Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

PEELING carrots with arthritic fingers – and considerable difficulty – I suddenly thought how wonderful the human hand is (not mine, of course). With its opposable thumb and clever fingers, it drove our evolution from flint-knapping to texting, from cave painting to exquisite embroidery, and, of course, carrot-peeling. Think, though, of the deftness which many wild creatures have developed over millennia – and without any hands. This is particularly observable now, as the breeding season begins.

My sister in Scotland noticed great bare patches in the moss on a garden path. Foraging corvids, perhaps? Then, in woodland across the lane, she discovered a red squirrel’s drey with a neat, bright green roof. A few days later she watched a young female squirrel on the feeders. Having finished its meal, it didn’t dash off to the left of the house as usual, but veered right, hurrying to where a leylandii hedge had been felled. Intrigued, Susie watched and saw the young animal begin to gnaw at the dead bark and rive it off in strips. These were then wrestled into a bundle, seized in her jaws and borne away in triumph – no doubt to form insulation for a breeding drey. This reminded me of watching a badger in a bluebell wood as it scratched together a huge pile of dead grass, bracken and bluebell leaves, scrunched them into a large ball and reversed rapidly along a winding badger-path and into the sett, the bedding material secured between chin and chest.

Birds, however, are the architects-cum engineers-cum-builders par excellence, and all with just beak and body. You don’t need to go to Africa to admire the hanging globes of weaver birds’ nests. Just consider our long-tailed tits. A friend has been observing a pair building their intricate, stretchy “pudding-bag” nest in a bush near her window. It took only four days to create the main structure of moss, grass, lichen and cobwebs, though it can take three weeks, depending on the availability of materials. I read that someone counted over a thousand feathers forming the cosy lining of such a nest. Every bit of material had to be located and collected, each feather had to be found (probably on a bird corpse), plucked and carried back to the nest-site, then intricate weaving and careful securing had to be done, usually in the middle of a prickly bush.

It’s as though you fashioned an entire cabin from recycled scrap using just your teeth. Then you had to sing – for weeks!