Life-changing encounters with garden birds
For me the earliest interest in natural history started with birds and my earliest memories of birds come from my parents' garden. My parents moved from London to a new terraced house in Basildon new town when I was two months old. The bare gardens were carved out of old dairy pasture and although initially, there was little in them to attract wildlife, a sufficient number of the ancient Essex hedgerows, with their massive elms, survived nearby to act as a reservoir of potential garden immigrants. As the gardens matured over the years, so the birds began to arrive...
Over 30 years after the event I can still remember the sheer intensity of my feelings when I first saw a bird which was out of the ordinary. Up to that point only Sparrows and Starlings, the archetypal 'little brown jobs', had impinged on my consciousness. But this bird was recognisably different. I remember the shocking boldness of its markings and the brilliance of its coloursI remember the shocking boldness of its markings and the brilliance of its colours: it seemed impossibly exotic.
Blue tit in my parent's garden
The species? - it was a blue tit! That short meeting between boy and bird in my parent's garden was a seminal point in my life: I honestly believe that at the moment of that encounter I became a different person and that the world, to me, became a different place.
My first sightings of great tits and greenfinches shortly afterwards rocked me almost as much, but this time I was prepared - I knew that such marvels existed and by now I was actively looking for them. I did this with the aid of my first bird book; The Ladybird Book of Garden Birds. I don't remember where or who I
The Ladybird book Garden Birds
got it from, but I suppose it was a present from someone. First published for children in 1967 (and now out of print I think) it is neither one of best written nor best illustrated children's bird books, but to me it was a window onto another world. The text and pictures in that book made such an impression on me that even now I can detect their influence in the way I see the countryside in my mind's eye.
Soon I was actively feeding the birds in our garden with bird seed bought from a local pet shop. On cold mornings, as I put the food out, hoards of house sparrows would wait just a few feet away from me on the chain-link fences which ran between the gardens (see the image in the banner of this site). I could never have imagined that this spectacle would become so much rarer just a few short decades later.
A male house sparrow basking on top of his chosen nest site and attempting to entice a mate
As I grew older I tried putting out bird boxes. I was
rewarded with blue tits at the far end of the garden and, most spectacularly, by house sparrows about four feet in front of the kitchen window! The incessant calling of the male perched on top of the box as he advertised for a mate during hot days in May left an enduring impression on meThe incessant calling of the male perched on top of the box as he advertised for a mate during hot days in May left an enduring impression on me.
These encounters with birds in the garden spurred me on to look for them further afield. Local woods and scrub-lands became favourite places and I cut my teeth on 'real' bird-watching there; but for me, it was frequently in the garden that my most significant experiences with birds took place. There is something about the intimacy of a space that you are so familiar with and look into so often, that brings an emotional impact to the encounters you have there. I remember watching a blue tit bathe among the open petals of a rose during a summer shower: that's pricesless. On another occasion, I missed school through illness and as I looked down on the garden from my bed, I saw a male reed bunting pass through. I had never seen one before, and I wouldn't see another for many years until I became more familiar with their 'proper' habitats. And now, more that 25 years after my childhood reed bunting experience, one turned up in my own garden just a few weeks ago! I don't really understand why, but there is a curiously satisfying circularity about it.
Its amazing what unexpected birds turn up in our gardens. This is probably something to do with the richness of the garden habitat, but must also be due, in part, to the fact that we know our garden's so intimately and watch them so well. Nowadays I live on the edge of the West Pennine Moors, and here you are never too far from a stream, but my garden isn't particularly close to one either; so I was surprised to get a phone call at work a few summers ago to be told by Kath, my wife, that she and the children had just encountered a kingfisher in our garden!I was surprised to get a phone call at work a few summers ago to be told by Kath, my wife, that she and the children had just encountered a kingfisher in our garden! It was sitting rather dazed on the patio when they found it - we believe it had flown into the patio doors. Thankfully it recovered, flew up and over the neighbour's Leylandii hedge, and was gone! Thank God I hadn't had a similar experience when I was a boy; judging by the effect that the blue tit had on me, the kingfisher might have finished me off.
I didn't doubt my families' story for one moment: my eldest son Matthew, has an impressive track record. In 1996, we lived in another house in Horwich with a postage stamp-sized back 'yard' (it was entirely flagged when we bought the house) and an even smaller front garden.
Waxwings in the garden
One late winter's day I received a phone call (at work again) from Matthew, who was nine at the time, to say that he had consulted his bird book and concluded that he was watching waxwings from his bedroom window! Sure enough, when I got home there was still enough light for me to see them for myself. They were eying up the Cotoneaster horizontalis in the front garden from alder trees opposite the house and making sorties down to raid the berries.
Those encounters with waxwings, kingfisher and other, more familiar, garden birds are part of the fabric of his being and may well surface in unexpected ways in the future
With the 50mm lens of my camera pressed against the glass of our front window, I was able to get some shots of the waxwings just a few feet in front of my eyes.
The waxwings did for Matthew what the blue tits had done for me all those years earlier (it takes a bit more to get him going!). He's now a teenager; into the normal teenager things, but he maintains an underlying interest in birds and wildlife that will always stay with him. Those encounters with waxwings, kingfisher and other, more familiar, garden birds are part of the fabric of his being and may well surface in unexpected ways in the future.
It never ends...
One of the delights of gardening is that things are always changing: the appearance of the garden can change from minute to minute as the sun and the clouds move; its character changes with the seasons and the very nature of garden is in a continuous state of evolution over the years. Although you can exert a measure of control over the plants you will encounter in the garden, you can never predict, with the same degree of certainty, what birds you will find thereAlthough you can exert a measure of control over the plants you will encounter in the garden, you can never predict, with the same degree of certainty, what birds you will find there; it adds an extra dimension of dramatic tension to the garden. The birds respond to changes which take place in the garden, but also, of course, to changes in the wider environment. On the one hand, thousands of gardeners regret the disappearance of house sparrows which seemed so common in their gardens 30 years ago and on the other hand, many delight in the appearance of collard doves which 80 years ago did not grace any UK gardens.
It doesn't matter how well or how long you have known your garden, there is always the possibility of turning up a bird that you have never seen there beforeIt doesn't matter how well or how long you have known your garden, there is always the possibility of turning up a bird that you have never seen there before. My parents still live in the house where I grew up and even now the garden throws up surprises: just a few weeks ago they were startled to see a green woodpecker taking ants from the lawn!
Even the familiar garden birds never lose their capacity to surprise and delight us in new ways; the blue tit bathing in the rose, the robin nesting in some unexpected corner of the garden shed or the blackbird trusting you enough to come into the kitchen for scraps. It's their very unpredictability - the fact that we can lose as well as acquire them - which makes them special. We can choose our garden plants, but when it comes to birds, it is they who choose the gardens.
|First published April 2003. Last revised January 2004.|
Copyright Richard Burkmar 2003. Permission is hereby granted for anyone to use this article for non-commercial purposes which are of benefit to the natural environment as long the original author is credited. School pupils, students, teachers and educators are invited to use the article freely. Use for commercial purposes is prohibited unless permission is obtained from the copyright holder.|
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