So the days are getting longer and we have had some very cold nights this week. The weather has been great for walking and photography.
The Sparrows were back in the three foot hedge, in human time, at about 8.45pm. I think from my observations, it is true to say, that my sparrows tend to rise and return from the Old School Sparrow Clan roost earlier on bright sunny days. In this respect they might be similar to the humans who live in the house whose wall they use for the nest box home. This behaviour doesn’t seem to be effected by how cold it is!
The strange thing is that as I walk the country lanes, tracks and paths I often end up passing the roost early in the morning or late in the day on my way home and that got me thinking. Do sparrows sleep? Well yes they use unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS). I won’t pretend, I looked it up. That basically means sleeping with one eye open and only half of the brain shut down. This is a survival characteristic; leaving themselves in at least a partial state of alert should a predator be around. It’s the sort of question my granddaughter might ask and I like to be prepared!
During the week the sparrows got me thinking on another matter. You know finches get the dreaded white foot disease as I call it, papillomatosis. Apparently this is most common in finches and the species that is most affected is the Chaffinch. A symptom of this is a bird that struggles to keep balance. I spotted just such a bird on a large branch of our old holly tree. It wasn’t perched but its breast was flattened against the branch for support since its leg or legs were now unable to support it. Every few minutes it fluttered as if trying to shift its balance slightly. It repeated this behaviour and then out the hedge a House Sparrow arrived. It perched on the branch within a few inches of the struggling Chaffinch. Now the question is why? Was it offering moral support, was it being inquisitive, did it realise the Chaffinch was in difficulties. Of course, I can’t answer the question but what I can say is that our cock sparrows are pretty much self contained and if you watch sparrows they are not particularly gregarious with any bird except their own species in fact in some ways they are very picky about a lots of things. A few minutes later a hen sparrow joined then on the same branch! Then distracted by other happenings in the garden, I looked back and they are all gone! The incident reminded me of the use of Larsen traps by game keepers. They put one crow or magpie in the trap and this attracts other birds that are then caught! The say the trapped bird is making calls in another bird’s territory and that causes the interest. Having seen stumbled over some of these traps in the past I think this could be true, but the visiting birds could also be responding to the distress calls of the already caught bird!
This year something remarkable happened in our garden. A Robin crashed into the kitchen window when a Sparrowhawk charged through the garden. Birds panic and bang, a robin drops to floor, stunned after its rather violent smash into the glass. My wife witnessed this. She was in the kitchen at the time. She went immediately to investigate and found the adult Robin on the floor, still, but breathing, stunned. She picked it up and made a gently hollow in the dry soil in the raised border just outside the window. We have learnt from experience that some birds left and kept warm will recover? It was beautiful sunny day. The Robin lay on its back legs up in the air (not a pretty sight) and my wife retired to continue with her work in the kitchen but at the same time she kept a close watch on the robin to see if it would recover. The Robin, lying on its back, eventually came round. It recovered enough to turn over. Within a few minutes another robin appeared and presented food to it. The injured bird didn’t take the offered food but the new bird dropped the food nearby and flew off. This was repeated three times. Eventually the injured bird came round and flew off. Was this the bird’s partner. Did it realise that this injured bird was in difficulty? There are so many questions!
Anyway the three foot hedge is empty now and my sparrow is with the rest of the clan, at the roost just up the road. They are grabbing a bit of shuteye or USWS to be precise!
It’s 8.24am and just getting light. The cock House Sparrow is back in the 3 foot hedge. In my head I am saying “your early this morning boy”. Quietly though, because after yesterday, people are already wondering why I am photographing apparently empty hedges! He isn’t bothered anyway and sits a respectable 2 foot down and chirrups repeatedly. I say respectable because no self respecting Sparrow is going to sit on the top of the hedge and offer our local Sparrowhawk a takeaway. A sparrow did that, on my neighbours hedge, a few weeks ago and it WAS taken away! Did I mention the three foot hedge. One of these days I must explain.
Now I am walking through country and around the village, I began to think? Should I go to see my daughter at Christmas and our newly arrived grandson. I was trying to think through it logically, pros and cons, but worrying, like millions of others. What are the risks and what potential changes will there be to Covid rules between now and then. What Boris decisions are on the way or not! Then I spot a bird dropping out of Holly tree and it flys down to the ground. Was that a Fieldfare or Mistle thrush? Mistle thrush, excellent, I don’t see many of these! I crossed the field and entered a small copse with a pool in the middle and here I found the remains of a fish on the bank. Now I am thinking otter, mink? Big fish, a Carp I would guess. A female Goosander comes from cover and heads off across the pool. The light is closing and the last remnants of cloud on the horizon is doing a very good job of the sunset. Out comes the camera as a wonderful orange glow spreads across the sky in the direction of the Wrekin. The moon had already climbed and shadows and reflections began to charm me. Out comes the camera. After taking far too many photographs I begin walking home.
Back home the House Sparrow has sung until its hoarse and decided that enough is enough. Everyone should know by now that this is his spot, keep out, though I guess the Sparrowhawk won’t pay any attention to his boundaries! Two Blackcaps arrive on MY homemade fat balls. This makes me feel good. Male and female and they are feeding side by side (how romantic), Blackcap and brown cap! You start to wonder don’t you? Are these middle European migrants coming here for winter or are they are local birds that breed here and love us so much that they just can’t leave (my fat balls)?
Well, we often say, ‘I am going for a walk to clear my head’. I don’t think a walk in the country does clear your head. I think we reorganise our thoughts, clear some things out maybe but that is only half the story. We also refocus and reconnect with the natural world around us and take a rest from this crazy man made world we live in. The sparrows are off to bed, they are not bothered!
Its not long after sunrise and the House Sparrows are still in there roost in the hedge up the road. But soon the birds will be back in the garden. The wintering Blackcaps are visiting the fat feeders. I would like to think that’s because I have gone to the trouble of making some extra special‘home grown’ fat slabs for them. This is a speciality of the house, well actually the garden! But realIy we all know that they back because the weather has been wet and cold. By 10am there are three House Sparrows in the three foot hedge, two males and a female. Typically noisy, one of the males sits and chirrups, just reminding everybody that this is his patch and its in my patch!
The female (hen) found a feather, colour, white. This is very fortunate because I have been telling people who are engaged in our House Sparrow project, that sparrows love white feathers. I sneak to the fireplace and lean out slowly, just far enough to poke my camera round the brickwork and point it optimistically at the Sparrow with feather. The postman walking past thinks I have lost the plot! Several shots later I realise I have nothing to share with my followers but I am beginning to understand why sparrows like Hawthorn hedges, even 3 foot of them. Why? Well because House Sparrows are practically Hawthorn twig colour and very well camouflaged when sitting amongst their branches.
The female drops it and the male picks it up, considers it for a minute or two, twirls it round in his beak as if not sure which way it should be held to best effect. Then the hen takes it back before he has time to decide. So the enthusiasm and interest in this object goes on for a few more minutes before the male drops it and then carries on announcing to the world that this is his territory. So is the nest box on my wall above him and it has has been his for some time.
Feeding the birds in the garden is one of the great joys in life. Settle back with a cuppa or a nice coffee and just sit and watch. Studies have shown that those of us feeding the birds during the pandemic have been much more positive about their days but more on this later. During the winter months our gardens get new visitors, Scandinavian thrushes, Redwing and Fieldfare. They have flown south to warmer climates and now gather in great flocks to raid the berries on our hedgerows and garden trees. Even the shy Mistle and Song Thrush will wander into the garden at this time. Mistle Thrushes are particularly protective of Holly trees covered in lots of ripe berries and will noisily fight off any unwanted visitors to their tree.
A good reason to buy a well built feeder is that they are much less susceptible to squirrel damage. Cheap plastic feeders can be easily broken and are rapidly chewed through by grey squirrels.
You can also buy a plate/dish that screws in the bottom of the feeder and this will allow other species to feed like Dunnocks, Blackbirds, Stock and Collared Dove.
Photo: female Reed Bunting
There are special feeders for Niger (Nyer, Nyjer) seeds. Here are two Goldfinches and two Siskins on a niger seed feeder. Niger seed comes from an African yellow daisy. It is rich in oil content and highly nutritious. It’s perfect for treating the small birds in your garden – particularly goldfinches. The seed is very small and you need a special feeder. I recommend not bothering since all the species (and there are not many) that feed on Niger seed will also feed on your sunflower hearts. Niger seed quickly blocks the holes in the feeder and the birds seem to go through phases of eating it or not, so you end up wasting a lot.
Fat balls are one the best bird foods in the garden. Fat/Suet comes as slabs, pellets or in jars and contains mixed seed. For fat balls you will need to buy a fat ball feeding cage. These are pretty cheap. Some feeders are double caged like the one below. The inner cage holds the fat balls and the outer cage deters squirrels. Fat balls are good for House Sparrows but they might take a while to get used to them. Great Spotted Woodpecker, Long Tailed Tits, Goldcrest and overwintering Blackcaps like fat balls and generally will not use the seed feeders we talked about above. These are great birds to see in the garden so I recommend using fat balls, slabs, or suet pellets in some form or another. Fat balls are the cheapest way of feeding like this.
This Great Spotted Woodpecker is feeding on another type of feeder, a metal mesh basket with peanuts in it. Obviously, this is good for woodpeckers but will also attract, nuthatch and all the tit family. Wait till you have generated some bird traffic in the garden before hanging out a nut feeder. The nuts get wet in the rain and tend to rot quickly. You need to make sure you buy food quality nuts because some peanuts have toxins in them. Peanuts are highly susceptible to mould during growth and storage. In particular, the fungus Asperillus Flavus which releases large quantities of aflatoxin, which is a highly toxic carcinogen when consumed by mammals and birds.
By setting up a ground feeding station/area you can get surprise visits from Tree Sparrows, Brambling (see Photo) Yellowhammers, Reed Bunting and even Bullfinches. It is rewarding because some birds really don’t understand how to use hanging seed feeders and are not really designed for aerial feeding. However, over time, some birds in our garden have mastered feeders that they couldn’t use when they were first put out! For example our Blackbirds have leant to launch themselves at Fat balls, smash bits off. The bits fall to the floor and they pick up the crumbs. This way they also provide food on the floor for other birds like Dunnocks and Robins.
Note: If you are going to buy mixed wild bird seed then buy the good stuff. Some of the cheap sacks have a very high proportion of grain seed (wheat, barley). This is used to bulk up the mix! Grain is only really consumed in part by sparrows and chaffinches but more often by Wood Pigeons!
What type of food should I feed and in which type of feeder?
This is probably the best combination of bird food you could offer in the garden.
Seed Feeder with sunflower hearts
Fat Balls in a cage
Bird table for scraps and mixed wild bird seed/food/mealworms
Ground feeding station for mixed wild bird seed/food/mealworms and apples
This combination is likely to attract the greatest variety of Birds into the garden. If you supplement this with apples thrown out onto the ground/lawn during very cold winter days you can then bring in winter thrushes and that rounds things off nicely!!!
Keep it clean!
This is what the BTO says…………
Regularly clean bird baths, feeders, feeding stations and hard surfaces under feeders, and treat with a suitable disinfectant (e.g. a weak solution of domestic bleach). Carefully rinse all surfaces with clean water and air dry before using. Clean your feeders outside and maintain careful personal hygiene, including wearing gloves and making sure that brushes and buckets are not used for other purposes, as some diseases can affect human and domestic animal health. More information from https://www.bto.org/how-you-can-help/providing-birds/feeding-garden-birds/hygiene
Here is a table you can refer to. It gives you a list of garden birds and tells you which type of feeder they will use when it has bird certain food in it. Of course it doesn’t cover every type of feeder and all bird food but it is a good guide.