person she was, said nothing at all, but if you can radiate smugness that evening she was glowing.

My similar experience came on the M3 some years ago now, when the Lovely Wife was driving us down to the West Country. Idly looking out at the verge (sometimes you get the odd muntjac at the side of the road) I was somewhat taken aback by the large black vulture pecking at some less fortunate creature on the hard shoulder. I was sure it was a vulture, but at this point a sensible part of my brain is screaming not to be stupid. Obviously it was just a very big, very ugly crow. My general approach to bird watching is that if there is a boring mundane identification possibility for any bird then that is likely to be the correct one (usually a pigeon).  The Lovely Wife also saw it briefly and made things worse by agreeing with me.

Again – it turns out that we were correct. It was a black vulture, which went by the name of Barney. Barney, bless him, had escaped from Bird world in Surrey that morning and was enjoying a short lived culinary holiday munching through the ample roadkill available off the M3. He was later recaptured unharmed by all accounts but in a way that was a shame – the many Red Kites we see now are impressive enough and perform this same clean up role, but vultures would certainly provide some interest in the inevitable motorway jams.

I am looking out of the window now and all I can see are a family of goldfinches. But there is still time…


It’s not going to end well

Easter may be a time for hope for some, but not all of my neighbours are going to have a happy time this spring, I fear.

What is very apparent at the moment is the nest building of various birds around our garden in preparation for this year’s breeding attempt. The coots in the park have pretty much finished their rather impressive creations – superstructures of twigs resting on the bottom of the lake and decorated above the water’s surface with what passes presumably for each coot’s own personal idea of interior design, ranging from the ‘natural’ collection of various leaves to the seventies inspired crisp packet and discarded chocolate wrapper Avant Guarde look. The grey herons are sitting now, looking on with some irritation at the group of Little Egrets that have moved into their previously single heron species neighbourhood.

In our garden, it is looking increasingly as if the local mob of sparrows may be considering a nest in the midst of the raging Krinoid that is our jasmine, but the most obvious nesters locally are the magpies.

Now I have to confess I am a fan of all the crow family. We are very lucky to have the occasional jay pop in (surely one of the UK’s most beautiful birds) but normally Corvid presence is limited to either the pair of magpies or my one time nemesis the local carrion crow (and his paramour). I say nemesis; like Holmes and Moriarty, I have a grudging respect for my enemy, despite my efforts to thwart his evil schemes. This is the bird that for a period of weeks caused havoc on the bird feeder because he had learned to unhook the feeders from the pole; once on the ground, he could plunder their contents. He saw through a number of attempted fixes until finally I defeated him with some plastic garden ties. But I do think he is a marvellous bird, a huge brute in a riot of glossy black and darkest blue.

I also am fond of the magpies, who again, are worth a second look to see how gorgeous their plumage is in the breeding season. The local pair has been hard at work building a nest in a nearby evergreen. It has taken them a few weeks; sadly it will be to no avail.

The other day, it was obvious that the crows had rumbled the magpie’s nest location. There was no deception on the part of the crows. They just sat there, watching the increasingly panicked magpies with that unconcerned look of the villain that says ‘nothing you can do, Mr Magpie, is going to stop us now’ (evil cackle). The magpies have tried to drive them off, but they are less than half the size of the crow, and that beak of the larger bird is more than capable of dealing a death blow in an instant to the magpie so they are not really making much progress.

The upshot of this is the magpies will fail to breed this year. They will go through with the egg-laying most likely, but the crows will remember – because they have excellent memories for this sort of thing – and will come back and take either the eggs or the chicks, and there is nothing the magpies can do to stop them. It is quite sad in a way; but the crows have chicks to feed as well, and from our point of view we need both these birds to help clear up all the rubbish we leave around where we live.

The good news for the magpies is that they can live up to for several years (the oldest recorded was 21), so they will have a chance to breed next year – maybe even try again late in the season.

The bad news is that crows have an even longer lifespan and (voice drops to sinister East End whisper) ‘we knows where you live…’


And so it begins. Where it will end will largely depend on where the characters take me…

One of the great passions I have is the birds hat come to our garden. I’ve been seen sprinting out making hissing noises at cats in order to drive the things off – I don’t want the sweet purring little alien predators (because folks, that’s what they are) in my garden threatening the local birds and the migrants passing through.

Especially as we have a nice group of long tailed tits at the moment which is exciting as normally they stick to woodland. We’re missing the goldfinches but they bred successfully with us last year so I am hoping that they’ll be back in a few weeks. Certainly there are signs of nest construction with more birds suspiciously carrying sticks around, and when I had my hair cut on our decking recently the cut hair was snaffled pretty quick… I rather like the idea that my decreasing stock of hair is going into nest lining. One of the joys is watching characters among the resident birds. One year we had a field fare that was just nuts and insisted on chasing off every other bird that came into the garden away from our windfall apples. He was quite good at it too, although he spent so much time chasing that he never actually seemed to eat any of his precious resource. This year we have been amused by one of our magpie who has learned to balance on the feeder and get at the fat balls, though only by using his tail and wings to fully extent himself in quite an impressive developed technique. Unfortunately he or she is not able to balance properly at the moment as the poor thing has lost its tail feathers. We have seen this bird taunting a dog fox that sometimes comes into the garden before now and really living dangerously; I suspect he didn’t move fast enough and had to sacrifice his tail. Or maybe it was one of the cats. But I suspect it was a combination of over irritated fox and overconfident magpie. If you can’t be bothered to fly when God gave you wings you might as well expect the worse.

At least the weather is improving so as we tick the days of winter off with the proverbial pencil we can look forward to everything bursting into life and what we think of is the true sign of spring which is when the ducklings start to appear and delight us with their Brownian motion on the lake in Verulamium park, just like a bunch of six year olds high on sugar at a birthday party, and with a similar lack of any kind of direction or observation of hazards. But at the moment, the mallards are currently still engaged in the charming ritual of drowning the poor females in what must be one of the most brutal forms of mating in the animal kingdom. Try not to look, instead watch the swans in their courting dance form that lovely heart shape with their curved necks. It is less traumatic.