Week 11: I will learn more about the birds and the bees.
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Growing up, I loved watching birds in our garden. They were the rock stars of the species. Colourful, strutting, able to sing like angels and fly like superheroes. Sometimes, the sky would darken with a flock of starlings, sometimes you would have to stop your conversation for the honking of geese or the shrieking of seagulls. We would trace and colour pictures of eagles and hawks from books, and my grandma would talk of the mystical kingfisher that lived nearby but was rarely spotted.
As I got older, having an interest in birds grew a lot less appealing and a lot more embarrassing, and then finally spending years living in cities and in apartments, the interest dwindled as the variety of birds we lived amongst grew thin. Crows, pigeons and the occasional blackbird would be the main visitors to the rooftops and terraces. Being able to name the species in the parks or the urban skies, became an amusing party trick rather than a passionate interest.
Fast forward to the recent past, and we simultaneously moved to the countryside, had a child who was curious about what flitted about outside the windows, and for the first time in our lives had a garden of our own. Once more the interest was rekindled, and before our little boy was even walking we had a chart on the wall of the birds that you could see in the garden. Blue tits had returned to our lives. A family of blackbirds would feast on the berries and apples that the garden provided, in relative safety aside from being occasionally worried from a distance by our elderly cat. Suddenly, there was a reason to be interested in birds again. We hung a feeder on the tree outside, bought a few spotters guides and interactive birdsong books.
Every breakfast time we are able to, we enjoy the peace and spot the birds that visit the feeder, chuckle at the big wood pigeons that waddle around the grass, coo at the collared doves in the apple tree and use grandad's old binoculars to spot bullfinches in the high branches or Mr. Magpie as he patrols the vegetable patch. We have even heard the rat-tat-tatting of a woodpecker whilst playing in the garden in the Summer, or the hoot of an owl on a Winter's evening. Live is good, and the rock stars of the garden are back.
But of course, birds as not rock stars, and they are not indestructible superheroes. They are creature just like us, and although adapted to the outdoors, are not immune to some of the extreme weather we have been experiencing.
This Winter for example, it feels like it has been raining non-stop for a hundred days in the UK, and every other week we are gathering up wind-scattered debris of outdoor chairs in the garden, litter from the trees, branches from the drive as we catch the meat or the tail end of storms. Perhaps we are not used to the seasons being so starkly marked, having been city-dwellers for many years, but even as a child I don't remember there being so many storms, so much wind, so many sudden changes in temperature or conditions. Venture further in the World, and there are of course situations far worse than we experience, and we should count ourselves lucky in the UK that we are not suffering life changing and habitat destroying climate events as often as other regions.
We should support these through our actions and our donations, and listen to the voices of the people who are experiencing it. This is not fake news, this is not scientific exaggeration, these are not people and wildlife somehow living where they should not, or a natural cycle of the climate. Imagining a flood powerful enough to carry away a car and rip trees from their roots, or a fire so rampant that you have minutes to save your belongings and your life, might be difficult and might be happening far away - it does not mean it is not happening and we cannot help.
The thought of animals burned alive, cattle drowned, entire ecosystems destroyed, makes me feel helpless and frustrated, and makes me feel that the small efforts we have made so far outside our own window, to help the creatures that we live amongst, is not enough.
My permanent resolution starting today, is to pay even more attention to the creatures in our lives, and in our gardens. It is the middle of Winter right now, and so we are starting with the birds. They were my first love, and feels like a good place to begin. Climate change might not be directly impacting the birds in our garden, and perhaps could be considered something of an unrelated or futile task to raging fires or rampaging floods, but at the same time it is a habit and a connection. We are all connected, and so if we take care of what is around us, then we are contributing to recognising the importance of the biodiversity of the places we can control. We are all connected, and by changing this small habit, we could all make an attitudinal change. We will learn every day, to do a little bit more, and create a habit of noticing what we can do.
Feeding the birds in our garden, is also something everyone can do, whether you have a lot or a little land outside. It is a good start, because birds are visible during the day, so we can see the impact we have, and it can remind us also of the other creatures as we learn more. Bird feeding is also relatively straightforward. Feeders are readily available, can be hung anywhere that is safe from predators as a perch, and with a little maintenance can last a long time.
Therefore the first thing everyone can do - if you already have a feeder, is always make sure it is full and clean. I didn't realise how dirty they can get, and our one solitary bird feeder has been up all Winter, and although we have refilled it with fresh seed, there is a layer of moist seed at the bottom. This is not good for the birds, and could even be a reason we have not seen as many this year. Birds, just like us, don't want to eat from dirty plates, and therefore this small and regular habit will make sure that we give the birds in our garden a safe supply of extra food.
Next, I made an activity out of creating additional feeders, to give extra options and also different mixes of seed so that we covered the tastes of as many breeds of birds as possible. I never thought after a bit of research that we would feel selfish that we only put up one source of food in the garden, and only where we could enjoy watching the birds, and only food that certain birds would enjoy. It is a very human habit to break, the habit of selfishness when it comes to our fellow creatures on the planet. Perhaps it means that we will not see as many of our feathered friends immediately outside the window, but this is not as important as making sure that we give a wide variety of birds some support in the garden when they need it, over the Winter months.
Making the feeders, is something that we can all do. There are many different options, but at its most simple level, you need two ingredients - suet and good quality bird seed to create a kind of fat ball or fat based feeder. You can buy these already made, but as a family task it was satisfying to know that we had made the feeders, and contributed ourselves to this planetwise choice.
It was really simple and fun. You take some seed, some suet, and a few terracotta or other pots that you might have around the house or can pick up cheaply from a garden centre, and a bit of string. All you have to do, is measure out one part of suet, to two parts of seed, and heat the mixture gently in a pan. Once the suet has melted, you should have a nice sticky seed mixture, and then either make balls with your hands, or as we did, transfer the mixture into terracotta pots. These have the right balance of seed, you can mix in other stuff like mealworms, but also some the fat will be appreciated on cold days and nights. The weather might be brightening up, and there may be a few snowdrops starting to arrive, but in the mornings there is still a frost on the ground at least where we live. Now we know how to do this we can do it every Winter, and have the food ready a bit earlier in the season.
There are other ways that you can make any size of garden friendly to the insects, birds and animals that visit. This will change depending on where in the world you are. You can plant lavender or other flowers that are attractive to bees and other insects, create shelters for hedgehogs or other creatures that visit. You can also have an excuse to leave the garden a bit messy, so that creatures can use the leaves and other natural litter to either shelter or to dig through for food. A quick search online can always give you good tips, and I used national organisations such as the RSPB to get the best advice for the UK. Each season, it feels like a new task could be accomplished that will help the creatures that live amongst us in our garden have a little bit of help as we make other changes to our planet that makes it harder to survive.
Take this further, and perhaps through our own collective and individual household actions, we can influence local landowners to be responsible for making good choices on their land. The impression we all set, can indirectly influence local authorities to make good choices on our behalves when planning for building or planning for the future use of land. We can encourage and support local producers that take such good care of the land, and use techniques that have a positive impact on our local habitats. We can make sure that national organisations, and multinational organisations, have our support and know that we are paying attention to what they do, and how they do it, and that we will support those that make the best choices for habitats.
If we can raise the importance and recognition of habitats, and of the impact that climate change has in our village, in our country, in our region, then we can begin to change attitudes where it directly counts. The world's media is a powerful tool to help this change, but they also have a habit of moving on, when a natural event does not feel dramatic or interesting anymore or when something else distracts the cameras.
Media stories give the impression of a start, a middle, and an end, but the impact of climate change does not obey this. It is relentless and ongoing. The aftermath of events is rarely covered, and how long normality might take to return to regions that are ravaged by disasters, if this is possible at all. Politicians, will often also follow the spotlight. How often have we seen politicians 'Tweet their support', and then move on. It is up to us all who live amongst nature, to do what we can do that we can to prevent, give protection, and hope we can eventually influence those who have the power to prevent irresponsible, large scale decisions, by creating positive pressure and by letting them know that we notice, and we care. Not just those who are directly impacted right now, but us all.
We still feel a little helpless, but we can try. Although we might be separated by oceans, but we are connected by one planet.