Blackbird nesting

THE holly bush!

Do you have a blackbird nesting in your garden? I had begun to give up hope for this year, when yesterday morning I heard a rush of footsteps up the stairs and Ian – who was up considerably earlier than me – announced, ‘I’ve just seen a blackbird carrying a leaf into the holly bush!’ This morning the male blackbird was keeping an eye on his territory from a nearby tree as the female continued her nest building.

The knowledge there is this extraordinary, as it were other world, going on within metres of where we are going about our lives is a delight. ‘Within metres’ – perhaps this year I have particular pleasure that these birds are free of the worries of Covid, can just get on with laying their beautiful blue eggs, feed their hungry chicks, without thinking about metres, face masks, lockdown…

Male blackbird watching his territory

Which was the first bird you learned to recognise? I remember the magical moment when I was around six years old, that Marjorie Hill, a family friend, pointed to a bird on her drive in Stapleford and taught me that because it was black, with a bright yellow bill, it was a male blackbird. She then pointed to a same shaped but brown bird, with a muddy coloured bill. I hadn’t noticed before that these birds were different. Now, I could identify a male and female blackbird. This was a revelation and started me out on my love of birds.

In addition, I have now learned how to tell if the male blackbirds in my garden are youngsters (in their first year out of the nest), or adults. All chicks are incredibly vulnerable to being caught by predators while they are in their nest. So they develop as fast as possible, so they can fly away as soon as possible. To achieve this, birds have evolved to compromise on the quality of their first feathers; better to have some that will do the job for the moment, than to be eaten and never even use them. Blackbird chicks fly from their nest the brown colour of adult females – if a bit fluffier and more speckled. Once they have been out of the nest for a couple of months, these young birds then replace their most exposed feathers with ones of adult quality – and so also colour. The result for young male birds is a teenager look – some black and some brown feathers. Do any of the male blackbirds that visit your garden look like this? The blackbird perched in our plum tree does. So I know he was ‘born’ last year and that this is his first go at parenthood. I wish him luck!

(Note: he (and the female blackbird) will change all his feathers after he has finished breeding. Once that is done, he will be in full black plumage and we will no longer be able to tell his age.)

I went to help a primary school in Haverhill run a ‘bird week’. The headteacher told me that when she herself was at primary school, they had all written ‘a bird book’ about a bird of their choice. They had done drawings, found out about their nests, what they ate. Her book was ‘The Blackbird’ and forty years later she still felt a special affinity for them – and had loved birds ever since. This is what she wanted to give her pupils in turn.

Robin by Megan, aged 7

If you have children at home, how about folding some A4 pages in half to make ‘a book’ and encourage them to draw and write about one of the bird species they see in your garden or street. I’d gladly publish some of the results in this blog. (Send a comment and I will be in touch.)

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) runs a Garden Birdwatch scheme, which they have made free during this period. People count how many birds of which species are in their garden for a chosen amount of time a day or week and send this information in to the BTO. We did this and had fun and got to know what was in our gardens and when much better. All the information people send in helps BTO scientists understand what is happening with our commoner bird species and how they use gardens – all of which helps us to know what best to do to keep these birds ‘common’!

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