A couple of weeks ago, just as the weather was taking a slight turn for the better, I could be found standing in my garden, equipped with a bowl of soapy water, assorted brushes and screw-drivers, an anti-bacterial spray and a long-suffering expression. I was cleaning the bird feeders. The newly designed nyger and sunflower seed feeders, with their single-rod release, were easily done, the old mixed-seed container- a long plastic tube with six feeding ports held in place by fiddly little nuts and screws is a nightmare. Several of the plastic ports were so squirrel-gnawed that I had to replace them with extras saved from an even older model. The screw-arrangement was clearly designed for nimble-fingered children: I fumbled on, losing two of the tiny nuts and my temper in quick succession. At last the job was done, the feeders filled and replaced and temper restored with a cup of coffee.
It was certainly worth the effort. Birds came flocking in: jackdaws and blackbirds clung to the fat balls, siskins, redpolls and goldfinches pecked daintily at the nyger seeds, even the trio of dunnocks that, for the past two weeks had seemed too fired up with hormones to pause for food – engaging in endless courtship displays and chases – settled down to the serious business of eating. It was a timely reminder that our garden birds need our support more than ever as they put all their energies into raising their young. They will find suitable food – caterpillars, flies and other protein-rich fare – for the nestlings, but our feeders give them a quick energy-boost for themselves.
One familiar figure was absent that morning. When I filled in my BTO Garden BirdWatch return for the first quarter of the year (January – March) I realized that I had not recorded a single collared dove – a bird so familiar that I took it for granted. I attached a note about this to my record sheet and a few weeks later was contacted by one of the BirdWatch team. He told me that there had been a decline in this species. Having spread rapidly north from Turkey during the last century, they had suddenly faltered. Possible explanations include competition from the wood pigeons that are increasingly moving into gardens, and the disease that has already hit the great tit and the greenfinch populations. This spreads through contaminated bird feeders.