Divided loyalties


WE have a bird feeder which gives us endless enjoyment. It is like having a small theatre in the garden (though thankfully without the luvvies). We have a range of goodies on offer – black sunflower seeds, sunflower seed hearts (why you would choose them with husks when you don’t have to beats me, but some of them prefer to take off the husks themselves), fat cake and general wild bird food, which is a mix of grains. 

Among our regular visitors are great tits, blue tits, coal tits, long-tailed tits, greenfinches, goldfinches and nuthatches. These were all experienced feeder users when we installed it five or six years ago. Since then, other birds have watched and learned, and now use the feeder with varying degrees of agility, such as chaffinches, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, robins and (I am sorry to say) wood pigeons, which are clumsy but effective. One summer we were thrilled to have two pairs of bullfinches visiting, but we have not seen them since. Very occasionally a great spotted woodpecker turns up. 

It’s a good job the birds don’t have to pay for their food, because they are shockingly profligate. They will pick out and toss aside half a dozen identical sunflower hearts before finding one that suits their refined taste. 

There is a baffle halfway up the pole to stop grey squirrels reaching the feeders. Not only would they empty the containers in no time flat, but the birds do not like them and stay away. However, they maintain a near-constant presence at the foot of the feeder to pick up the discards. Birds which don’t want to use the feeder also do well on the ground, such as wrens and dunnocks. 

I took this picture yesterday afternoon while the rain was lashing down in true Ribble Valley midsummer style and our stream was quite high. The forest of canes is to try to give some plants a chance to grow without being trampled by ducks (not wholly successful). The gunneras are on the right.

The feeder has attracted the attention of a sparrowhawk, which calls round occasionally to pick off a small bird. (When I wrote this piece I thought it was a merlin, but commenter mmcg968 corrected me.) Only the other day there was a pathetic heap of feathers on the ground, and later I saw the sparrowhawk sitting on the top of the feeder. The problem is that we love seeing the sparrowhawk. It is a most handsome bird, and exciting to see in its swift flight. A couple of years ago, one got trapped on our balcony and Alan was able to catch it. I took a quick snap before he let it go and it sailed away unharmed.

So there is something of an ethical dilemma. Should we lure in little birds to make a meal for the sparrowhawk, which has its own family to feed? Or is it better to help the small birds at the price of losing a few? After a visit from the sparrowhawk, the little birds tend to keep away for a couple of days (no doubt they go to the many other feeders in the village) but they are soon back, and we feel it is a real lifeline for them, especially when they are being harassed by a tribe of chicks. On balance, we feel the service the birds get from the feeder outweighs the risk to them.

Just a note: It is important if you have a feeder to clean the containers to avoid the build-up of festering food and infection, and to make sure that the supply is maintained (for example if you go away) in case the birds are dependent on it. 


From bird watching to politician watching: Mass hysteria in the papers on Thursday about Covid-19 infection rates. Here is the Times:

They are concerned about Bedford, which recorded 42 cases per 100,000 people last week. Not deaths, just people who had the illness. Not even people in hospital, just people who had the illness. 

This is what 100,000 people looks like: 

Courtesy Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan (ref BL011447)

In 1999, when the picture was taken, the Michigan Stadium, known as the Big House, had a capacity of 107,501, so it’s not a guess. Let’s assume there were a few empty seats.

So last week in Bedford, 42 people out of a crowd this size were diagnosed with Covid-19. Taking the current highest estimate of the death rate for those infected, which is the US’s 0.26 per cent, about one tenth of one person in this entire crowd would be expected to die.

And the economy is being destroyed for this? People with other serious illnesses cannot see a doctor, let alone get treatment, education is being damaged and a culture of fear is being actively fostered for this?

If governments in the past had not shown such a capacity for stupidity I would be sorely tempted to believe there is something else at play. The more the government persists with frankly stupid policies, the more incredible I find it.

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