Girton Birdwatch - January 2006
If we are to have a harsh winter then some of the birds that we have started to take for granted are going to be in a bit of trouble. So many birds have benefited from our run of very mild winters that we may have forgotten how vulnerable they are. This is a national phenomenon but I am not talking about birds such as the Dartford Warbler which was observed at Milton last year - and which was a 'wanderer' from the southern heaths that it normally frequents and on which it has been multiplying - but the Wrens, Tits and Warblers which have managed to get a much less precarious toe-hold in our Girton gardens. For example, we probably take the Wren for granted and yet it is one of the birds which are most threatened - mainly because of its size and consequent difficulty in keeping warm - by severe winter weather. Wrens cuddle together for warmth when the weather gets cold, packing Tit and other nest boxes; anything which provides some protection: ten or more have been found huddling inside a single coconut shell. This is such an attractive little bird with its piercing, trilling song and perky cocked-up tail, that it hardly seems necessary to encourage people to do all they can to provide food and shelter for it in hard times (it takes small insects and their larvae and a few spiders - not much we can do about them when they get short - but small seeds also). It's a national favourite (those of you who can remember further back than 1961 will be familiar with the farthing, equal to one-quarter of the old English penny and the smallest coin then in circulation, which sported a Wren on its reverse) which makes all the more surprising the cruel ritual to which it was subjected until relatively recently in British history. On St. Stephen's Day (December 26), groups of youths, dressed in curious costume, would beat the hedgerows, singing and trying to kill any Wren they saw, or they would catch it alive and carry it in procession in a specially decorated 'Wren House'. Apparently, this tradition still survives on the Isle of Man. Interestingly enough - given its scientific name: troglodytes troglodytes - Edward Armstrong, an expert on the folklore of birds, traces this ritual to the Bronze Age: ' … the Wren Cult reached the British Isles during the Bronze Age and was carried by megalith builders whose cultural inspiration came from the Mediterranean region. Probably these folk cherished mainly solar magico-religious beliefs. The Wren Hunt ceremonial having as its purpose the defeat of the dark earth-powers and identification with the hoped-for triumph of light and life'. This, of course, still raises the question: why the Wren? (Answers on a post-card please!).
Another bird threatened by the potential return of harsh winters is the Long-tailed tit. The Long-tailed tit is not, in fact, closely related to the 'true' Tit family - the Paridae, which includes the Blue, Great, Coal, Willow, Marsh and Crested tits - but is arguably the prettiest and daintiest of those birds we think of as 'Tits'. (While in pedantic mode, that denizen of East Anglian marshes and reed-beds, the Bearded-tit, is also not a 'true' tit but is related to such tropical birds as babblers and parrotbills). As a boy growing up on the Wirral, I felt myself privileged to be shown a Long-tailed tit's nest by a friend - I don't think I ever saw the bird itself in those days. Now you can't move in Girton for them! (I exaggerate slightly). They build possibly the most beautiful nest of any British bird, and one that you are most likely to find when the leaves have fallen from trees and bushes, and even then you might think it's a bunch of moss or a ball of misplaced sheep's wool! It's a spherical mass of feathers, moss, fur and other soft material with a tiny hole, all bound together with cobwebs and covered in lichen. Moreover, their name 'Long-tailed tit', says it all: they are tiny balls of fluffy pink, black and white plumage finished off with very long tails. I hope you have seen them because if you spot one you'll see lots, as they are invariably seen in small flocks. In one of my reference books, published in 1976, it says '(they) are found on the outskirts of woods and in woodland clearings; some spread out to hedgerows and thickets but, unlike Great tits and Blue tits they rarely visit suburban gardens'. What a difference 30 years makes! They are now regular - if still infrequent - visitors to our gardens and bird-tables, due almost definitely to the milder winters which have led to an overall increase in their numbers. They advertise their presence by a variety of call notes: a spluttering 'tsirrup', a soft 'tupp' and a thin 'si-si-si'. They don't seem to use the feeders in our garden, but apparently appreciate fat-balls (J.C.).
Another bird which we are lucky to have around the village, and which is liable to starve to death in harsh winters when its food supply is cut off by frozen waters, is the Kingfisher. A friend thinks my prose has become too 'flowery' of late so, as he has a fondness for the word 'halcyon', what follows is for him. Halcyon, in the sense of 'calm, peaceful, undisturbed', has been around since 1578, but is of much older derivation. The Halcyon was the Greek Kingfisher, believed to have the power to keep the water calm while it built its nest upon the surface. The 'halcyon days' were the seven days before and after the winter solstice when the bird was brooding.
Talking of water, remember to put out lots - unfrozen - to help keep our local birds alive if the weather turns out to be as bad as predicted.