20th February 2018
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It is all in the timing: a valuable lesson in ensuring birds get fair share of food

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I have often wondered how to share the bird food I put out more fairly between the various species which frequent the bird table.

It was very noticeable, while doing the Big Garden Bird Watch at the weekend, that the starlings were getting everything on offer first, leaving every other bird poking about in the corners for whatever they hadn’t bothered to sweep up.

They must all get something though, as sparrows, blackbirds and even the recently arrived robin, look lively enough. They are all flying with a real sense of energy, sitting briefly, with gleaming feathers, and appear bright eyed. If they were sitting all fluffed up, drooping and apparently reluctant to fly about much I would have been more worried. But I learned this weekend that there is at least one way of making sure that the starlings don’t always get it all their own way.

A friend mentioned in passing that the sparrows go to bed later than the starlings around her croft. She had been feeling the same frustration about our glittery “staaries” grabbing all the goodies and fighting off the competition, until there was nothing left.

Then she began to notice that towards evening all the starlings disappeared, whereas the sparrows were still chattering away and busily engaged in their flitting and foraging for quite some time longer.

My friend experimented with putting out late evening bird seed and sure enough, the sparrows had a feast – not a starling in sight. She has been doing this regularly ever since. She even has a different call for the sparrow feeding time, and says that the peerie birds have cottoned on to their special call and come out of the bushes behind her in anticipation of their own private banquet.

So far the starlings don’t seem to have noticed that they are missing out. I’m not sure whether any other kinds of birds are adapting to her new regime, but I look forward to hearing how things go. My own efforts have been limited to throwing a good proportion of the feed deep into the bushes, where the starlings don’t seem to like venturing, whereas the blackbirds, robins and sparrows are quite happy to skulk and rummage.

Speaking about rummaging, I have been wondering just who or what had been in my “copse” lately. The word copse is a bit of a joke, as the entire corner is only about a dozen metres square, but it’s the best I can do with the space available. There are half a dozen sycamores, some downy birch, a whitebeam, a rowan and an elder. Salmonberry is trying its hardest to invade the area, but annual bashing is holding it at bay.

Bairns love it, as the passages beneath the trees in summer are like well-concealed tunnels and you can imagine all kinds of adventure scenes from beneath the shivering emerald canopy. For years I have been encouraging snowdrops to grow round the trees, filling the spaces between the pathways. I have been looking forward to seeing the first tips of the snowdrops appearing around the bases of the dozen or so trees and on a mild afternoon last week, wandered along to see if they were visible. They weren’t just visible – they were leaping out of the ground!

A forest of slim, blue-green spears had thrust through the leaf mould and in places the spears were thrust aside by bubbling masses of bulbs. Whole white bulbs were lying in clumps, partially attached to the ground, but with their tips struggling to stay upright. Rabbits wouldn’t have created the effect surely. When a rabbit is hungry enough, it will dig up bulbs to eat but not to leave pristine and unmarked in piles.

The only other explanation could have been that the bulbs themselves had grown so tightly over the years that they had simply run out of space. If there was no more space to be had either left or right, behind, in front or below, then the only way left was stright up. It seemed a waste to leave them to the mercy of rain, drought and frost, the air here at this time of year is far too cold, so I will just have to winkle them all out and find them a new corner to let rip in.

There is warmth underground even during quite cold spells, and many hundreds if not thousands of wild things depend on underground warmth for survival. This week though I heard of one which was accidentally unearthed.

An Unst friend telephoned me to say that she had come across a large, beautiful bumble bee in her compost heap. It was alive, and moving, though not very much apparently. It was a bitterly cold day with a reasonably hard frost.

There are no magic solutions to these micro crises of wild things, at risk of harm through the quite innocent activity of humans. The best chance of the bee’s survival seemed to be to remove it to a warmer, dryer spot and leave it with a drop of honeyed water, until the weather improved. The intention then was to release it near the same corner of the compost heap and let it, restored by a sweet nip of nectar, burrow back into its former sheltering haven.

The days are noticeably lengthening now. Driving south, especially on wet roads, can be excruciating when the route swings into the path of the sun’s reflecting glare. It can be blinding. Facing north is fabulous and easy by contrast. Everything is lit with such clean, fierce light, that tiny details can be visible miles away. It’s hard, when walking along the roadside, northwards, on a glorious day, to remember that the drivers coming the other way may not be able to see you at all.

Many routes just now are filled with the sounds of running water. Rain and waterlogged ground can be a nuisance, but if you are properly dressed, warm and insulated against the wet, a walk in the rain can be wonderful. Birds seem less aware of your presence; drains and stanks, ditches and burns flow with a different music. Try it next time you have an hour or so and it’s drizzling.

The weather is never as grim outside as it looks from indoors. I like to take a folded sheet of bubble wrap, find a level spot near a burn and just watch the flowing currents as they quarrel and race, tinkering with the debris which has washed to the margins. It’s a great way to unwind.

Jill Slee Blackadder

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