I thought I already knew what a hard time the breeding season was for our songbirds: defending territory, building nests, brooding eggs, feeding nestling and then fledgling young – as well as all that singing! However, the warm May weather enabled me to sit on a bench and a get really close view of our garden birds as they contended with the day to day business of raising a family.
Judging from the songs, there were at least one pair of robins, two pairs of great tits, bullfinches in the tangle of bushes and creepers in a hidden corner, some dunnocks too secretive to locate – and several pairs of blackbirds all trilling away at regular intervals from about 4.30am until dusk. I focussed on Mr Raisins, the cock blackbird who has come to our backdoor for snacks, winter and summer for years. I should have kept a better count but I think Mr R is about six or seven years old. In that time, he and his mate have raised at least three broods a season. This makes him a very wise old bird and an experienced parent – and it shows.
It’s easy to tell when there are chicks in the nest: you see the parent bird collecting beaks full of invertebrates and, sometimes, food from the feeders and flying off with it always in the same direction. When the chicks leave the nest the parents carefully secrete them around the garden and the youngsters know that, however hungry they are, they must stay hidden until either a meal is brought to them or they are called out. As they get bigger they start to follow the parent bird, begging with cheeps and wing-vibrations, but also observing exactly what the parent is doing. Eventually they start to peck about, copying the adult’s activity. As they also begin to fly instead of just jumping and scrambling into cover, they are ready for an independent life. Then, the whole process begins again. No wonder Mr R was looking a bit harassed!
What struck me this year was the strain on the adult of constant vigilance. Magpies were continually visiting the garden, perching on trees or rooftops scanning for prey. Mr. R was constantly scanning the area, his sharp volley of alarm notes quickly warned of these intruders, and a continual low chunterering instructed the chick to stay still and quiet. On one occasion he perched on a gable chuntering for a long time even after I’d seen a magpie fly off. Sure enough, eventually another bird and a crow emerged from the oak tree whereupon the warning murmur ceased and feeding resumed.