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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Cuckoos calling in spring

I heard my first cuckoo last week, walking out by the Anchor pub. Have you had the chance to hear one yet? In the days when people didn’t have diaries or smart phone calendars, hearing the first cuckoo call would have been like the radio announcement ‘the clocks go forward this weekend’ – after the dark days of winter, spring is here!

Cuckoo. Photo by Chris Romeiks.

As soon as I mentioned hearing a cuckoo my friend Malcolm Creese (director of the fabulous Swaledale Festival https://www.swalefest.org/) sent me a text in reply: ‘It has to be Delius’. Written in 1912, here is Delius’ ‘On hearing a cuckoo in spring’ performed by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=delius+cuckoo&&view=detail&mid=A3B48613D973C8ED51DEA3B48613D973C8ED51DE&&FORM=VDRVRV.

While a cuckoo’s call is distinctive, and travels a long way, seeing a cuckoo is much harder. William Wordsworth describes how elusive they are to see:

List ’twas the cuckoo O, with what delight Heard I that voice! and catch it now, though faint, Far off and faint, and melting into air, Yet not to be mistaken. Hark again! Those louder cries give notice that the bird, Although invisible as Echo’s self, Is wheeling hitherward…’

Extract from ‘The Cuckoo at Laverna’.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has a brilliant video on identifying a cuckoo here https://www.bto.org/develop-your-skills/bird-identification/videos/cuckoo. For me, I know it is a cuckoo when I see a a small pigeon sized bird in flight which is not raising its wings above its body.

The number of plants named after cuckoos reflect how widespread and abundant cuckoos once were – I wrote about cuckoo-pints yesterday, for example. The late Geoff Parr, who lived round the corner from us, told me cuckoos used to be regularly heard in Burwell. That was when there were orchards throughout the village, providing additional income for farm labourers, who sent the fruit on the train from Burwell into London. My mother, who lived in Southery, said ‘there were so many cuckoos you didn’t take any notice.’ Now to hear one we need to be walking on the edges of the village, to hear ‘Cuckoo, Cuckoo’ calling across the Fen.

There are also numerous rhymes and folk-lore related to cuckoos. As I passed – at a good distance – a family group, we shared our delight at hearing a cuckoo. They said that they should have had cash in their pockets – explaining that in Bulgaria where they were from, having cash in your pocket when you hear a cuckoo brings luck. I’d be glad if you’d let me know if you know of more traditions like that.

The rhyme below gives a clue to Cuckoos’ unusual approach to bringing up their young – they get other birds to do the work, leaving themselves free to fly off to Africa in July!

The cuckoo comes in April,
He sings his song in May,
In the middle of June he changes his tune,
In July he flies away.

Cuckoo egg in a reed warbler’s nest at Wicken Fen, copyright Richard Nicoll.

As I am sure you will know, cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird species’ nests.The cuckoo chick hatches and evicts the eggs and/or chicks of the host bird. The cuckoo chick then calls at a sufficient rate to mimic that of the four or so chicks the parent birds were expecting to have. This makes sure that its host parents feed the cuckoo chick at the rate it needs.

Reed warbler feeds a cuckoo chick, Wicken Fen. Copyright Richard Nicoll.

While the host birds can be very suspicious of an unusual egg, once the chick has hatched, they are far too committed to bringing up any chicks in their nest that they fail to notice that the cuckoo chick rapidly becomes grotesquely larger than their own chicks would have been – and than themselves. As a seven year old, I remember watching a robin sitting on the back of a fledged cuckoo chick, feeding worms into its demanding mouth.

Nick Davies has extensively studied cuckoos at Wicken Fen. His book ‘Cuckoo, Cheating by Nature’ (2015) is a fabulous read, giving an insight into how the host birds – here mostly reed warblers – try and protect themselves from the parasitic cuckoos, and the strategies cuckoos use to fight back. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/cuckoo-9781408856567/ Nick Davies is brilliantly describing what is happening on our very doorstep!

“This amazing detective story by one of the country’s greatest field naturalists is also a fascinating study that solves many of the puzzles surrounding this most extraordinary bird” –  Sir David Attenborough

The number of cuckoos in the UK has halved in the last twenty years. To help understand the causes of their decline, the BTO has satellite tagged some cuckoos and followed their journeys . We are able to watch ‘live’ as these cuckoos travel to the UK from their wintering base in the Congo basin. https://www.bto.org/our-science/projects/cuckoo-tracking-project. The birds are named and watching their journey can become addictive. Here is the latest news of Cuckoo Carlton II:

Carlton II didn’t linger for long at the Burnham Beeches Golf Club, by 3pm yesterday afternoon he was passing Bungay in Suffolk and by 530pm he was close to Great Yarmouth. The last updates received early this morning show him just a few miles north-west of his breeding and tagging site at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Carlton Marshes nature reserve and close to the village of St Olaves.  This completes Carlton II’s migration which covered a distance of approximately 16,700 km (10,377 miles) from Suffolk to Gabon and back again. 

For a bit of mathematical fun, how about working out how many laps of your garden/ trips to Lanes bakery/ journeys to school/work it would take for you to have done Carlton’s mileage. Then work out how long it would take you, and compare with how long it has taken Carlton. These birds are phenomenal!

Nick Davies can mimic cuckoos by calling ‘Cuckoo’ into his alternately cupped and open hands. Have a go. I’ve just been trying myself and have heard my daughter Nathalie saying to Ian, my husband in the next room ‘she’s gone Cuckoo…’.

Time I stopped!

NB For more wonderful wildlife photos, many from Wicken Fen, see www.richardnicollphotography.co.uk.

In response to this post, Malcolm Creese sent me a Japanese Haiku poem he wrote, that received highly commended in an international competition.

With only two notes               

the cuckoo says more than the      

blackbird ever can                    

たった二言で

カッコウは

ツグミより多くの歌を

Malcolm says, the idea is that some people talk an awful lot but don’t say much, and others can speak two or three words and it means much more.

For more of the entries see https://akitahaiku.com/2010/12/03/the-results-of-the-12th-hia-haiku-contest-2010-3/