Saturday, 26 April 2014

Red in tooth and claw

(image from Wikipedia Commons)

For 18 days I've kept my binoculars trained on the spiky firethorn bush at the bottom of the garden. It's grown wild and dense, with straggly top branches stretching upwards, its new leaves a fresh caterpillar green and the few remains of its Autumnal abundance of bright orange berries now withered and dry. In a couple of months where there were berries there will be masses of tiny fragrant white flowers, full of nectar for the moths and bees and hoverflies.

These last 18 days it's been the haven for a female song thrush.  Did you know that an archaic name for the song thrush is 'Throstle' and another one is 'Mavis'?!  From the kitchen window I was thrilled to watch 'Mavis' build her nest there, negotiating her way between the thorny fingers with great beakfuls of dried grass and moss, followed by mud for its lining. I can just about see a small section of it from my vantage point, its tight basket weave distinguishing it from the random criss-cross of surrounding branches. For the last two weeks she's hunkered down there, protecting perhaps four or five bright blue speckled eggs, keeping them warm beneath her soft body. Occasionally I've caught sight of her leaving it briefly to feed, then returning and settling down for another sitting.  It feels like such a privilege that she's chosen this little garden in which to introduce her brood to the world and I've been on tenterhooks waiting for the next, crucial stage.

As with all the creatures with whom we share the garden, I feel a kind of duty of care to this unborn family. I've been worrying mostly about the neighbour's cat who, whilst a bit half-hearted when it comes to hunting, would no doubt find it hard to resist a vulnerable fledgeling as yet unskilled at flying. But the shrubbery is thick and its undergrowth difficult to access; a small, freckled baby bird will be well-camouflaged and hidden from feline predators, so it stands a decent chance.

Song thrush chicks usually hatch after about 12-14 days so their due date has just passed. I've been eagerly looking out for signs of life, so excited at the prospect of witnessing their development, ready to help the parents by providing soft fat and sultanas for them to feed on themselves as they diligently collect small grubs and slugs for their new offpsring.  It will be a busy time and Mavis will need to leave her nest more often.  Any time now...  Any time now.

This morning I was working in the shedio, hunkered down like a bird on the nest myself, when I became vaguely aware of a sound I haven't heard quite as close for a while. A hoarse croaking... a cackle. Lost in my painting I didn't really register for a moment, until it seemed to become particularly urgent and it dawned on me what it was. Of course! It was a magpie. And then my heart sank as I realised. I looked out the window and across to the firethorn, and through the greenery I saw the black and white. Pied wings flapped as the magpie pushed its bulky body through the gaps between the spiky branches and then I knew what it was after, what was worth the effort of squeezing past those thorns, and what was happening.

The magpie flew off but I suspect it wasn't the first time it had visited this morning. On checking through the binoculars several times this afternoon and evening, there's no sign of my song thrush on her nest and no sign of movement within it. I will check again tomorrow but, sadly I think I know what I will see – or perhaps, more to the point, what I won't see.

It's just nature, I know: red in tooth and claw. Presumably the magpie will have eaten well today, or perhaps fed tiny morsels of fresh, tender meat to its own young on a nest in a bush not far away. And Mavis can build another one and before the season is out she may rear several young. Most will not survive their first year, but with luck some will - and maybe next Spring one will find our garden and breed with more success, undisturbed by marauding magpies.   I do hope so.

Summer is coming, summer is coming
I know it, I know it, I know it.
Light again, leaf again, life again, love again,
Yes, my wild little poet.


(From 'The Throstle', Alfred Lord Tennyson)

14 comments:

  1. Much as I love Magpies I often wonder if their growing numbers, they were a rare sight when I was young and now they seem common, doesn't account for the dwindling songbird numbers more than the domestic cat, who in my experience seem far less interested in hunting than their forebears

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    1. I'm reassured by your experience with cats - the neighbour's one doesn't seem that bothered about hunting much of the time, either, he's more interested in getting his tummy rubbed!
      I'm sure there are probably worse dangers for birds to face. It's so sad that our songbird numbers are dwindling; I think it may have a lot to do with more intense, efficient farming methods so they're having to rely more on gardens for food and nesting. That in turn is bringing the magpies in as well, so perhaps that's why we see more of them these days?

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    2. I always get cross when people moan about the seagulls around here, if we hadn't eaten all the fish, built bungalows near their nesting sites and didn't leave all our rubbish out for them to plunder they wouldn't be nesting on our chimney pots and waking everyone up at dawn!

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    3. I share your sentiments CA!

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  2. You are have been pretty privileged to have a thrush in your garden as they seem to be getting frighteningly scarce. Nature is a very harsh thing, isn't it? Makes you wonder why it has to work that way but I suppose that's just the awful sentimentalist speaking. I do hope mother thrush gets a chance to raise some little 'uns. Mavis? Never heard of that one!

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    1. Nothing wrong with a bit of sentimentality in the right place, SB!

      'Mavis' was a new one on me too. I love these old dialectal words!

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  3. What a lovely piece of writing C, I felt your joy and shared your sorrow. Let's hope that Mavis enjoys better fortune next time.

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    1. Thanks, TS. I confess I was disproportionately moved by the event and writing about it seemed the best form of therapy! I was delighted to hear a thrush singing again very defiantly yesterday afternoon too.

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  4. I watched a similar scene unfold one morning...as a cat from the neighborhood made several trips up and down a tree to snatch baby birds.

    It's rough out there.

    In funner bird news...a big red headed woodpecker (of the Woody variety) flew in front of my car yesterday. Those are always fun...and I bet they don't get pushed around by Magpies or cats very often.

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    1. Indeed it's rough! And then the cat went home for its tea :-(
      I haven't had a cat in 20 years but the one I had as a child, who wasn't very good at hunting at all, surprised me one morning by leaving an entire litter of dead baby mice in my bedroom. It wasn't a great thing to find, and before I'd had my breakfast too.

      I love woodpeckers, they look so comical - and your woodpeckers are much bigger than ours! I've now got the Woody Woodpecker song/laugh going through my head. I expect it will stay with me all day...

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  5. This is the first non-music related blog I've come across in a long while, that is actually fun to read. I like your style!

    Marie

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  6. What a sad ending to a happy tale.....saying that I did smile at the line ' But the shrubbery is thick and its undergrowth difficult to access;'

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    1. It was a sad ending for those thrush chicks but I'm chuffed to see baby robins all over the place now at least!
      ... I have no idea why that line made you smile, OP ;-)

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