Small Lives

Bill Cox

© Copyright 2018 by Bill Cox

Photo by Jack Bulmer on Unsplash
Photo by Jack Bulmer on Unsplash

Small lives, fully lived.
Loving kin, battling rivals.
Brilliant lives, shining brightly,
Fighting the dark embrace,
Of the encroaching night.

My partner Hilary and I live on the outskirts of Aberdeen, in the north-east of Scotland. We have a small garden and we do our best to keep it welcoming to wildlife, especially the winged variety. Our cottage sits in-between crop fields, sheltered by verdant Rowan and Fir trees.

This greenery is home for around twenty Sparrows, a handful of Dunnock, Chaffinch and Blackbirds and a smattering of Great, Blue and Coal Tits. Crows, Magpies and Pigeons all reside nearby and are frequent visitors. Occasionally we get the odd Yellowhammer, maybe a Starling and on very rare occasions that cause great excitement in the household, a Woodpecker will appear.

In the garden we have a set of bird feeders which I fill every two or three days. I’ve also gotten into the habit this winter of spreading seeds on the lawn. Most of our birds are ground feeders so I figured I was doing them a favour by making things easier for them. With the addition of a homemade bird-bath, our garden became ‘the place to be’ for all discerning local birds!

Each species has its own behavioural quirks. The Dunnock appear to be the bravest of the birds. They will tolerate me sitting outside, a short distance away, watching while they peck at the pile of seeds. The Tits seem to be more selective, flying in to grab a single seed and then nipping away into cover. An avian smash and grab raid!

The Sparrows are clever about their browsing. The luxury of a flock of twenty birds allows some to feed while others seem to act as look-out. It sounds like an egalitarian society, where each is fed in their turn and each member takes a shift on guard. However, there is plenty of squabbling between individuals, even when there is no shortage of seeds. In a world of plenty there is still a pecking order, the ignoring of which causes friction in the community.

Those individuals left on lookout have an important job. Apart from the lumbering humans that occasionally hove into view, the main threat to my birds is my neighbour’s cat. It is a cunning animal, often employing ambush tactics to snare the unwary. Sometimes it will secrete itself into one of our bushes, waiting for a bird to fly in, never to fly out again. However, I can’t judge it too harshly, as it’s only following its natural instincts. Nevertheless, I know that a lack of prey will not see it go hungry, so I shoo it along whenever I see it enter my domain.

Of all the birds I am probably least tolerant of the Pigeons. Their voluminous appetite and speed of consumption can see them clear my seeds in just a few minutes. With their heads bobbing to and fro and their feathers glowing green when they catch the sun they are the industrial vacuum cleaners of the avian world, returning the lawn to a pristine, seedless condition in mere minutes!

The Crows seem to be the bosses of my bird-world, the ones to which all others defer, even their cousins the Magpies. Their size alone probably determines this deference – in nature mass is often power! Bigger is better, except of course where it isn’t. The smaller birds can use their speed and the fact that a Crow can only look in one direction at a time to grab some of the loot!

Of an evening it is nice to sit outside and listen to the cacophony of bird song as the last sunshine of the day illuminates the top of the trees. The hard rasp of the Crows and Magpies stands in contrast to the simple but melodious calls of the smaller birds. It’s like listening to an orchestra where everybody is doing their own thing, but it still remains pleasing to the ear. The birds are jamming in the trees and the music sounds great!

April brings with it the nesting season. I know that this year we have Crows nesting in one of our unused chimney pots, but they are good neighbours and keep themselves to themselves. All we will occasionally hear is the strangely tinny call of the young as their cries echo from deep within the ceramic chimney pot.

We have a nesting box attached to the back wall of the house. It’s one of those that has a camera inside that you can then watch on a television. Unfortunately, although there has been interest from the birds I suspect that the frequent movement in the house is enough to put them off nesting there. Despite our altruism, avian instinct has us firmly in the ‘potential predator’ category. No amount of good deeds are likely to overcome that! It’s a shame, because it’s a prime piece of real-estate that any young family would find really comfortable!

However, some birds draw the attention in other ways. For several weeks we had a Blue Tit that would sit on the ledge outside our living room then attack the living-room window. I can only imagine that the sight of its own reflection drove it into a territorial frenzy although I did entertain other possibilities, such as ‘was it asking for more seeds!’

It seemed quite determined to pursue this aggressive course, despite me shoo-ing it away on multiple occasions. We may often laugh at the ‘stupidity’ of such reactions, but how often have our own instincts led us astray? What strange behaviours appear when an instinctive behaviour isn’t fit for the environment that the individual finds themselves in? To me, this sounds like an explanation for the obesity and stress epidemics that are features of our current industrial society, far-removed as it is from the hunter-gatherer niche we evolved to fill!

Soon the young birds will leave the nest, although they will remain dependant on their long-suffering parents for feeding. Often we will have a line of young Sparrows or even Swallows, perched on the clothes-line as a harried parent rushes to and fro, dropping food into open, clamouring mouths. The young will be obvious from their ‘puffed-out’ appearance, their feathers all downy-looking, worn like a new jacket one isn’t quite sure about yet.

Despite the presence of life and vitality, all is not perfect in this mini-Eden. Our little cottage is surrounded by crop fields, a monoculture that is managed by pesticide-spraying tractors; not particularly friendly to the beasts and birds that live in the field margins. In my youth I imagined that the countryside was a place where animals roamed, where life was real and natural, away from the concrete desert of the city. I know better now! The countryside is a managed place, created by man for his own benefit. But at what cost?

Crows, for example, don’t have a great reputation among the farming community and are often persecuted as a result. I’ve seen crow-traps when out walking in the wilder areas and I know one local gamekeeper who sees it as his job to kill as many as possible, going so far as to empty his shotgun into any Crow nest he finds.

Unfortunately our current methods of food production see us labelling competitors as ‘pests’. Once defined as pests they are ripe for extermination. I’ve seen this label applied to Crows, birds of Prey, Foxes and even Seals locally. Mankind has laid claims to all sources of food and any creature which, in following its natural instincts, challenges that, is automatically demonised and ruthlessly exterminated. Some, like the wolves who used to inhabit this island, were completely wiped out. Similar efforts are being made today to cull Badgers by the UK government. It seems such a selfish and short-sighted point of view, detrimental to the web of life that we ourselves depend upon.

My own opinion is that there is an imbalance in our agricultural system of food production, a lack of harmony that will ultimately come back and do us a disservice. I consider myself an omnivore and have no compunction about eating meat – the body needs what the body needs! And I have no illusions about nature, where life is often brief and usually ends bloodily. However, the ways in which livestock are treated often goes beyond this cruel necessity and into realms of behaviour where empathy seems absent altogether. As in our careless use of pesticides, I wonder what the traumatic and unnatural lives of livestock are doing to the meat we consume.

So I do what I can to provide a haven for a small mixture of the local fauna. Long-term I understand the futility of this action, as eventually, as the decades pass, the fields are likely to give way to housing as the city expands outwards, the grey of concrete replacing the vibrant colours of the trees and flowers. Real Badgers, Foxes and Buzzards will be replaced by a ‘Badger Lane’ or a ‘Buzzard Close’.  Nevertheless, for the individuals who share my little oasis it will mean something for as long as it lasts; a place of security in a rapidly changing world perhaps, or the home where they hatched with their siblings and first learned to fly.

And I will have played a small role in those avian memories, behind the scenes, for reasons and motives of my own. Perhaps I need to feel that I’m doing something, no matter how small, to push back against the inevitability of a sixth mass extinction. Maybe I just want to feel needed, to keep my hands busy so that I have a purpose in an increasingly perplexing world. Or maybe, just maybe, I simply like to sit out in my garden, in the warmth of a late spring morning and enjoy the songs, the to and fro, the hustle and bustle of small, quick lives lived fully in the green embrace and open skies of our beautiful planet.

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