Spring starts this year on 20th March - that is the date of the Vernal Equinox. There is another calendar, and another date, but I prefer the astronomical calendar because it follows the natural movements of our Earth around the Sun. The other calendar, the meteorological calendar, has the date as 1st March, a date set for human convenience. This makes recording events easier and comparable year on year, but for me this human declaration might as well announce the opening of the Spring sales. So it is on the Spring Equinox that I will celebrate our move from Winter into Spring, a part of our natural rhythm and slide into easier, warmer days with new growth and new life.
Of course the natural world doesn’t work to any defined date. The movement towards Spring has been bubbling under for some time, long before even the 1st of March. Along with the breaking buds in country hedging, did you notice the silence breaking in early February; a Song Thrush pushing out some low-volume phrases, repeated as if in rehearsal or just checking that all still works? A Great Tit oiling his ‘teacher, teacher’ call readying himself for a spring performance? Maybe you heard a nuthatch with its bursts of energetic whistling or even the sudden and unexpected drum roll of the Great Spotted Woodpecker hammering out an early declaration of territory and courtship?
I’m often told of what joy birds bring to an individual’s garden and what welcome visitors they are. I’m always so pleased to hear this. However more often than not these comments come with a ‘but’. A ‘but’ that talks of visiting magpies, jackdaws or crows and how awful and unwelcome they are. How they chase away the little birds and even raid their nests. Some escalate the level of dreadfulness further still, affording a genocidal capacity and responsibility to the magpie - it being solely responsible for a nationwide decline of song birds. And with all this talk my happiness of a shared celebration of birds fades away.
Why it is that corvids are so disliked? It hasn’t always been this way. The magpie was once looked upon more favourably. Yes, it was known not only to take some eggs in times of plenty, but it was also lauded for its usefulness in clearing up carrion and for its cheery confident and companionable ways.
Take a good long look at a magpie - it is a splendid bird. A close examination of its most striking glossy black and clean bright white will reveal the most beautiful of blues, greens and purples - an iridescence of hues like oil on water, spreading out along its wings and into its tail - and what a luxuriantly long tail it is! It is a vocal bird, happily calling out its presence and warning loudly of approaching predators. Its welcome presence earned it affectionate names such as ‘Chatterpie’ and ‘Maggie’. And I, like most children, grew up learning the ditty;
One of sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told,
Eight for a dream,
Nine for a wish,
(Ten for a bird not to be missed)
I have also watched the oddity of adults tipping their hats or saluting to magpies, uttering such things as ‘Morning General, how’s your wife and family?’ Such behaviour shows us how deeply the wildlife around us influences and enriches us.
19th & 20th Century game rearing and keeping has had its impact on both the birds and cultural attitudes. Sadly, not in a very positive way. Like all animals, corvids will take advantage of a sudden availability of easily obtained food. Densely stocked areas of game bird eggs and chicks make easy pickings for them. As a result, they and other predators have been, and still are, heavily persecuted. This hatred of these opportunists consequently spills out to a wider audience and attitudes are affected. An odd situation where one bird is killed to protect another bird which itself is raised to be killed for sport. However at least the number of road casualties from the annual release of 40 million pheasants into the countryside provides plenty of carrion for the corvids, an unusual gift supplied annually by those that seek to be rid of them.
Looking out the kitchen window early one morning I noticed a wood mouse under the feeder happily helping herself to the dropped seeds. A bit later on I heard the chatter of a magpie and looked out again, this time to see the mouse dangling by the scruff of its neck from a powerful beak. The magpie then flew off with the mouse. I was sad to see ‘my’ mouse go and in such a way, but so much better as a form of ‘pest’ control than setting traps or scattering poison. Nature has its own ways.
Corvids are the most intelligent of birds and perhaps it is their intelligence that disturbs some, as they refuse to play the dumb animal. Henry Ward Beecher, the 19th Century American clergyman and social reformer, said “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” Or maybe it is just abundance of numbers others don't like. The large, Hitchcockian flocks of rooks, jackdaws or magpies gathering in numbers together can prove somewhat unnerving, something out of control?
None of us like to see ‘our’ birds or their nests being predated but there are things that can be done to avoid and deter this. An abundantly planted garden with good, bird friendly hedges will provide a density of cover for nests and for young to fledge safely. Bought nest boxes provide good protection. Positioning nest boxes away from feeding areas keeps them out of conflict and away from unwelcome interest. Bigger birds can be restricted from emptying feeders in a day by the use of the squirrel-proof type.
But if you do lose a nest to a Chatterpie remember natural symbiosis - this predator prey relationship has been happening for millennia, each trying to outwit the other. Something to think of as we busy ourselves with our daily lives… now what was it I needed from the shops, oh yes; half a dozen eggs, three chicken pieces and a lamb shank or two….