Nature Notes

Brin Best


My wife spent much of Sunday afternoon digging in our back garden as I caught up with paperwork at our dining room table. Although this was, on the face of it, not the best context for nature observations, the afternoon resulted in some interesting sightings - and a theory I want to share with you.

The principal goal of my wife’s spadework was to rework a neglected area of our garden where some of our least favourite plants had got out of control. This resulted in large piles of freshly aerated soil, with various garden implements scattered among them.

As my wife took a well-earned tea break, a robin made a sudden appearance on one of the piles of soil. It picked about on the surface, hoovering up small creatures, then - as it to prove the stereotype - hopped on to the handle of the upright garden spade. Delightful we thought!

It was as if the robin had been waiting for my wife to finish work, so it could be the first to claim the nutritious invertebrates which had been unearthed from their subterranean sanctuary. And maybe it had?

With the robin still in sight a young male blackbird appeared, sooty black but with a dull-coloured beak. It found several large worms and devoured them at short notice, while keeping the robin at bay through aggressive manoeuvres.

A trio of avian visitors was confirmed when a dunnock shuffled on to the scene, making its appearance discretely through the bottom of the hedge. It appeared to take the smallest prey of all, hardly visible even through binoculars, as it moved slowly across the soil.

It may be tempting to think that these human-bird interactions are a recent phenomenon, the result of modern gardening activities. Yet I can well imagine a robin sitting on top of a primitive digging stick, blackbirds claiming scraps from early tribal people and dunnocks shuffling about wherever humans created foraging opportunities.

As we reflect on these nature bonds through time we’re also reminded that the birds which seek sanctuary in our gardens are not ‘just about’ surviving in a less-than-ideal habitat. They’re actively seeking out the places where people dwell, because we create perfect oases where they can live out their lives.

Sunday’s piles of soil, with their attendant robin, blackbird and dunnock, were a metaphor for a centuries-old relationship, which reaches us - and enriches us - today.