A sad story: my neighbour called in bringing two pathetic little corpses, chicks, covered in yellowish down, eyes still sealed shut and enormous beaks. She’d found them in the cat basket. Could I, perhaps, tell her what they were?
Unfledged chicks are very difficult to identify as they look nothing like their parents. At first I thought these might be ducklings but their feet were not webbed and their beaks, though disproportionately huge, were quite the wrong shape. A knowledgeable friend suggested crows or magpies, which seemed plausible, and even our WNS experts modestly expressed doubts. The consensus arrived at was wood pigeon squabs and, since our garden attracts several of these portly visitors, that’s where it rests. How did Kitty manage to catch them? Well, they could have toppled from their flimsy nest or been dropped by a magpie and retrieved as trophies or, having seen her clambouring about in the branches of next-door’s conifer, I fear the explanation may be more sinister.
The next few weeks will see hundreds of young birds leaving the nest and hiding in the bushes and undergrowth, fed and watched over by anxious parents, till they can fend for themselves. Hopefully, the depredations of the worst winter for over forty years will be repaired, but birds need all the help they can get. Early morning, when most small birds fledge, is when these youngsters are most vulnerable.
Small mammals like mice and voles, the main prey items of predators such as owls and kestrels, are mainly active and at risk at night. It’s a good vole year so these beautiful birds have a chance of replenishing their numbers after two really poor seasons. Cats are natural predators but cat-owners can greatly reduce their impact on the local wildlife by keeping their pets inside overnight. Similarly, dog-owners can help ground nesting birds by keeping their pets on a leash on the Moor and in areas favoured by warblers like Strid Woods.
Meanwhile Spring rolls on: bluebells, violets, primroses, stitchwort, wood sorrel – all miraculously flowering together and creating the sort of tapestry that inspires me to a frenzy of photography! And now – at the peak of the Spring crescendo – the arrival of the swifts. A friend reported spotting them on 14th May, a day earlier, as he pointed out, than Ted Hughes noted in his poem Swifts – which, for me, perfectly captures the wild, screaming essence of these wonderful birds and the heart- stopping exhilaration of their arrival:
“They’ve made it again,/Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s/ Still waking, refreshed, our summer’s/Still all to come”
These amazing birds live their whole lives on the wing – eating, sleeping, mating – only forced to touch down because eggs and nestlings can’t fly. Their tiny feet can cling but have no strength for hopping or take-off. Should you find a grounded swift, you can rescue it by picking it up and flinging it into the air, its natural element.