Monday, 29 October 2018

bubblegum and house sparrows ...

Cold weather is on it's way. As an aperitif, chilly rain and wind. I've put on a warm winter hat..

Wooden dowels hosting the spores of oyster mushrooms have been drilled into logs in the Woodland Garden.

Down in George's Pond, be-wadered, I drag the scythe through the invasive parrots feather (Myriophyllum aquaticumpond weed. Only once did I over-reach myself and nearly capsize. Fortunately the Head Gardener was raking from the bank and on hand to advise caution. A third of the pond surface cleared today with piles of the vegetation heaped around the pond edge, all to be composted.

As russet leaves chased one another across the lawn, one turned itself into a stoat. A bundle of black-tipped-tail energy: perhaps the reason for the recent skittishness of the hens?
Nerine bowdenii

Bubblegum pink - and completely out-of-sympathy with the colourway of the season - our naked nerines (Nerine bowdenii) are still in full brazen flower. They lose their leaves in the summer leaving slender flower stems. The nerine bulbs clearly relished the baking they got in their pots from the August sun on our south-facing terrace.

Six hen pheasants parachute in across the lawn. The females form groups during the winter and roost together. These 'hen parties' don't teeter and screech through the centre of Nottingham in the way their human counterparts do at weekends. Pheasants are released on the farm next door for shooting. These birds are possibly asylum seekers escaped over the hedge: we are their Sangatte. They queue for rations and 'peep' around my feet as I top up the feeders, eager to scavenge any fallen seed. Solitary males swagger.

Blue tit
Although the feeders remain obstinately quiet, there are many small woodland birds around, flitting through our brambles in loose foraging flocks. We caught, ringed and released 129 birds last weekend including blue, great and coal tits, long tailed tits, goldcrests.

We're considering building a garage block, as much for storage as housing a car - and this will also be an opportunity to make a home for wildlife. How can I best accommodate birds and bats? And will I be able to attract house sparrows (Passer domesticus) to the terraced nest boxes I plan? 
House sparrows were everywhere as I grew up but elusive in many areas these days - another example of 'shifting baseline syndrome'...
There can't have been breeding house sparrows here for many years as no buildings occupied the site. But they are present in the nearby chalets and once called in groups from our neighbours' shrubs. In 2012 a bold cock sparrow tried to set up home in the unfinished roof of our new home. As sociable little birds they prefer to nest in groups so I put a 'colony box' up for him. He chirruped for a while but no female was persuaded.
Sitings of house sparrows have become fewer and fewer and our last garden siting was in April of this year. We are losing our house sparrows.
House sparrows have been under pressure because every aspect of their ecology has been changed.
House sparrow colony box
More efficient farming practices have largely eliminated the spilled seed they once feasted on in large flocks in autumn and winter. The overwinter stubble fields they once relied on are now planted with winter sown cereals and brassicas. In the farmyards the barns no longer provide free access to mountains of stored grain.
In common with most birds who feed their young on invertebrates (in the case of house sparrows on spiders) the food supply has dried up. There are simply insufficient quantities of spiders to fill the babies' bills.
Modern housing has eradicated nesting sites. Where once sparrows could squeeze into gaps under our roofs, these spaces have gone in the new world of plastic soffits and facias. Our tidy gardens provide too few overgrown shrubs to hide a group of querulous sparrows.
And the increase in sparrowhawk numbers means there are more predators for the hard-pressed little birds to contend with..
They remain locally abundant where conditions are right, but once they vacate an area, there are insufficient birds doing well during breeding seasons to colonise new territories. 
For us, the consequence of all these changes may be depressingly predictable:  has the house sparrow that was abundant here six years ago gone forever? 
I can think of few better litmus paper tests for the health of urban and rural environments than Passer domesticus...

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