Here we are in the middle of a winter that looks set to be the wettest on record. What the weather hasn’t been as yet is very cold so some of our usually expected winter bird visitors haven’t turned up. Before a Xmas trip to Spain we saw a glimpse or two of a few Redwings but we’ve not seen them since and our Cotoneaster remains laden with berries. From what I hear, there aren’t any Waxwings in the country at all, yet. Still, our usual suspects are providing some winter entertainment in the back garden.
We’re trying a different mix of bird food this year, some of which has given food for thought. Our problem is that being in woodland we are plagued by Grey Squirrels which not only nick the birds’ food but tend to destroy feeble feeders into the bargain. The Squirrels are aided and abetted by the twin irritations of Wood Pigeons and Magpies. Feeders must be at least squirrel-proof.
Our normal sunflower seed feeder is fine on a pole, as long as the pole is protected by a squirrel baffle. To this, we added another pole with a hanging fat ball feeder, one which was surrounded by a squirrel-proof metal cage. Having purchased a tub of 50 fat balls to go with the feeder, they then hung there generally being ignored by our smaller birds. The caged feeder appeared to be putting them off. I switched it for a much cheaper fat ball feeder, unprotected against squirrels but added another expensive squirrel baffle to this second pole. Bingo! Quite suddenly, our fat balls were a success and began disappearing down the gullets of their intended audience.
Last year we’d invested in a bird table to try and help out our resident Robins and Blackbirds. We scattered suet and dried fruit on it with some success but it soon proved to be a target of the accursed Magpies that tend to vacuum everything up at a single visit. We’d also scattering meal worms on it but with little noticeable success. This year our engineering brains kicked in to combine the two. We thought a suitable suspended feeder full of meal worms might stand a chance. Mostly successful: Squirrels don’t seem to “do” meal worms –vegetarians, I suppose – but the Great Tits, Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Robins seem keen. We occasionally suffer a raid from an omnivorous Magpie but the feeder appears to stop them vacuuming up the lot.
Of course, there are things that like to feed on small birds. In this respect, by attracting so many small birds we’ve turned out back garden into one big feeder. We were thrilled, just before Christmas, when our neighbours’ last remaining daughter moved out into a house of her own, along with her cat. It’s a young, agile tom and an annoyingly successful hunter. We were less thrilled to hear that, whilst we were in Spain, the daughter had popped back for a visit, complete with cat, but had decided to leave said cat back with our neighbours. Curses, the scourge returns! The more I’ve got into wildlife, the less I like cats. With the exception of ferrals, they are all fed by their owners, have no need to hunt for food but do so just for the sake of killing.
I’m somewhat ambivalent about this visitor, a Sparrowhawk and a completely natural predator which kills only to survive. On the one hand, I feel privileged to get reasonably close-up views of this magnificent creature. On the other hand, I can’t help but be concerned about the safety of our smaller birds, the ones we’ve chosen to try to protect over winter. This is, of course, an irrationally emotional response from one such as myself. In fact, this is just natural balance in action. This is our back garden equivalent of Cheetahs and Thomson’s Gazelles in the Maasai Mara – without the African sun, of course. It is said that the very presence of a Sparrowhawk is a good indicator of a very healthy bird population. Here’s a couple of views of our top predator taken through an optically imperfect window. 😉