How many songbirds come to and fro, in an English country garden? Well, in our new garden, quite a few. I say ‘our’, and ‘new’, but really we are borrowing a part share for a short while, before, hopefully moving on once again.
Early this year my parents moved into North Waltham rectory — an ugly sixties box on the outside, but spacious and bright on the inside, with an enormous picture window in the lounge affording the garden view I’m currently enjoying. We joined them to live here for a while at the beginning of last month, and one of the greatest pleasures has been getting to know the bird life of another garden. The old garden back in North Baddesley attracted good birds in to feed, but very few seemed to be ever present since it lacked trees and big shrubs for cover. Most visits would be fleeting, blue tits and goldfinches skimming down from the trees on the other side of the road once the coast was clear, on to the feeding station on the lawn, and back to the safety of the trees before trouble caught up with them, perhaps in the fearsome shape of a sparrowhawk.
Since then we’ve lived in a variety of small properties with, between them, one shared and neglected back garden with very little in the way of windows to view, a small front garden, and an entirely paved back yard. We did get the odd Nuthatch fly over in Woking, and Coal tits on our feeders there and in Virginia Water. The yard in Reading was normally devoid of life (apart from an alarming quantity of arachnids), but occasionally the elder tree next door hosted a passing flock of tits, or for a while during the cold weather, delightful redwings — up to 25 at one time. Flyover raptors could occasionally be a treat too, on one lunchtime in Surrey I saw a pair of peregrines soar over with a local buzzard coming up to meet them, and in the distance a red kite drifting by. One lunchtime! Red kites are even more regular ‘garden birds’ in Reading, with hardly a day passing without one sailing past on the breeze near Waldeck Street. But what I really missed was having a little community of local birds whose entire world, almost, consists of the garden you can see out of the window.
That is just what we have for our entertainment here in until-recently-sunny North Hampshire. On our first visit a mistle thrush sang from the tops of the tall trees that surround the garden for the whole weekend. Blackbird like, though with less variety, and fewer notes; but more powerful, ringing out strong and clear even through wind and rain. And, like the American robins it reminds me of, our mistle thrush, once started, doesn’t usually stop singing all day- in fact I’m pretty sure this particular bird has been singing off and on for about three months now!
If you leave a window open, you are rewarded with quite a chorus joining it too. A goldcrest on the edge of hearing from the small fir tree by the drive, a blackcap in the shrubs at the back of the garden, chaffinches, blue tits and great tits calling busily from the apple tree as they wait their turn on the feeder — greenfinches, wheezing blearily overhead, and a merry tinkling of goldfinches on their way for another fill of Nijer seed. Looking out you will invariably see blackbirds hopping about on the lawn, perhaps a pair feeding quietly alongside each other, or sometimes two males squabbling over some minor dispute. Woodpigeons of course are ubiquitous, but in my view, quite hilarious, waddling about in groups of three, four, or five, in a never ending hunt for tasty snacks. We are even lucky enough to have a pair of bullfinches which visits every few days, or perhaps more often whilst our backs are turned.
If I were a more patient, relaxed and meditative person at the moment, I would watch their comings and goings all day. It would be the best use of an afternoon. They give instant life and colour to a place that, to my bird biased eyes, would otherwise be a faintly untidy mosaic of mossy lawn, unkempt trees, brambles, nettles and other scrub — though not unattractive in itself, the birds make a place technically living into a true living community, the visible sign that this is a good, healthy, productive place. Much more so, in fact, than the countryside that surrounds. You won’t find such a diversity of life in the spring wheat, rapeseed or linseed growing just outside the village.
That’s not to say that farmland is entirely bad for wildlife — hereabouts you’ll see the odd flock of specialists like yellowhammers or linnets, a few singing skylarks, and some nice wildflower rich hedgerows and margins favoured by bees and butterflies, signs that some landowners in North Hampshire are doing a pretty good job. It’s a pleasant part of the world for a country walk. But I can tell you first hand that the chorus of birds out in the now mostly empty fields and hedgerows of the countryside, and even in many woods, pales in comparison to the gentle strength of noise in an English village.
It’s a good reminder that gardens are ever more useful safe havens for some of our best loved birds. Of course, they have not always been ‘garden birds’ since they evolved before humankind learned to till the soil and keep plants, nonetheless they have found our little artificial habitat patchworks much to their liking and moved in en masse. Most of them continue to thrive to this day, with new additions like the collared dove having similar success, though there are a few exceptions that suggest all is not as well as it should be. The house sparrow is one. Beyond lunatic fringe talk of marauding hawks, the best evidence available so far points the finger at changes in gardening practice, which often aim for ‘low maintenance’, removing hedges and shrubs that provide cover and food, or the paving over of entire front gardens for parking.
If I had a garden, I think it would be kept a little like this one. As in, hardly kept at all! Perhaps with a few more flowers, and a good plot of vegetables (in fairness, there hasn’t yet been much time for my parents to plant these!), but still with plenty of ‘mess’, and hopefully, plenty of birds. As far as I can tell, it’s a win-win-win situation that’s much to be encouraged — a truly low maintenance garden giving good homes for birds that give me pleasure, not to mention the myriad other species, potentially hundreds or even thousands of invertebrates, that perhaps could be found in a good garden if you really looked. I can see why wildlife gardening is always pushed by nature conservation charities. They may make up a small percentage of the UK’s land surface, but an important one, and represent our most immediate connection to the natural world. A kind of halfway place, where both us and the birds are completely at home; and at their best, all is rest, and peace, and life.