Life lessons from birds

This summer we have had more breeding birds in the garden than ever. The list of species includes blackbird, blue tit, great tit, dunnock, wood pigeon, house sparrow, robin, magpie, and goldfinch.

It’s costing us a fortune in seeds, nuts, and fat balls, but it’s worth it. Especially as Little Chick is taking great interest in keeping the feeders topped up and caring for our feathered friends. The overflowing feeders have also encouraged a few more daily visitors, including Jack the jackdaw and Cyril the squirrel.

We have enjoyed watching their lives play out before us, the large living room window offering a cinematic view of their comings and goings. As a genus, I took no interest in birds until I met the Other Mrs Reed Warbler. Before then, I kept a healthy distance. Now, I am surprised at how much we can learn from these wee creatures that share our homes and gardens.

I say homes because we have house sparrows nesting in the eaves of our roof. They have successfully fledged several broods over the past years and have done so again this summer. House sparrows are the Other Mrs Reed Warbler’s favourite birds. They are the bird of her childhood, conjuring memories of a simpler time. They are understated and overlooked. House sparrows are declining in numbers in our cities and are symbolic of how we are damaging our and their natural environment.

In the garden, we have watched the various species mark and defend their territories. The blackbirds are particularly vocal in this and provide great entertainment when the neighbouring pair try their luck on our feeders. ‘Territorial’ usually has negative connotations. Before parenthood I probably would have agreed. But watching them now, as a mother, I admire their tenacity in protecting their family.

The blue tits are probably my favourite visitors, not least because they often occupy the nest box with an inbuilt camera and we can observe the minutia of their lives, including when the eggs hatched and the first chicks fledged. However, what struck me most was how industrious these birds are and how hard they work. This summer has been tough for the Other Mrs Reed Warbler and me; we have felt exhausted and overwhelmed at times. But seeing the blue tit pair physically and emotionally broken gives you a sense of perspective. Especially when the chicks they have so valiantly fought for are predated by the local tom cat.

It is almost impossible to distinguish between the blue tit sexes, unless you are an expert, are in ultraviolet light, or are holding the blue tits. Goldfinches, dunnocks, and great tits are equally difficult to separate. I like this. Even at four-years-old, Little Chick has some ideas of male and female qualities and projects these onto the birds in the garden. Mr Blackbird goes to the office; Mrs Blackbird stays at home; Mr Sparrow goes out all day; Mrs Sparrow looks after the babies. This doesn’t follow the roles in our same-sex household, but he has learned it anyway. When we cannot identify the sex of the bird our expectations change; we accept them as they are.

We are reminded that looks can be deceiving. Our luscious hedgerows are home to several species and provide the backdrop for the most intense drama. Dunnocks have crept into my list of favourite birds, simply because they are so common yet unusual. Typical little brown jobs (LBJs), they are boring at first glance. Upon closer inspection, they are not just brown or even just one shade of brown. They are unexpectedly glorious. And there is certainly more to them than meets the eye. They are by far the friskiest birds in our garden and their sex lives are curiously fascinating. Every time they scamper after each other, ‘The Benny Hill Show’ theme plays in my head. Unlike most species, both sexes, rather than just the male, has a breeding territory. The female will encourage male suitors in order to get the best sperm, a classic example of survival of the fittest. Rival males will peck out competitor’s sperm from the female’s opening to ensure their lineage. However, the female is not above allowing several males to believe they are the father, ensuring the best provisions and protection for her offspring. Dunnocks would not be out of place on ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’.

Occasionally, we will be visited by a passing bird of prey. Buzzards often ‘kee kee’ overhead and sparrowhawks occasionally soar through the garden or perch on the feeder. Birds of prey were my most feared birds but now they are among my favourites. Spotting a rarer species in the garden is a true joy and a reminder that we live in a genuinely wonderful place. It is easy to lose sight of that.

Corvids, including crows, jackdaws, magpies, jays, rooks, and ravens, are amongst my favourite family of birds. They show such guile and intelligence and are incredibly entertaining. Jays stand out from the rest since they appear uncommonly exotic while the others are uniformly black. But the sombre backdrop makes the magpie’s iridescent wing feather shine brighter. I love the magpie’s habit of borrowing and curating to make something beautiful. I feel this is something I try to do with my crafts, creations, and writing, though I’m also mindful of plagiarism.

Beyond the home and garden, there is so much more that we can learn from birds. Starlings work together splendidly, creating one of the true natural wonders of nature. Anyone who has seen a murmuration in the wild, the communal flocking dance before they roost, will know exactly what I mean. Geese are a great example of working smarter not harder, as they employ a V formation to conserve energy and increase efficiency. Long tailed tits will work together and help each generation thrive not just survive. I love when a little gang of young long tailed tits alights on our trees or feeders. Their rotund bodies and ridiculously long tail feathers always bring a smile to my face.

My favourite species is found far further afield: the Atlantic puffin. Puffins waddle. They shouldn’t be able to fly. They are impressive swimmers. Their beaks regularly hold up to ten sand eels, crisscrossed to utilise the space (the largest haul on record is 62). They live in burrows underground. Rather than a melodic song, they growl, a noise somewhere between a cow mooing and a muted chainsaw. Their multicoloured beaks have earned them the nickname ‘the clowns of the sea’. In short, they are extraordinary.

Little Chick likes puffins too, because they are funny, star in a cool TV show called ‘Puffin Rock’ (highly recommended viewing), and are my favourite. In time, I hope he will find a favourite for his own reasons, similarly inspired by these amazing creatures.

Birds are beautiful, tenacious, industrious, adaptable, brilliant, competitive, protective, understated, and incredible.

Be more bird.

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