Flights of Fancy (Birds of a Feather)

I always enjoy listening to the dawn chorus. The cheerful, uplifting sounds of birdsong greeting the new day always put me in a good mood.

And I was delighted to take delivery yesterday of a whole raft of new computer programs – voice recognition software, a language pattern analyser, and an ornithological behavioural speech identifier to name just three. So I loaded them all up and recorded a few minutes of the dawn chorus in the garden this morning. I think you’ll find it illuminating:

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‘Oi, what you staring at, big beak? You want some, eh?’

‘Who, me? Well, if you think you’re so hard, come over here and say that! If you dare stick your foot in my territory, that is.’

‘Your territory is it now? Since when? Don’t remember you being so beaky during mating season!’

‘No? Didn’t need to be. Well, I wouldn’t be after yours, anyway. I’m not that desperate. You should ask her where she’s been! She’d mate with anything in feathers, yours would! Wanna know why that scruffy feral pigeon’s been hanging around here, eh?

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘What do you think I’m suggesting? Weren’t you just the teeniest little bit suspicious at the colour of the eggs? We blackbirds are supposed to lay sort of bluey greeny eggs, not white ones!’

‘The colours vary, mate. You should know that. Diet and climate and all that stuff.’

‘Not that much, they don’t. Those eggs were a dead spit for…well, for pigeon eggs, basically. And what about your fledglings? Rather on the large side, your kids. Lot bigger than you are, already. Walk a bit funny, too…

‘I…oh, for goodness sake! Oi, shut it Red Tits! Can’t hear myself tweet around here!’

‘Here, you don’t want to antagonise that robin!’

‘He don’t scare me.’

‘He should. You know what they’re like – vicious little buggers! I saw that one take out a song thrush a couple of days ago.’

‘No!’

‘Yes. Straight up. Blood and feathers everywhere! I tell you, that thrush’ll be on soft food for a while after that.’

‘That’s mostly what they eat, anyway.’

‘Yeah, but they like their seeds as much as the next bird, too. That one won’t be back at the bird table for a while. Bit of minced earthworm and over-ripe blackcurrant is about all it’s got to look forward to at the moment.’

‘Poor bugger.’

‘Yeah. Um…I’m getting a bit bored with all this, now. I know. See that cat down there?’

‘What about it?’

‘Bet you I can crap on its head!’

‘Bet you can’t!.’

‘Can!’

‘Can’t!’

‘Right, watch this…er…left a bit…there! Mwaah ha ha ha!’

‘Okay, yeah. Good one. Hah! That’s one pissed off cat, that is!’

‘Love it when that happens.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Right.’

‘Mmm.’

‘Okay, that’s it, then. Sun’s up, now. I’m off to go and forage some brekky. Same time tomorrow, then?’

‘Nah, not tomorrow.’

‘No? Why ever not? Here, you having that problem with Avian Pox, again?’

‘No, no. It’s not that. Shh! Don’t let the whole neighbourhood know! No, to tell the truth, it’s just that I’m a bit fed up with all these early starts.’

‘But that’s what we freaking do! Why do you think it’s called the freaking dawn chorus?’

‘I know, I know. It’s just that sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind changing it to the slightly-later-preferably-just-after-coffee-chorus.’

‘We’re birds, you pillock! We don’t drink coffee!’

”Yeah, obviously. Of course not. Course we don’t. I’m just making a point. You know what I mean.’

‘Will you two shut up! Dawn chorus has finished!’

‘Who said that?’

‘That gull up there.’

‘What’s it to do with him? They don’t take part. And anyway, they never stop making a racket themselves. Nasty, loud, shouty buggers!’

‘Yeah. They’re called common gulls for a reason!’

‘Too right!’

‘How would they like it if we went and sat on their cliffs and shouted at them?’

‘Right! They’d hate it! Um…what’s a cliff?’

‘Eh? Er, I dunno. What they sit on, apparently.’

What, like a twig?’

‘Yeah, I expect that’s it. Some sort of a twig.’

‘Can’t think why they don’t call it a twig, then.’

‘Common and thick, then.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Anyway, this isn’t getting breakfast eaten. I’m off to that feeder with the coconut shell and the fat balls.’

‘Fat balls? Is that some sort of crude joke?’

‘I’ve no idea. You coming?’

‘Yeah, okay.’

Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.

A Sussex Footpath

The sun shone all day.

We took a bus out to the village of Hartfield in Sussex, and had a long walk through the woods and fields, and over a few hills. Spring is certainly here, now. Although there are not yet many flowers out in the countryside, even though there are lots of daffodils and snowdrops and crocuses in the gardens, there is a wonderful fresh green gradually spreading across fields and through the woods.

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The land has already dried out quite a lot after winter – unusually, so I think. Probably because we have had a relatively dry winter around here. But even where a little water still stood around in the fields and on the paths, it just gave the sun somewhere to glitter and sparkle.

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There were plenty of birds around – tits and finches, blackbirds, thrushes, pigeons, skylarks, buzzards and a hovering kestrel.

We saw the first butterflies of the year: a Brimstone and one or two Peacocks.

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There is blossom on the Blackthorn trees, and there were a few flowers out. In places, there were lots of Lesser Celandines, and here and there a few primroses.

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Honestly, I cannot think of a better way to spend a day.