House sparrows most definitely cannot sing, in the sense that they never seem to produce a melodious string of notes, like a male blackbird for example. They have no need for song, possess no magical aria or solo performance. But they do have the ability to chirrup with varying degrees of passion and intensity.
We have several pairs living in this old stone cottage. I say living in – well, they nest in the roof spaces, over our front door and window. And they’re busy wee things, zooming from nest to hedgerow with a quick blur of wing and that sound only a tongue can make in the roof of the mouth. Like a soft rolling rrrrrr.
Then they start their conversations, which can range from a stuttering exchange of rapid chirps to a monotonous steady solo that often is full of anxiety, especially when the weather is hot, which it has been this past week or so. That’s only natural I guess. Another favourite is the quicker, less anxious call for a missing partner. Most common is the everyday softer more comforting and reassuring cheep cheep cheep, which I guess is a bonding call. There are others that I have no clue about but seem to be male solo calls of an abstract nature – is this the equivalent of song?
According to A Field Guide to the BIRDS of Britain and Europe Passer domesticus produces a loud cheep, and chissis and occasional grating and twittering sounds. Could there be a bunch of scientists out there somewhere doing the research, microphones at the ready, electronic collars on the birds, interpreting all those mysterious chirps, or is that cheeps, or chirrups?
Just put some cold roast potatoes out on the bird table and within five minutes they were being devoured by three noisy, quarrelsome magpies, the crafty opportunist bird of folklore. Must be the King Edward flavour that sent them a bit loopy – they couldn’t get enough of them carbs man!
Magpies. Gang members in bizarre garb. That confident flick of the long tail. The trademark flight, undulating, unsteady, just enough lift. That cocky walk through tussock and over meadow, turning horse turds. Dressed up for a show. Do they really steal shiny objects and place them in their nests? Perhaps not. Do they tease other birds like falcons and hawks? Definitely yes, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. One cheeky magpie on a telegraph wire prodding and pulling at a kestrel’s tail feathers. Do they raid the nests of smaller birds for eggs and fledglings? Oh yes. Tis nature’s way of balancing things out.
And I can see some stretched out on the gamekeeper’s ‘display fence’ when I was a kid, alongside jays and crows and weasels and things. That was a long time ago; don’t think the gamekeepers are still shooting everything that moves?
So, the magpie loves roasties. We’ll keep filling them up so they won’t have to go nest raiding…..
It’s a new craze called the Wood Pigeon. A mix of dance, mating ritual and artistic posturing it could catch on like a wildfire if this warm, dry weather continues. I witnessed a live performance this very morning, on a dry stone wall near the hamlet of Little Lepton in West Yorkshire. There, in public, were two healthy looking wood pigeons, unmistakable with their stone grey and subtle mauvey green undertones, white bars on wings and smudges on neck. One of them, the male, was approaching the female with short, rhythmical hops. It would walk towards her then hop, walk then hop. It wasn’t any ordinary hop but a meaningful determined mini-hop, meant to impress, gain a reaction. She backed off, a little bashful, but didn’t appear too put off at the male’s forwardness. In fact, she even responded with her own encouraging hops, turning this way then that. Then, in a move designed to hypnotise and lure, the male bowed deeply, raising his tail into the air whilst the white markings on his neck stood out. He did this four or five times, hopping and bowing with a serious yet wishful intent, – before we advanced and upset the whole show.
The pair flew off to a nearby sycamore and waited until the coast was clear before flying back down to resume their courtship ritual on those warm, misshapen stones.
Late summer hedgerows, the umbelliferae are all but spent and a wreck of weedy undergrowth,mostly dry brown cleavers, clings to the shiny evergreen holly and fading hazel. Elder berries are ripening, blackberries just about finished and there’s a subtle change in avian behaviour.
Flocks of jackdaws, crows and rooks are conspicuously noisy as they go about their daily business.They seem to gather in larger numbers at this time of year,perhaps they’re pairing up, working family loyalties out, spreading news about food sources? I’ve always wondered what happens to the older birds, those no longer viable – do they become lone outcasts, spending their last days in relative solitude? You can spot occasional individuals at roost, flying off alone to wherever it is they go. Are these the wise and the aged?
The joyful swallows and martens are keener than ever to feed and fatten up before migrating south, gracing the warm air above pasture, pond and copse. I’ll miss their enthusiasm for life. These slightly built birds are true travelers, I don’t know how they do it year after year surviving what must be a perilous journey, bringing with them the promise of warmer weather and drier countryside. I’d love to follow them one late summer as they wing it back to Africa.
The other day I walked through a field of late summer wheat, along a classic footpath stretching between dry stone wall and hedgerow on Copridings Farm. There’s something magical about a cereal crop ready for harvest – it’s the way the heads sway like a wave in the breeze, the warm scent of the ripe seeds – dreamily heading home through a golden field is something every person should experience at some time in their lives.
Near the stone wall I saw a couple of small twittery light brown birds fly out of the wheat, sparrow size. Then more followed. In the end about 20 appeared and they were all twittering as they flew up creating wonderful undulating flight patterns. Some, the males, had that familiar rosy colour on the forehead and breast. The flock were going this way and that and eventually in full twitter circled me and dropped, like spent leaves, back into the wheat to continue their feeding. Therapeutic experience.
There’s a special tingle runs along the skin when you venture out into the fields and woods to look for a Little Owl, at twilight. These small squat birds can often be seen in daylight but the one we know prefers that quiet time around sunset, when all the crows and magpies have gone to roost and the earth can relax.
Last night we took a slow walk down to Low Fold Farm, along the lane that snakes between dry stone walls and old farm cottages. This time of year the hedgerows are splendidly fragrant with that creamy sweet hawthorn blossom filling the warm air. Powerful stuff! And the undergrowth is burgeoning – umbelliferae, dandelions, stitchwort, purple vetch, dozens of grasses..on and on, thick and lush. It’s so packed with the elemental charge that Dylan Thomas wrote about in his powerful poem The Force that through the Green Fuse drives the flower.
As we got to the end of the lane we startled the owl. It must have been sitting on a nearby telegraph pole out of sight because it flew right out in front of us to land on a fence post less than 25m away. That characteristic tailess silent flight, quick wings and a short glide up to the post top. I had the binoculars handy so was able to get an excellent look at those big intense yellow eyes and beetle brow frown. Exquisite.
Then in typical fashion the owl took off again and perched some 100m away on a telegraph wire overlooking a nearby meadow. You could make out the silhouette, a give away for identification – square flat head, compact small body and very little almost no tail. A great bird.
If you look on the British Ornithology Trust’s website you can read about this bird – how many pairs are breeding, where they live and so on. There’s some good info. It also says that this owl sometimes pulls worms out the ground and topples over backwards sometimes in the process! I’d love to see that comedy act.
I once watched a city pigeon fly down to a rough border of dried grass and weeds and start selecting a suitable piece of grass for its nest. It was my lunch break and I’d found a quiet space with suntrap to eat and drink, an older part of the city that was surrounded with stone and brick and tile. There was just enough room for the sun to get through and warm up the bench I was sitting on.
So down flew this pigeon. An ordinary city bird, nothing special to look at you could be forgiven for thinking. But as I sat there munching away I saw this busy focused parent go through just about the whole border, a ten yard stretch. It was looking for loose dry lengths of grass – not just any length of grass but of a specific measurement. This bird knew exactly what it wanted.
I watched half in admiration half in puzzlement as this caring nest-builder picked up stem after loose stem, rejecting all until it found one that was just right for the job. This was a fascinating exercise. It seemed to me that this bird was actually measuring the length as it manipulated the stem through its beak in a weighing up fashion.
Eventually the pigeon flew off, up to its nest site under an eave on a solicitor’s office – another part of the nesting jigsaw about to be slotted into place.
I had a think. That bird must have sized the situation up, got an idea of the length of grass needed to fit exactly where it wanted it and knew where that piece could be found.
Hardly a bird-brain, more of a nest-wizard. And to think, this process is going on for most birds – ok not the cuckoo, which has evolved a crafty way of getting out of nest building – using their intuitive powers of measurement and detection to gauge precisely what is needed for their crafted nests.