Punctually on St Valentine’s Day a pair of blue tits carried out a thorough investigation of our garden nest-box. One of the pair watched from a nearby twig, while the other spent several minutes making a minute examination of the interior. Every so often its round, white-cheeked face would appear at the opening until at last its mate ventured inside too for a brief inspection before they flew off. Blue tits don’t actually start nest building till April, but they begin looking over the available sites much earlier. We’re hoping the accommodation proved acceptable, and sit back to await results!
Other similarly hopeful signs are all around us. Last week, for the first time this year, a pair of robins was feeding together at the bird table. Only really severe weather or the beginnings of pair bonding would allow this pugnacious little bird to tolerate another in its territory, and these two seemed to be behaving very amicably. Since mid-February a song thrush has been singing lustily from a tall beech tree in a neighbour’s garden. This is especially welcome as song thrushes have been in decline across Britain in the last decade or two – much of their farmland habitat has disappeared, and widespread use of slug pellets by gardeners also took its toll. Now there are indications of recovery, and it certainly lifts the heart to hear that clear song, with its succession of insistently repeated phrases, ringing out each morning and evening.
Another singer has caught my attention too. The song is a sweet sequence of silvery phrases, less insistent and flamboyant than that of the thrush, but attractive, and particularly enjoyable because the singer, perched in full view on a spray of hedge or shrub, is usually so unobtrusive. The dunnock or hedge sparrow or, to give it its newly acquired name, the hedge accentor is that tiny streaky brown bird, head and breast suffused with grey, which you glimpse mousing around at the edge of the lawn or in the shelter of woodland undergrowth. Its demure appearance is, however, deceptive. Not only does it have a lovely song, but it also has a very colourful sex life. Unusually it is the female dunnock who establishes the breeding territory in spring. She then advertises for mates. The territory is so large that it generally takes at least two males to maintain it, so dunnocks often set up ménage a trois arrangements. Detailed research has revealed even more complex patterns of relationships with both males and females often having several mates. So our singing individual may well be marking the beginning of a fascinating spring-time story.