Singing for Their Supper

‘We Made a Wildflower Meadow’ by Yvette Verner tells the story of a small patch of land transformed into a bountiful haven for nature, encouraging wildlife and helping to sustain a fragile ecosystem. Published in 2019

From robins to skylarks and even the elusive peregrine falcon. Yvette shows how a wildflower meadow is the perfect habitat for a vast selection of bird species.

AS THE RANGE OF HABITATS has expanded in our little field, so has the variety of bird life. The homely garden varieties we were used to living with at close quarters were more shy than normal when there was less cover initially. The tit family — blue tit, coal tit and great tit — kept to the tree tops until we erected a bird table complete with peanut holder, an infallible draw. Their cousins, long-tailed tits, we had not seen closely before, as they prefer open countryside. However, having once discovered this new source of food they were most enthusiastic customers. Travelling as ever in companionable family groups, up to five at any one time would squeeze their pink, black and white bodies complete with almost ridiculously long tails, between the squirrel-proof bars to peck delicately at their dinner, so that the peanut-holder resembled an overstuffed Victorian birdcage. 

Robins have been with us from the start, ever hopeful that human activity will produce an edible snack by one means or another. If we’re outside but not doing any digging, a robin will literally sing for its supper until a sandwich crust or spare sultana is produced. 

Blackbirds have been able to enjoy scratching, with amazingly noisy vigour, beneath more and more leaves as time has gone by and our trees and hedges grow. Song and mistle thrushes too have better cover now. They use the sturdy stumps of blackthorn as anvils on which to hammer open snail shells for nutritious snacks.  Fortunately skylarks have always hung in the air overhead, singing their hearts out. Even though I accept that birds sing to attract a mate and to defend their territories, I cannot believe they do not also sing for joy. They certainly lift my spirits, especially on their first tentative song flights in early spring, when the sunshine is uncertain whether to break through the rain clouds and the wind still has a keen edge. Their melodious presence is proof of the turning of the seasons.  

Slipping quietly through our young hedgerows go small birds such as hedgesparrows — also known as dunnocks — and wrens. The bold bullfinch has no such modesty as he strips the tasty young buds from the blackthorn bushes each spring, the sight of his splendidly rosy waistcoat offering compensation for the vanished blossom. Greenfinches and goldfinches, on the other hand, save their finest showing until seed time. Just as the meadow is ready to be cut in July, crowds of these finches converge there, bringing their cousins the linnets with them for the party. Stalks of grass and meadow flowers alike bend elegantly beneath the weight of their fluttering plunderers, but there is plenty to go round. Anyone walking quietly along a path thinking of nothing in particular is likely to be startled into reality as a flock of twittering birds erupts around them. Yellowhammers are just beginning to take an interest in our hedges, although it will no doubt be a while yet before their plaintive “little bit of bread and no che-ese” nesting song is heard here. 

Great tit and blue tit in the meadow

Nature is good at surprises. One rainy, windswept evening, as I trudged across to feed the badgers, my torch illuminated a roosting woodcock so close to my feet I almost trod on it. I had never seen a woodcock before, so the warm brown tones of its plumage, the strikingly barred head with widely spaced eyes and poker-straight bill, etched themselves instantly into my memory. This was just as well, for after a few seconds—in which we were both equally startled—the bird shot off like an arrow into the darkness.  

Just as differing meadows have different selections of flowers, they also display different varieties of birds. Almost any bird can turn up anywhere, given the vagaries of wind and weather, but each meadow habitat will create suit able ecological niches for particular species. For instance, buzzards may soar impressively above upland meadows, whilst meadow pipits busy themselves closer to earth. Lowland meadows are home to the finch family, amongst others, and are patrolled by kestrels and sparrowhawks by day and owls by night. Water meadows may host a clump of tall trees by the water’s edge to provide a nesting site for herons, while ducks and waders patrol the area beneath. Dry, sandy meadows are the haunts of whin chats and perhaps even stone curlews with their weird yellow eyes and a call like a squeaking wheelbarrow. Grassy clifftops may well be home to wheatears, gulls and with luck the dashing peregrine falcon.

We have insufficient cover, as yet, for many birds to nest in our little meadow, so those that do are doubly welcome. One of the first birds to sing each spring is the chaffinch. Its spirited ren dition challenges the sun to shine and rough winds to abate, and usually they do. It was several years, however, before we finally spotted our chaffinches’ nest deep in the bramble thicket, although from the parent birds’ kamikaze dives straight into the bush’s thorny heart when feeding their young, we knew it must be there somewhere. 

Nuthatch in the meadow

A beautifully woven domed nest set in a low fork of a horn beam tree belonged to a wren, who set the valley ringing as his diminutive body throbbed with song. The newly-fledged wrens resemble feathered bumblebees as they bustle along the hedgerows. Our friendly robin’s nest site evades us still, although it must be nearby. 

Evidently, directness is desirable when eliciting tasty titbits, but discretion is called for when raising a family. The neighbouring tall trees have housed various residents from year to year, ranging from marauding magpies and carrion crows to drowsily cooing wood-pigeons. 

Every spring a pair of blue tits have successfully raised their young in a nestbox on our shed. They usually begin gathering dried grass and thin bark peelings in early April, adding green moss and soft feathers as a lining later. 

Each May the day arrives when both adult birds call excitedly to one another and pop in and out of their nestbox, proud parents of their first egg. The following week the tiny round eggs speckled with brown increase in number to eight, nine or even ten, and then brooding begins in earnest. The male feeds the female and sings self-importantly from the nearby blackthorn bush. 

Once the eggs hatch, however, singing time is strictly limited. The end of May and beginning of June is marked by the nestlings’ squeaking cheerfully for food, until suddenly one day all is quiet. The feathered family has flown to the safety of the treetops at dawn. Our best wishes go with them.

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