Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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One for sorrow, two for joy …

“One for sorrow, two for joy …” and so the well-known rhyme begins but how many for five?  We asked ourselves this question recently when no less than five magpies landed in our cherry, birch and hawthorn trees at the same time!  They were strikingly lit by the early evening sunshine against a rather threatening grey sky although, being the driest Spring in years, the threatening cloud amounted to nothing.

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OK, so we only managed to capture 3 on camera!

I suspect that very few people would claim that the magpie is their favourite bird.  It’s certainly not mine but I do find them interesting and resourceful.  Of our local bird population, they are almost always the first to show signs of nesting.  This is usually evidenced by a pair of them in our trees tugging at smaller branches to create structure for their nest.  Where the nest is, I don’t know but it’s somewhere over to the north side from our house.  Having seen them break off pieces of twig, we then see them take off with these long strands trailing from their beaks.  Later they will be back to rummage in our grasses by the pond.  Presumably this makes good nest lining.  My only complaint is they are not very tidy about this.  Grasses do need thinning each spring and I do this by pulling my hands through them (wearing gloves as it can otherwise be a painful experience) and relieving the plant of huge great chunks of dead material which I then place in the compost bin.  The magpies, on the other hand, take the pieces of grass they fancy, leaving the rest strewn across the lawn.

As you may have noticed, magpies also chatter a lot so you soon know when they are around.  Sadly, the poor magpie is not blessed with a lovely lyrical voice like the blackbird, robin or wren, but instead makes a rather unpleasant clattering noise.  That said, it isn’t as painful on the ear as a jay!  We get a jay visit most Springs and it took a while for me to realise that it was the source of the most horrible screeching sound.  You just have to sit back and admire the colours of the jay and hope that it doesn’t decide to announce its arrival!

So what else do we know about magpies?  Well apparently their long tails account for at least half of their overall body length and their length of tail also indicates their social status.  Magpies are also known to be sedentary birds so it is highly likely that the five sitting in our trees were all related to one another and probably evidence of successful matings from previous years.  However, according to the RSPB, because the magpie’s territories are relatively limited, the area can therefore only sustain a certain number of pairs of birds.  As a result, non-breeding colonies will gradually form so that the area doesn’t become over populated and food scarce.  On average magpies lay around six eggs but the percentage of these that hatch and then survive into adulthood is relatively small.  Their overall life expectancy is around three years.

Sadly magpies also have a reputation for harassing smaller songbirds and destroying their nests.  I take a rather pragmatic view of this.  We’ve had sparrowhawks in the garden before now and they will terrorise everything.  In comparison, a magpie is a relatively small inconvenience for the other local birds and we see plenty of variety still so I don’t believe that their presence is that damaging.

Which brings us back to the rhyme.  So what is ‘five’?  The answer it turns out is silver and, just in case you don’t know the full rhyme, here it is for you:

One for sorrow, two for joy,
Three for a girl and four for a boy,
Five for silver, six for gold,
Seven for a secret than can never be told.
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird you must not miss!


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Add one squirrel and stir …

Just to reassure you, this is not a recipe!  It was a remark made by John over breakfast during the Christmas break when he glanced out into the garden and saw a flurry of urgently feeding birds and squirrels chasing around.  The whole garden seemed to be on the move and so it often seems at this time of year.

I think there are a number of reasons as to why the activity seems so frantic in the middle of winter.  The days are short which not only affects the amount of time the animals have for feeding, but also when we get to see them.  During the working week from late November until nearly the end of February, I only see the garden in the light at weekends, apart from Christmas, which is something that makes the holiday quite special.  Suddenly we are at home for ten days and are around to see this compressed feeding frenzy.  Equally the birds need to eat plenty in a short space of time to sustain them through the cold nights.

I can’t explain it, 31032516503_3fa00d032a_mbut it seems that there’s also a change from the moment we have passed the shortest day.  Around 7.15am this week as I’ve been eating breakfast, I’ve been very conscious of the bird song.  It wasn’t there before Christmas.  Can the birds really be aware of that very small change in the earth’s rotation that signals longer lighter days are just around the corner?

We are also conscious of clusters of birds sitting around the trees, specifically wood pigeons and collar doves.  Early one afternoon we had six wood pigeons and eight collar doves all perched in our birch and cherry trees. Today the top of the wood burner flue is popular!

Back in the autumn we made some changes to our bird feeding arrangements which weere short-lived – more about that in my next post!  We were getting increasingly dispirited by filling the bird feeders on a Saturday morning only for a large flock of parakeets to descent and empty them by Saturday afternoon.  Not only was this costing us a fortune but it was annoying to see the smaller birds losing out so much.  As if inspired by the parakeets, we were also seeing more large birds dominating the feeders such as crows and magpies.  Something needed to be done.  In the end we purchased two new bird feeders, the sort designed to keep squirrels at bay, with outer cages to allow small birds in but to keep larger birds (and mammals) out.  One of these feeders has mixed seed in it and the other fatballs.  After a few months’ use we are pleased to say that these are allowing the smaller birds a fairer chance.  The bluetits, great tits and chaffinches all love the new feeders and, having smaller appetites, there is food out there for them for most of the week.  The larger birds are still welcome but they have to eat out of the remaining seed feeders and, once they are empty, then that’s it until we choose to refill them.  Some of the more dextrous parakeets do try to get into the caged feeders but it’s sufficiently challenging for them that they soon give up and move on elsewhere.

Keeping the squirrels away from the seeds is an added bonus.  However, it doesn’t deter their antics and they still like to jump onto the swinging feeders in an attempt to get 31097548814_4e58bb6fa1_mwhatever scraps they can.  In squirrel terms, our large ginger cat Bryggen is probably the best squirrel deterrent.  The more squeamish amongst you would prefer not know that 2014 will go down as a three squirrel year!  It’s made Bryggen a hero with our elderly neighbour who detests squirrels.  As well as having lots of pots with bulbs, he also has lots of small military models in his garden which the squirrels regularly move around much to his annoyance.  His reaction to Bryggen’s most recent squirrel conquest, “If he were a bloke, I’d buy him a pint!”


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Six parakeets and counting …

So here we are at the end of January and it’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch time again.  If you’re not familiar with the Birdwatch concept, all you need to take part is a pen, a piece of scrap paper, a view out of the window and an hour.  During that hour you need to record the sightings of the total number of each species of bird you see at any one time on your patch.  So you can’t count two robins unless you see them both simultaneously (and I find robins are particularly sneaky when it comes to flitting out of sight just when you think you’ve seen a second one!)

I love the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend and usually can’t resist doing the count more than once.  Normally we try to do it over lunchtime when we’re sitting near the window anyhow.  Lunch is usually interrupted by the dash for the binoculars – was that really two blackbirds down the end of the garden or cunning starlings pretending?!

I also always hope for something a little special. Over the years our garden has treated us to some unusual visitors.  One year it was redpolls and another it was redwings.  The redpolls required snow and very frosty weather which seems a bit unlikely this year.  The redwings also seem to need it cold to make an appearance but they’re not quite so fussy.  One January a flock of at least fifteen turned up!  The first day I saw one it was just a single bird which subsequently I decided was eyeing up the territory and had spotted the tree at the end of the garden which was still covered in red berries.  The following day he returned with his friends and the flock descended to strip the tree, turning it from red to green in about an hour – not a berry left!  Another less common (and less welcome) visitor might be a sparrow hawk.  We have seen them on several occasions in our garden, on one occasion causing chaos as a collar was chased down into our patio doors in panic.

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This one was taken in our birch tree

However, one species we dread seeing during the Birdwatch is parakeets – the curse of
Southwest London!  Some days we can see more than 20 on our cherry tree.  Whilst their antics can be highly entertaining, evidence does seem to suggest they drive away some of the smaller birds and, if nothing else, they simply steal their food.  If a flock of parakeets descends during our Birdwatch count, we may as well give up as nothing else will appear until they take their leave.

So how did we fare with Birdwatch 2016?  Well it certainly wasn’t one of our finest.

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Wren – courtesy of Wikimedia

We had several goes at it and saw 14 species overall.  Our best total bird count was 25 and included Great Tits, Collar Dove, Chaffinch, Wood Pigeon, Blue Tits, Robin, Goldfinch, Long Tailed Tits, Wren and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Parakeets!  The surprise was the Wren. A tiny secretive bird with its distinctive up-turned tail, it emerged from underneath the dense ivy leaves and flitted across to hide in a winter clematis.

So what is the point of the Big Garden Birdwatch?  It has now been running for some thirty years and during that time has gathered important data showing, for example, a 50% decline in the UK’s sparrow population and a 75% decline in starlings.  Knowing there is a problem is the first step towards doing something about that problem and without a doubt, this is one way of raising awareness of a changing environment.

For more details of this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch, go to the RSPB  website.