Nature Notes

by Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

Now winter is well established so is a special part of my morning ritual. I enter the kitchen to assemble my breakfast and a small figure appears on the gutter of an adjacent roof. A cock blackbird, beak and eye-rings now burnished gold, leans forward and peers at me through the kitchen window. I stare back – then I open the backdoor, remove a handful of raisins from the jar and greet my guest who has now flown down and is waiting on the doorstep. I speak a few words, then fling out the raisins which he quickly devours. This meeting will continue through the nesting, fledging and moulting seasons. By mid-September he will have left for the wild food of the countryside. He’s been visiting me for five years now.

This is an example of how wild birds have learned to profit from their human neighbours and explains why so many species, no longer finding sufficient sustenance in the countryside, rely on suburban gardens. What I find interesting is how quickly these wild visitors learn to make the most of us. Remember how, in the days when milk bottles were delivered daily and stood on doorsteps waiting for us to get up? Remember, too, how blue tits suddenly learned how to pierce the foil tops and sip the “top-of-the-milk” cream. This irritating behaviour spread throughout the country and only ceased when milk was homogenised. Now my neighbour tells me of a blackbird catching and devouring young newts from her pond, and even those most timid of birds – dunnocks- which always crept around on the ground, are now helping themselves from hanging seed-feeders. I’ve been much entertained by how my blackbirds, not designed like tits to cling on and hang upside down, have been developing strategies to access these seeds. It started with jumping from the ground below; then quick snatch and grab leaps from the fence has progressed to clinging on, with much wing-flapping, for a few seconds of munching.

Last month I wrote about the male blackcap that appeared on the fat balls. Apparently, he’s also a regular on my neighbour’s feeder. Now the female – not such a dandy, but stylish with brown-grey plumage and a jaunty ginger beret – has become a familiar sight too. Thirty years ago this species was definitely migratory, arriving in April from a winter in southern Europe or northern Africa. Now a large number overwinter here, encouraged by climate change, but sustained by garden feeders which they use with enthusiastic boldness.