Now for the nests
Now for the nests
An excited phone call from my sister brought me an intriguing story. She lives on the north-west coast of Scotland and has red squirrels visiting her bird feeders.
Last week her favourite visitor, a small animal with smart, long ear-tufts, was happily crunching peanuts when his attention suddenly switched to the stump and brushwood of a conifer, felled last year. He dashed over to it and began tearing off strips of bark and shredding these into long ribbons; then he busily bundled up the strips – not an easy job with such springy material – till he had a ball about three times the size of his head. He grasped this with front paws, wrestling escaping ends into place, and scampered off. We know squirrels do eat bark and indeed use it for roughage, but this seemed rather a mega-supply. Could it be needed for construction? She and her husband donned coat and boots and set off in pursuit. Not far away, where a small burn runs into the sea, was a large tree, and, in the top, a round ball of twigs – a drey. As they stared upwards, a ginger face topped with long ear-tufts peered down from the entrance. Confirmation! And, could the he be a she?
Our records show that red squirrels were to be seen in Wharfedale in the 1950s. Now, you’d be lucky to see one, though we have the occasional report from the upper Dale. However, nest-building is going on all around us as local birds get busy, and what skill, ingenuity and resourcefulness they show. There’s beauty too, as anyone will agree who has found the exquisite feather-lined cup of grass, moss and lichen made by a chaffinch or dunnock , or the meadow pipit’s delicate grass-woven nest cunningly hidden under a moorland tussock. The supreme architects, in my view, are the long-tailed tits, which construct their purse-shaped nest out of moss,held together by spiders’ webs, camouflaged with lichen and lined with up to 3,000 feathers. And the nest is elastic enough to accommodate as many as twelve chicks!
Just imagine having to make a home for your growing family using only your mouth and toes. Yet it’s going on all around us now – in the woods, fields and hedgerows, on the moors, in our gardens and the odd crannies in our houses, and along the river-banks where sand martins and kingfishers gouge out long nesting tunnels into the soil with their bills – a thought to make one’s nose ache. We admire and we can sometimes help. If you’re lucky enough to have house martins or swallows nesting nearby, a patch of dampened mud in dry weather is a boon. If you have a dog or long-haired cat, after combing leave a ball of discarded fur in a prominent place outside and it’s likely to be rapidly re-cycled – just like that Scottish conifer bark.