When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl –
Shakespeare was clearly a countryman: his works are full of delightfully accurate details like this song from Love’s Labour Lost. The dead of winter is one of the times when our tawny owls are at their most vocal as they settle their territorial rights for the coming season. It’s about hunting ranges but also about nesting territories, for tawnies are very early breeders.
Perhaps we don’t immediately think of owls singing – but actually tawnies do have quite a wide vocabulary. As well as the male’s wonderfully sonorous whooo and the female’s crisp ke-wick, they often produce a sustained wavering hoo-ing that almost seems to shimmer in the dusk. I remember hearing it as darkness fell in a wood near Bolton Abbey where I was badger watching, and very eerie it was. You’ve a good chance of hearing their chorus through the night and even, at this time of the year, during the day, in the countryside or in town. Two of our Wharfedale naturalists who’ve recently moved into the centre of Ilkley described hearing three birds calling and replying. Two of the birds had hoots just a semi-tone apart which made for some musically challenging chords as calls overlapped!
The other winter singer is that star of the Christmas card, the robin. Both males and females sing in winter and are fiercely possessive about their territory; after all, it’s a matter of life or death to have a reliable food supply. All our small birds are tested to the limit by the cold and wet and there are few hours of light in which to forage so they need all the help they can get.
Providing a variety of food in our gardens not only sustains them but also gives us hours of pleasure. What garden ornament can outshine your very own charm of goldfinches? A niger seed feeder is pretty well guaranteed to bring them in alongside tiny olive-green and yellow siskins and, if you’re lucky, the rarer redpolls. Peanuts are the quick energy booster for all kinds of tits, and feeders with sunflower and other seeds attract finches as well. Fat is an important energy source too, and if you can’t afford the seemingly endless supply of commercially produced fat-balls needed, then home-made mixtures of fat, a bit of seed, a few sultanas and brown bread crumbs are just as welcome. If you want to give a special treat to that friendly robin, you might buy some live mealworms. For the more squeamish among us, dried ones are also available and don’t give a nasty surprise to family members raiding the fridge for a late post-Christmas snack!r>