Archive for the ‘Home Front, Back and Sides.’ Category

We Don’t Know …

Back in the 1960s (if memory serves I could look … and, yes, dammit, I know I could probably look it up on the all-wise internettage but what the hell ?)

And, anyway that simple act would cause me to – entirely – lose my thread (“do you have something you wish to share with the rest of the class as any of my many teachers would have asked those grinning-wryly readers at this point. “No? I thought not!”

In the eager-beaver way of my rural youth I imagined all kinds of adventures on nearby Cannock Chase. Here was the Forestry Commission becoming public minded: involving said public, serving the public, allowing the public access to their land for the first time … indeed, actively encouraging participation. They had been engaged, their publicity machine said, in putting up nest boxes, bat boxes, trail markers and what-all else. So I was keen to be one of the first explorers of Forestry Commission wildlife trails ever; me, with my practical knowledge and my I-Spy badges for identification (not really but I saved the cards!)

Deer, red? Tick.

Deer, fallow: check.

Woodpeckers, green: yessir.

And I remember seeing what I thought – at the time – was a misguided (dying?) fat-assed bumble bee disappearing into a hole in the ground and asking why it wasn’t going home to a hive … Now I cannot remember whether I actually asked this question out loud, but I do definitely remember not getting an answer.

Cut to May, 2017.

Deer, once shy creatures rarely glimpsed on Cannock Chase are now, seemingly beyond control (if not yet beyond counting). They have been glimpsed in Walsall Town Centre and are residents now in the agricultural land around my mom’s house. Indeed last night she rang and informed me there had been a muntjac on the back lawn – first actual sighting down there but, of course, they must have been around for decades (shy etc.)

In our own garden, which I try to manage as wildlife friendly, we have, among other features, umpteen nest boxes for birds (the one placed high in the lime has blue tits present, the one on the house wall has, appropriately, house sparrows. Disappointingly the swallow decoy boxes have never been occupied. The purpose, I believe is to make other hirondelles think previous generations have built there, so encouraging new nests. Not so far, but I live in hope (also a small town in Texas).

There is a more ancient box by a Salix vitellina next to the packed-with-seedlings, lean-to cold-frame and, for a while it seemed a pair of robins were moving in. Clearly they had a change of mind and tried again in the wood pile.

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About a week ago, strolling by, I noticed the moss, leaf skeletons and blades of dried grass seemed to have been rearranged; so, next time I wobbled down that way en route to shed I took a circumspect – but closer – look. And was surprised to find a trio of bumble bees marching around all over the surface of the material.

It seems they have taken over the site; after all, they weren’t to know I’d built the thing as an open fronted bird’s nest box were they? And I am pleased – and reminded about that little moment all of those years ago on Forestry Commission land.

Bumble bees are regular visitors to the garden, entertaining with their ought-to-be-impossible manoeuvres, that reassuringly deep buzzing flight and clownish ways of collecting nectar and pollen. Bumblebees are larger and hairier than their honey bee relatives. This means they can be about when the temperature is lower. This is, however important because they do not manage to build up a big stock of food in their smaller nests. They literally have to go out and forage – or starve. For this reason gardens (hopefully) like ours with a steady supply of nectar rich flowers and blossom are a god-send for bumbles.

In return – and at the same time – they are important pollinators of our crops. The nest, started by an overwintering queen, may not survive longer than a few months (depending on the vigour of the queen, the weather, predation and – I guess – luck, so I take the opportunity to take a peek every now and then, absorbed by the simple pleasure, taken by the energy and altruistic activity I observe.

Often there are two or three, walking about on the top of the pile, which doesn’t seem to have been added to, and, after a while, one will stir its wings and hover gently away. In my mind something like a Chris Voss version of a Chinook leaving on a mission.

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And my mind is taken back to that naïve query on the edge of a forest car park. We never know what we don’t know do we?

*Much more useful and interested information on bumble bees at this site

http://bumblebeeconservation.org/

… and the Smug Feeling …

DSC03468There’s a reason I’m clinging onto the guttering while perched on a too-short ladder footed on a board (that until twenty minutes ago held six terra cotta pots of over-wintering fuchsias in our greenhouse) on top of the roof of the laundry room roof.

Our elder daughter and her partner were coming over today. He was bringing his extendable ladder that would reach from the ground to the roof and we would clean all of the accumulated moss and debris from said guttering. Debatable which of us would actually be mounting the rungs: he being allegedly a feared of heights and me suffering from the remnants of some kind of virus (Mostly recovered now, thanks for asking).

But then we discover that. The ladder. Doesn’t. Actually. Reach.

We’ve tried roping another ladder on to it. But, even for me, it looks risky. The vertical sides don’t marry up and thirteen metres of marine-standard rope won’t make it any safer. It won’t fall down and it is lashed tightly enough that the whole won’t collapse, but there’s a dangling propensity for sideways slippage before I’m even half way up. Discretion is the better part of most things, especially when you are taking on verticality eh?

So we root around, trying to bodge together a tool that’ll reach from the lower storey roof along the guttering so we can scrape the rubbish back to us and scoop it out. A dessert spoon, a garden rake, hand trowel?

Then, looking across the gardens from this lofty flat roof perch I espy Ian in his back garden. Maybe he can help. He’s got a big van that’s positively bristling with ladders.

I call out to him; there are only five gardens between us and I’m kind of famous for having a big voice (trust me that’s a whole different story). His partner is in the garden with him, kneeling by the aviaries there. They both look around. Funny how we always look at eye level first: then see me.

We converse about types of ladder and the two of us set out from our back garden to get the ladder.

No need, as it turns out. Before we reach the end of the road Ian’s big wagon is trundling round the corner.

He’d been checking out his bonsai collection he tells us. Funny really, he’s always friendly and helpful, but a big guy, skin covered with tattoos and hardly the sort that’d strike you as a bonsai practitioner (if there is a special term for this I don’t know it – yet!). Our kids (kind of grew up together) and he’s a marvellously generous big guy with a skin full of tattoos: not at all what you might expect from those mischievously misleading first impressions.

He gives us a brief introduction to his hobby and I’m fascinated (“You don’t call it privet if it’s a bonsai: that’ll be a ligustrum,” he informs us).

His ladders are perfect! Secure, heavy and easy to manoeuvre. Strangely the back guttering is fairly full of moss, but the front one has absolutely none. Theories pass between us: prevailing wind direction seems the obvious one. Remember that a theory is, after all, only the latest explanation that best fits all the known facts (including the Theory of Evolution). So, the job is accomplished in double quick time and we sit in the wonderfully warm sunshine around the wood burning stove in the Dell at the bottom of our garden. Even though it is a warm, blue-skied day the upwards change in temperature is tangible as we step nearer to the stove. Coffee, cake, the satisfaction of a job done and – yes – the smugness that can only come with knowing you have clean gutters.

The Unladen Weight: A Soap-Box Moment.

All those planting seasons ago when I ventured to start this blog I had no real plan other than to have a bash at describing events, effects and reflections generated by renting a standard allotment plot in South Staffordshire; lazily thinking that, surely a lot of human life and the human condition might be reflected within the confines of those hawthorn hedges.

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The title is a nod of the head to a sage comment made at the time by my friend, co-gardener and wife (often referred to in the blog as the Plantation Owner’s Wife. You see, at the time allotments were nowhere near as popular as they are at present and the plots I was offered (“Take it or leave it!” were the exact words) was over shadowed by a monstrous, thick hedge over flowing with pernicious weeds (squitch (couch grass), mare’s tails, docks and nettles) and hadn’t been dug for at least a decade. A ramshackle ”greenhouse”, bodged together from window frames and plywood and held together by hope and gravity stood in a sea of comfrey, next to a three feet high pile of stones and scraps of industrial carpet. Now I knew that I could make something out of it, but my wife simply sighed and said:

“They saw you coming if you’ve said yes to that!”

Whoops!

Hook, line and sinker became Muck, Line and Thinker. I hope and apt description for some of my ramblings. And the overgrown mess became a very productive, inspirational plot alongside the beginnings and developments of friendships, banter and experimentation with new crops and techniques.

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But the blog is salted with asides from my other lives and connections and bits and pieces picked up (books read, radio programmes heard (or misheard) observations on life and – hopefully – an injection or two of humour).

Indeed only last week I heard a comment by a primary school teacher in passing.

“I think it was on telly …” she was saying as I overheard unintentionally “… they were saying every child ought to b taught to recognise every British bird. I though t what a great idea. I couldn’t do it; I don’t know ‘em all.”

There was a pause. Neither of the two people she was with passed comment.

“Then I thought,” she went on, “that’s not enough. Maybe they should also be taught to know every kind of tree …”

At this point they were walking out of earshot. I was intrigued. By her honesty (in admitting her lack of knowledge) and the concept. I can recognise a lot of our bird species. I began to learn them from my grandfather, then from field guides and by asking. Trees too.

I have often been accused of having a grasshopper mind (ever tried to catch a grasshopper?) and of divergent thinking. As if either of those things is in any way wrong!

On hearing this snippet I am thrilled (“what a great idea, I love it!” a tiny fraction of my (tiny, let me say it so you don’t need to eh?) brain is cheering. But another part is remembering, and applying, something I heard on radio some years ago;

“Why not do both … and more!”*

It sounded so liberating: teach the kids the names of the birds. But how to do it? Show ‘em pictures of a chaffinch, a snowy egret, a marsh harrier. Copy out the names underneath? Just not appropriate. In my opinion – and my experience – I learned the names of the birds that were in the garden, in the farmyard, in the fields, on long, rambling no-purpose walks. I don’t remember setting out to learn the names of every bird, or every tree. Such knowledge as I might have crept up on me. And I didn’t learn the names in isolation, but linked to their behaviours, their location, their habits and habitats.

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Because I was curious. Because I am curious still.

I learned as a result of what I happened to be doing: chopping kindling, getting the cattle in to be milked, fishing for tadpoles in the local brook, collecting conkers. A kind of sympatico osmosis, because I wanted to.

Now it is true that if we want to conserve today’s wildlife and landscapes we have to engage youngsters, show them the delights of the countryside, the web of inter-relating causes and effects. “if it’s not important to them, if they don’t have knowledge and a perspective they won’t vote to save it in the future” argument is absolutely valid. And the schools starting to get involved in the Forest Schools Initiative are going some way towards it but there is a deeper role for parents and families to play. Because, it seems schools are straitjacketed and delivering a very narrow assessment-driven curriculum. So ..…

… and anyway:

What about species of flowers, breeds of farm livestock, models of cars … the unladen weight of an African swallow ?

* It was a question asked of a theatre director – what should drive theatre programmes: bums on seats or eyes on stalks?

 

Snow Moon: Pause for Reflection?

I’m learning such a lot from social media (though I realise it may not all be correct, know what I mean fellow conspiracy theorists?).

For example every full moon, apparently has a name, so last night’s February’s full moon is known as the Snow Moon*. According to a U.S. almanac web-site this tradition dates back to the native American tribes during colonial times, but has an element of prediction:

“And the Native Americans were right. On average, February is the USA’s snowiest month, according to data from the National Weather Service.”

N.B. I am living in central England, and the names of the full moons have graduated across the Pond. Last night this coincided with a penumbral eclipse. However both were invisible as flat grey clouds blanketed the skies.

And, sure enough Cochise, snow was falling gently this morning when I raised my head. First thoughts were about whether the football game at Bolton (I am a long-standing Walsall fan) would still be on and what travel arrangements did we need to make?

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But then logic and wonder (not usual bed fellows) took over. Stock up the bird feeders. Spend a calming few minutes watching from the back bedroom window. Grateful visitors swarm in: chaffinch, goldfinch, long tailed tits, a single robin, blackbirds that spend more time squabbling than eating, a pair of crows, their would be neighbours the magpies, a house sparrow looking brightly coloured against the snow.

A whole blizzard of starlings drop in; their ability to feed from every single piece of equipment becoming obvious. There is a wood peckerish quality about these garrulous birds: their bills, their ability grasp a vertical surface, the fact that they will nest in tree trunk holes. Blue tits, the same pair I speculate that are working on the entrance to the new nest box high in the lime tree have ceased their courting and visit the table: eager and greedy.

Over the eight foot fence a cat that has been sneakily sheltering beneath a no-longer-used trampoline, slinks away between broken fence panels.

There is a sense of déjà vu here. Facebook has reminded me of a photo I took in 2013. Scarily similar.

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The crow versus magpie saga continues as I watch their WWF tag-wrestler-style behaviour on the lawn. The smaller magpies trying to exert some kind of dominance repeatedly fail to do so. The crows are wary, but not even slightly intimidated. This magpie pair have conceded the existing nest site to their larger cousins, but still visit it regularly, while also starting to build –from scratch – a new platform nest. On two separate occasions the crows have popped in and, literally picked it apart and dropped it from a great height. It is, after all, no more than thirty feet from their own nest-to-be. The mags cannot take the hint and, to date, have re-built it twice.

I am reminded of the Spy v Spy cartoons that appeared in Mad magazine.

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But, doesn’t this behaviour also mirror the “boundary dispute” in progress up at the allotment. No malice between ourselves and the house owner, but dispute between official parties (of course it is not quite so simple) that is going on and on. Most recently the house owner has removed his front hedge and intentionally or not the contractors doing the job have also taken out some of the hedge between the allotments and the Wolverhampton Road. Again we have a case of watch-this space as arbitration/discussion/resolution are at least as far away as they were before.

I am brought to mind of a “small talk” conversation with one of The stewards at Walsall Football Club last Saturday. We were discussing the weather (usual topic for English people – we have so much of it after all – and I said we needed a sustained cold spell to get rid of snails and slugs. Wise chap, humouring ing the paying customer, nodded sagely. Is today the beginning of a cold snap?

By the time I am setting out for the traffic marmalade that passes for roads between here and Bolton, the snow has turned to rain.

*Other web sites are available and one such talks of the green comet which should, cloud permitting be visible from earth for a couple of nights. Green Comet? My mind is racing; surely a DC super hero? Whose alter-ego is a mild mannered allotmenteer?

Super-powers ?

Hmmm …

Any suggestions ?

The Magic of Trees?

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Returning happily (we won!) from a home game I am pleased that the wide, pink skies are still light at half past five. This must be spring getting closer I’m thinking. Encouraging! Longer daylight hours, more time for outdoor evening activities. I’m also brought back to a time I spent with friends in Bergen – and an experience in the primary school where they worked.

A group of ten year old children at dinner time ere hauling the standard two inch something fire hose along the main corridor.

“You should see this,” they told me, as they pushed and pulled the anaconda nozzle out through a classroom window – and dragged it towards a ring of pine trees growing in the play area. Now the play area I should explain was not a level playing field, but sloped, included outcrops of the mountain rocks, the ridged, toe-trap roots of trees, lawns and copses. A child poking a stick down a lidless storm drain raised no eyebrows and there were never teachers – visibly – on duty.

A cleared circle at the centre of the spinney had a fire pit and around fifteen or so of the children had prepared a classic wig-wam of kindling. Which they duly set fire to, then added additional fuel. It was all very well organised. Next, to my surprise each of them sharpened a fifteen inch or so long ash skewer (with sheath knives) and used this to cook a sausage over the flames. Someone else (they took it in turns I was told) had brought bread (but not everyone wanted bread with their sausage).

“This week I bring the meat, next week the fuel …”

Together they sat, talked and took their responsibilities so very maturely. Something in the experience had me thinking of my own childhood in-charge-of-fires, another part had me thinking how very far removed from the reams of health and safety paperwork this was from a child’s life in an English school: the playground surfaces, the fire … and, please, nobody mention those knives!

It was all so very normal for the Norwegian kids: part of the marvellous forest schools that also had them spending half a day every week in the local forest (you are rarely far away from a forest in Norway) and granted permission –if not actively encouraged – to have a fire while there.

Then, completing the twenty five minute journey from the game I look at a blog that, coincidentally links with the flashback:

https://quercuscommunity.com/2017/02/03/friluftsliv/

The post is well worth a look, but is essentially about a Norway-wide philosophy that time spent out of doors is beneficial, even more so if it can be spent with nature. It doesn’t require great wilderness treks, but relieves stress and helps the mind to concentrate. The Victorian town planners with their parks and arboretums, the model-factory owners were visionary in their grasp of this concept it would seem, even though the word “friluftsliv” had yet to be coined.

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The same can be said for time spent up at the allotment – though, during winter’s dark passage this is done dutifully, rather than with any actual work going on (for me at any rate). The plans to lay the hedge, to set out paths, to repair retaining banks has been put on hold while the border dispute goes on.

However, the time usually spent up there is liberating: just enough work to employ the muscles, enough repetition to not tax the brain – and fresh air and, sometimes, the craic. Friluftsliv indeed!

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There is yet another serendipitous coincidence; I am currently reading a book, The man Who made Things Out Of Trees (Robert Penn) in which he mentions shinrin-yoku (or “forest bathing”) practised in Japan:

 

“… basically going for a stroll in an ancient forest – is a standard form of preventative medicine. Inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, nearly a quarter of the Japanese population still enjoys forest bathing today. There is also a field of study that tries to understand not just why walking in fragrant, old-growth forests is good for us but also how the magic of trees works on humans at a molecular level, in our cells and neurons. The data is compelling: leisurely forest walks reduce heart rate and blood pressure, decrease sympathetic nerve activity and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”

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“Research has examined the relationship between trees and the perception of safety in inner cities, the effect of gardening on the quality of life of people with disabilities, and how the use of wood in interiors can reduce levels of stress in schools. The effect of wood in hospitals has been studied in many countries, including Finland, Norway, Austria, South Korea, Japan, USA, Canada and Denmark. The research is far from conclusive but seems to show that humans react positively to wood in interiors both psychologically and physiologically. The findings correspond with research that suggests spending time in nature improves cognition, helps with anxiety and depression, and even enhances human empathy.

The polymath American biologist EO Wilson first propounded his theory of biophilia – that we have a deep affiliation with other forms of life, like trees, which is instinctive and rooted in our biology – in the mid-80s. Around the same time, Professor Roger S Ulrich completed one of the first and best-known studies in the interdisciplinary field now known as environmental psychology. Ulrich’s conclusion – that patients recovering from surgery in rooms with a window facing natural surroundings took less medicine for pain relief than patients with a window facing a brick wall – was ground-breaking.

The magic of trees works on humans at a molecular level, in our cells and neurons. The data is compelling.”

Certainly we felt better, having completed a steady four mile walk across Cannock Chase, From Marquis Drive to Birches Valley and back, sharing the forest trails with cyclists, walkers, dogs towing adults, horse riders and three outdoor classes (two for off road cycling and one for orienteering). The Chase is a popular place, deservedly so – and on Sunday morning neither of us, unusually objected to the company. There may be a little Norwegian in all of us I suspect.

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Twitcher’s Temptations

How the weather can alter, catching you out at every turn if you’re not prepared. And how blasé were we, getting used to easily-above-freezing overnight temperatures in January?

On the very days we have front windows and the patio doors that lead out to the back garden replaced the Midlands experiences a blast of Arctic wind and overnight frosts of some severity. All credit to the two cheerful guys sorting out the glazing, listening to Radio Two and joking about wearing shorts (surely only postal delivery workers do that in winter?) going about their business – great job by the way. (Sealed units in the previous windows had leaked and for two years (or more) we’ve been trying to see through layers of condensation as well as the leaded lights.)

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Water in the wheelbarrow, stupidly left in the right way up (usually I stand it up against the allotment shed door) didn’t thaw for three days straight. Giving me an idea:

We have been trying, unsuccessfully of course to get rid of the pondweed (“duckweed”) in our back garden pond. Ever since, in fact, a well-meaning fool (I see him every morning in the mirror) had the idea that it would encourage wildlife to visit the pond and cut out the process of eutrophication. But, by golly its persistent! But during these freezes its all trapped in a surface layer of ice so, using a handle less shovel I simply slid the panels of frozen water out of the pond and onto the lawn. Where they sat, un melted for a couple of days. Nothing is simple, needless to say and about a handful of the fast-multiplying plants evaded capture, but for a while at least I can pretend I’m winning.

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The cold weather had a dramatic effect on bird visitors too. And the amount of time they spent in the garden. Greenfinches came (absent for so long), a trio of waxwings, a single (male) reed bunting, a very speedy coal tit joined the regulars at the “service station”. There was a high flying flock of lapwings (one of my favourite birds as a youngster) and the return to our skies of buzzards.

Then it’s the first official day of the RSPB Great Garden Birdwatch – and it is warm and raining!

Ridiculously, when you consider it, in reality it doesn’t matter. But I was psyching myself up to record a bumper list of visitors. Instead in the time I planned to do the observation – between nine and ten in the morning (this following the time when I add feed to the range of feeders about the garden – and birds being creatures of habit as well as opportunists it seemed to make strategic sense) – I sit in the upstairs bedroom (better view of the whole garden) and ponder. There was a guy on breakfast TV from the RSPB who broadcast some statistics/comparisons.

The Big Garden Birdwatch has been going for more than thirty years now (last year half a million people sent in their records). But the time-to-observe has been extended, its over three days now. I get it: it gives more people the chance to take part and, importantly organisations like schools (where grounds can be key to wildlife) but it also makes me wonder how valid comparisons can be. I’m not thinking this in a negative way: indeed I love the idea of the rise of “people’s science”.

Also the instruction are not simply tally mark every time you spot a species, and, rather harshly, I am not certain every participant will understand exactly what is needed to make the results credible. This swill, if I am correct mean dubious results.

But – and this is extremely snobbish of me – how accurate will observations be? How well do others (it’s always others isn’t it, because we all know that what we are recording is a hundred per cent accurate don’t we? Editor’s note.) There is what we know as the “pterodactyl factor” where gullible people have been convinced that here was a rare species in the vicinity. How does the RSPB deal with this?

I suddenly realise that there are wood pigeons feeding from the table –and I dash outside (very unscientifically) to rebuild the woven-from-canes roof I have put there to prevent the ungainly monsters snacking on the precious food. I have to confess my partiality here: wood pigeons are not popular with allotmenteers – and they gobble up the food so rapidly that other species must starve. Wood pigeons indeed remind me of Hercules cargo planes: big, grey, safe and heavy … and I prefer the helicopter antics of the tit family or the marauding style of the Spitfire-like starlings.

And then, I must confess I am sorely tempted to add some of the birds that have been here over the past forty eight hours (the waxwings: surely it won’t make a big difference – and they were definitely here ironically in the top of the rowan tree that was stripped of the looked-for red berries well before Christmas by redwings!). But I resist. Because this is the twitcher in me trying to take over, to show off, to have better results (because nobody is watching right? Nobody checking?) It would be pointless. I know that these other species have visited the garden and that should be enough. I smile; just a few moments ago I was casting aspersions on the integrity of others and look what just happened!

The whole bonus might just be, of course, the increase in the number of people joining in and being interested in what is going on in their own gardens! This should lead to engagement in the wider environment. It is well served by the number of people, I guess, feeding birds and the range and quality of bird feeds available – from almost every shop in the high street.

It is also fed by the wonderful RSPB website which promises additional tasks monthly that people can undertake at home to increase wildlife habitats/provision. And not all just about birds. Gotta be a good thing!

The Cleverness of Crows.

True to my posted word (see https://mucktwineandthinker.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/walks-and-memories/ ) we have started putting food out for the birds again. I am never sure whether the right thing to do is to actually feed them all year round, but, as something of a traditionalist I tend to think feed them when their natural food is harder to find (yes, yes, yes, I realise the ramifications of artificially raising population umbers and so on – or, I convince myself that I do).

So we have a rather elegant wrought iron construction, with a twelve inch (30 cm.) diameter mesh tray to place food on and various hooks to suspend “peanut/blue tit feeders from. Duly cleaned and looking resplendent it is starting to attract birds. Starlings. Blackbirds? We have a whole gang, usually accompanied by a number of redwings and a couple of fieldfares. A solitary – but massive – song thrush, blue and great tits, wood pigeons (scourge of allotmenteers) and collared doves. Magpies patrol, never far from a nest exposed high in a neighbour’s silver birch – and delightfully a couple of days ago  – a green woodpecker. Not on the table or the lawn, but in the small leaved lime at the end of the garden.

When we first moved to the house we’d keep a “twitcher’s” list of visiting birds (fascinated by the antics, I remember of a reed bunting pair). Now we are more than happy just to observe what comes to take the assorted bacon, nuts, apple, bread, and attack the fat balls.

But this time the fat balls ( a couple of Imperial inches* in diameter) disappear amazingly quickly. While we are not watching. It makes me wonder whether I actually did put any on the table … but yes I definitely did.

Then, considering the options I wonder whether rats have been able (surely they are agile enough?) to drag them down and secrete them away (memories of Templeton in Charlotte’s Web and an addled egg). Or a grey squirrel, though they are around about we haven’t seen one in the garden recently. Raking yet more fallen leaves from the lawn I find the remains of a fat ball. By the garden shed, beneath the Korean pine. Rats? I don’t want to have to say this aloud in the presence of the Plantation Owner’s Wife – but …

“I know what took that stuff off the bird table,” she tells me the next night. I may look a trifle worried at this point (rather than what I like to think is a raffish deadpan poker face). Should I have mentioned my suspicion of the rodent population?

“it’s crows!” she says, eager to explain. It transpires she watched a crow, on the adjacent eight foot wall with one of the fat balls. A full sized one! The bird stayed there for a while, before tipping the ball into next door’s garden and flew away.

I had never considered that a bird might have taken them. Too heavy surely? Unwieldy; definitely.

But I had reckoned without the intelligence and dogged persistence of this bird family (mynahs: those noted mimics, jays, jackdaws, hoodies and our own carrion crows).

Undefeated I put another couple of fat balls onto the table this morning. And, never thinking that the bandits would strike again I watch for a while from the bedroom window. Better view from up there – and a vista of all the adjoining gardens which the birds also use – of course. A lone chaffinch, queues of starlings, outriders, scouts and sentries all around while others feed. Shuffling in the holly tree, branches waving: woodpigeons. Then as I watch a pair of crows glide in. One settles on a nearby chimney, the other is straight onto the wall. I am curious: how do they manage? Will they repeat the trick again; indeed, is this the same crow?

The crow walks its almost human walk so it is closer to the bird feeders. I am wishing that I had my camera with me; that the window was open so I could get a decent snap of this. But more is to follow: it launches itself at the top of the structure: misses, overflies and lands on the lawn. This, in itself is a first. We have seen crows on the roof slopes around us, pecking at critters, presumably in the moss – or taking the moss for nesting in season. But never in the garden. I had imagined they lacked the confidence to land: not enough room to take off again if necessary?

It tries again: up onto the wall, tripping along to the table; another launch, another failure. But eventually (that damned persistence!) it gets the distances and effort correct and is perched and balanced atop the post. With the agility of a parrot it sidles around the metal, slides down the hanger and topples – a little ungraciously, onto the table.

I am put in mind of the Aesop’s fable that has a crow carrying small pebbles to a water jug to raise the level of water so it can drink – after much effort. And the behaviour of the other critters it meets that don’t have the foresight to understand or the patience to help out (though, if memory serves they are all very thirsty).

However, this individual cannot lift the load. It simply cannot fit it into its gape, so is reduced to using that butcher-hook bill to stabbing at the ball, taking chunks out.

The second one now loops down onto the wall, causing the first one to leave: effectively they swap places: the first is now the lookout. This bird is far more competent and swiftly grasps the ball in a wider beak and without a falter takes it onto the wall, then away onto a neighbouring flat roofed garage. Finally away into the grey distances.

Image result for image crow bird table

So they have remembered – and they will be back again and again – and our feeding station will be decimated – with no entertainment value for ourselves. Not having that!

Can I find a way to fasten the food to the table? Florist wire, heated up and pushed through the centres to bind the things to the mesh floor of the table? That’s the short lengths of florist wire used, topically at this time of year to make holly wreaths – and we have plenty of it about. Maybe heat up the ends so they will melt their way through the grease holding the seeds and nuts together? Worth a try?

I put a pan of water onto the hob to eat up.

Might as well rescue the one from the table to begin with eh?

I unlock the door, stride outside …

… I swear I have only been a few – pondering – minutes … but the second fat ball has been spirited away. There was lil ol’ me thinking the birds would have taken time to break up and eat the first one when, indeed they’d been back to snaffle away the second and, no doubt, store it away somewhere – in the way jays are said to do with acorns (often resulting in oak trees popping up nowhere close to established oaks). What a sign of intelligence – added to the opportunism which granted them the chance in the first place, the memory to revisit the same place – and the entrepreneurial spirit that had them taking that bit more than they needed while it was available. How – for good or ill – human-like.

The supreme intelligence of these birds. If it might not be taken as an insult I’d be inclined to say very human behaviour.

*five centimetres.

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