We have been entertained these past few days by the busy bustle of spring among the birds in our garden: a blue tit has found a hole in the sandstone wall and flies back and forth carrying nesting material, disappearing inside what should be a safe and warm shelter for its chicks, while a pair of magpies sift through the flower beds and fly off with beaks laden with twigs and leaves.
We were surprised at the blue tit’s choice of residence, but in Mark Cocker’s encyclopedic Birds and People he suggests that the choice is not at all unusual. ‘Blue tits,’ he writes, ‘utilise every conceivable man-made orifice: letter boxes, drains, post holes or crevices in brickwork, under roof eaves and occasionally garage interiors or within the house itself.’ By way of illustration, Cocker quotes a case cited by Edward Stanley, Bishop of Norwich in the 1840s in his Familiar History of Birds, their Nature, Habits, and Instincts, of a pair of tits that nested between the teeth of a skeleton, ‘a man who had been hung in chains for murder’. Cocker does add, though, that Stanley was ‘a fabulous purveyor of divine falsehoods.’
In point of fact a hole in a wall is a damn good place to make a nest. As Dominic Couzens observes in The Secret Lives of Garden Birds:
It is tempting to view nests as ‘homes’ where birds live, come back from work and put their feet up. But, in reality, a nest is a dangerous place, a potential trap. Once linked to one, birds that are normally highly mobile, evasive and unpredictable become much more calculable and vulnerable to predators.
It’s the female blue tit that builds the nest, with little or no help from the male. Moss will be taken from a garden lawn and formed into a cup, then lined with soft
feathers, fur or wool. Blue tits can build a nest in a few days, but generally it takes them between one and two weeks.
But holes are different:
Holes offer everything a bird needs, all in one: concealment, shelter, confinement for eggs and chicks. They are self-contained apartments, ready made for the bird market.
Or maybe not. John Clare, the poet and farm labourer born in the Northamptonshire village of Helpston in 1793, was a precise observer of birds and their ways, and wrote a sonnet about their nesting habits in which he suggests that holes in walls are not as safe as they might seem:
The starnel builds in chimneys from the view
& lays a egg like thrushes paley blue
Then breeds and flies and in the closes dwells
Where new made haystacks yield a pleasant smell
The blue cap builds in lime kilns out of sight
Lays nine small eggs & spoted red and white
& oft in walls where boys a noisey guest
Will pull a stone away to get the nest
The blackcap builds in trees where boys can see
The eggs and scarce get finger in the tree
The willow biter builds agen the dyke
A small round nest and all lay eggs alike
The wagtail builds in woodstacks & in walls
Maids often find them when the faggot falls.
Mind you, they are probably safer now than then: boys have better things to do with their time than poke about in walls, and rarely venture outdoors anyway.
When we were kids we’d snigger if anyone spoke about tits, the word having gained a stronger association with the female anatomy than a bird. But the etymological root lies in Scandinavian words suggestive of something small: the Icelandic tittr, or Norwegian tita meaning ‘a little bird.’ By the 16th century ‘tit’ had entered the English language as a word used for any small animal or object (as in ‘titmouse’ or ‘tomtit’, the original terms for a blue tit). The word soon began to be applied to females as a term for a girl or young woman, often in the deprecatory sense of a hussy or minx. From there it was a small step…
Sometimes I’m amazed at the variety of birds we see in our inner-city garden. On a regular, day-to-day basis the tally will include: Blackbird, Thrush, Robin, Sparrow,
Wren, Nuthatch, Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Great Tit (a whole tribe of them; walking to the newsagent of a morning, I hear them calling to each other with their recognisable ‘teechur, teechur’), Long-tailed Tit, Collared Dove, Pigeon, Magpie, Blackcap, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, and a pair of Jays. Occasional visitors include: Mistle Thrush, Starling, Jackdaw, and Green Woodpecker.
I think it helps that there are so many trees around – and particularly the deep cover provided by a holly tree. I have no way of confirming this – but we have been here 25 years and there seems a lot more variety now. Or maybe, retired now, I just have more time to sit and watch!
Returning to the tit family, and to John Clare, in ‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’, he writes:
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The fieldfare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again
The poem is rich with detail, and Northamptonshire dialect: ‘’Awe’ is the local term for the hawthorn berry, ‘closen’ are small fields or enclosures, and – best of all – ‘Bumbarrels’ is the earthy colloquial name for long-tailed tits, almost six inches from bill to tail-tip, but by weight one of the smallest of British birds.
The linguistic origin of ‘bumbarrel’ has nothing to do with the look or shape of the birds (who invariably knock about together as a bubbling gang, ‘a succession of whirring sticks with globular, pink ping-pong-ball foreparts’ as Mark Cocker vividly puts it). Instead the term relates to their nest, one of the most elaborate built by any British bird. It is an oval-shaped dome wedged into a cleft between branches, the exterior decorated with lichen fragments that blend perfectly with surrounding vegetation.
Of course, the ever-observant John Clare wrote a poem entitled ‘Bumbarrel’s Nest’:
The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,
Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest
First with a shade of green though winter-dashed –
There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest
Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied
And warm and rich as feather-bed within,
With little hole on its contrary side
That pathway peepers may no knowledge win
Of what her little oval nest contains –
Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red
Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes
Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song
Of the old birds who call them to be fed
While down the hedge they hang and hide along.
A couple of mornings ago, while having breakfast and reading the Guardian, I looked up to see the blue tit and the magpies busy feathering their nests. Then my eye was caught by that day’s Guardian Country Diary, written by Carey Davies whilst her flight was delayed at Manchester airport. With three hours to kill, she left the terminal building as the day waned:
I am braced for boredom, but an incongruous flicker of movement stops me in my tracks. The sheer brazenness of the small, energetic bird as it hops around on the asphalt is startling but, before I can contemplate it further, another bird bouncing along a railing distracts my eye. Another, then another, and, before I know it, my eyes are attempting to join 200 or more restless black and white dots, each one a point of elusive energy that seems to flee my gaze just before I can settle on it.
The flock of pied wagtails has gathered to roost in the trees of a memorial garden outside the Departures entrance. Jostling for position before settling down for the night, producing a cacophony of clipped calls, they flash, flit and twist through the dense evergreen foliage of a huge Portuguese laurel, and swarm over the terminal roof and the ledges of nearby buildings. Below, meanwhile, the repetitive choreography of cars, buses and luggage-dragging holidaymakers continues obliviously.
In the cold months, drawn by artificial light and radiant heat, communal roosts of pied wagtail often descend on airports, car parks, railway stations, industrial estates, petrol garages, even sewage works.
These bleakly utilitarian spaces underpin the Anthropocene, the era of human ‘dominance’, and the subversion of them by these birds seems both joyful and poignant. It suggests an adaptability that is still capable of surprising and inspiring, even while symbolising the idea of the end of nature as an independent province, subsumed into human history.
But, with the thunder of kerosene combustion nearby, this restless sky is perhaps a symptom of the change enveloping all things living underneath it, and our destinies seem closely intertwined.
Both Carey Davies’s diary piece and John Clare’s sonnet – though separated by two centuries – reveal the way in which birds are adept at slipping between the interstices of human life and adapting to our ways. They truly are our neighbours, as this poem, by someone I know very well, suggests:
All day I watch the mistle-thrush at work
Building with twigs and grass borne piece by piece
To wedge in its wind-ridden tree-top perch
And endure a season only.
While the long-tailed tit in solitary grace
Is dancing with a feather on a stone
Determined to subdue its air-light line
To the contours of a spider-web spun home.
They will be our neighbours then this year
Whose singing will greet us when we wake at dawn
Stirred by the whispering, barely discernible sound
Of what we have built begin to crumble down.
– Rita Cordon, ‘From the Window’