The Thurlows

Village News & Information

Nature Notes 2005

 

16 December 2005

The problem with New Year resolutions is that they are all broken by February, so it’s best to concentrate on things that are going to happen anyway. But the seasonal changes we can rely on don’t include the weather, unfortunately. The weathermen (rapidly being replaced, I notice, by more presentable weatherwomen) can’t even decide whether we must expect a very mild winter (because of global warming) or a very cold one (also because of global warming). This sounds like a paradox, but apparently the higher sea temperatures round Britain could produce a sudden reversal in the usual flow of the sea currents and so give us high rather than low pressure over Iceland, which would in turn produce an arctic northerly airflow. Or something like that. They say there is a 65% chance of this, though I don’t know why they should try to be so precise about something they admit may not happen at all. But that’s science for you and it still beats folklore predictions based on the abundance of holly berries, cats sleeping with their backs to the fire and hogs being fatter than usual, let alone the more dangerous denials from the American White House.

However, one thing is certain about the seasonal changes, and that is that the days are already getting longer. On 1 January sunrise is at 8.9 am and sunset at 3.58 pm and by 8 January sunrise is 8.7 am and sunset 4.6 pm – a small change but an unstoppable one, and a more important trigger for birds and plants than the changeable and unpredictable weather. We have light, and with it colour and sound. In the first week of January the first aconites will be gleaming like old gold in my favourite wildflower garden at the Olde School, and by the middle of the month snowdrops will be all down the Drift. January is the start of the dawn chorus too, with robin, dunnock, wren, great tit, blue tit, mistle thrush and song thrush all adding their voices to the swelling volume of sound at first light. You don’t even have to get up so early to hear it. Wood pigeons may already be breeding, rooks and magpies will be checking out old nests, robins are pairing up, and the whole new cycle begins again. We respond to the light too, which may be why we make these resolutions and plan a new start? In short, spring has started – and in January not in March (as those weatherpersons would have it).

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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16 November 2005

Birdwatching can spoil you for other simple pleasures. When I’m watching a film on TV I can’t help noticing that the bird songs they put on the film tracks are often wildly inappropriate. From my armchair I have heard tawny owls hooting in Ireland (there aren’t any there), swifts screaming in February (June is more like it), and canaries singing in a Jane Austen English country garden (come off it). Popular songs aren’t any better. How about ‘and a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’ (must have been a robin) and ‘there’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover’ (swallows, I suppose – bluebirds are an American species). So, you’ll forgive me if I spoil a much-loved Christmas carol too.

Do you know all the words to ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’? It starts off OK with twelve drummers drumming and eleven lords a-leaping, and I don’t really have an ornithological problem with seven swans a-swimming or six geese a-laying. I’m beginning to get suspicious, though, when we come to four calling birds (which birds are calling?) and three French hens (why French?). And I’m positively mystified when we reach two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. As we all know, there aren’t any turtle doves around at Christmas – they are summer visitors, usually arriving in these parts in May. As for the partridge, this is presumably a common (or ‘grey’) partridge since this is a traditional carol and the red-legged (or ‘French’) partridge was an introduced species which didn’t breed in this country until 1790, but I’ve never seen a common partridge up a tree of any kind, let alone a pear tree. Poetic licence? No, it’s more interesting than that. One theory is that all the twelve ‘presents’ are really religious symbols and the whole carol is in a kind of code because it was composed at a time when it was dangerous to express an outspoken commitment to Christianity. Then it all makes sense: the twelve drummers are beating out the twelve doctrines in the Apostles’ Creed, the eleven pipers are the eleven faithful apostles spreading the word, and so on, down to seven beautiful swans as the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, six laying geese as the six days of creation, four colly birds (the old country name for blackbirds) as the four apostles, three French hens as the three virtues and two turtle doves as the two Testaments. Finally, the partridge is lifted aloft as the resurrected Christ, and that draws on an even older Greek myth whereby Athena (who was the goddess of pear trees among many other things) raised from the dead her lover Perdix (the Greek name for a partridge) and carried him to heaven in the branches of a pear.

Whew! Now all I have to work out is that Christmas turkey – wild turkeys being native to the USA, unfortunately. Perhaps I’ll just eat it and stop worrying. Happy Christmas !

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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20 October 2005

This is a good time of year to encounter owls. If you go outside your house on a clear night there’s a strong chance you’ll hear a tawny owl calling. It’s an atmospheric sound, very much a part of these darker, dank evenings before winter proper begins, both familiar and rather weird, still capable of causing some primitive feelings of dread (hence its widespread use as a background effect in spooky films). If asked to describe an owl’s call most people would probably come up with some version of tu-wit tu-whoo, as indeed Shakespeare himself did:
And nightly sings the staring owl: ‘tu-who
Tu-whit tu-who’ – a merry note
In fact, though, there are two different calls here. The eerie hooting call, which gives owls their name (the word ‘owl’ comes from ‘howl’), is usually made by the male and the sharper kee-wick is often the answering call from the female. Both calls aren’t made by the same bird at the same time, though.

The tawny owl is strictly nocturnal, of course, so it does tend to be heard and not seen, in a reversal of the Victorian injunction about children. But another misconception is that owls can see in the dark. They do have large eyes and some limited night vision, but owls can’t see in pitch darkness any more than we can. What they rely on is their super-acute hearing, many times better than our own. Those characteristic flat discs of feathers on their faces, which are what make them look wise and reflective, actually serve to funnel all the available sound into their sensitive ears and so magnify it, rather like the effect of cupping your hands around your ears. They can hear, locate and identify the slightest rustle and glide down from their hunting perches guided by sound alone to grasp the unsuspecting rodent, bird or even worm in their razor sharp talons. They are the more deadly hunters in that they themselves have specially designed feathers that enable them to fly quite soundlessly and so take their prey by surprise.

Temple End Road is one of their favourite haunts, along the line of mature trees on the right as you go out of the village, but tawnies are widespread throughout the villages and often call from the roofs of houses too. Don’t ever go neat their nests, though, should you find one. They attack fiercely and without warning, as the famous bird photographer Eric Hosking discovered to his cost. He lost an eye to a tawny owl defending its nest site, though he had the courage to go back and get his shot later and the irony to call his book of resulting photos, An Eye for A Bird.

Jeremy Mynott, Lavender Cottage

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17 September 2005

The last swallows of summer are now passing high overhead on their long journeys south. In a week or so they will all be gone for another year. There’s also a chill in the air and a heavy dew every night. It feels like the end of summer. Swallows are rather less common in the village than they used to be, but we still associate them very much with the onset of the new season. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, the saying goes, but it’s also true that we can’t imagine a summer without swallows. They are part of what the word means to us. But then you think about where they are going . Soon they will be swooping and diving over elephants and crocodiles in southern Africa where they spend their ‘winters’. That landscape is just as natural and ordinary for them as the fields of cows in Thurlow . I suppose you could argue that this is still really ‘home’, on the grounds that they make their nests and breed here, but it’s a moot point? Are they welcomed when they arrive there the way they are here? We hail the first swallows of spring as heralds of the new season of light and warmth and growth, but how are they greeted in Africa?

The official name of our swallow is the ‘barn swallow’, which is accurate enough. They do like to nest in barns, especially where there is a nearby farmyard to attract flies. In Australia, however, there is a close relative of our swallow which is called the ‘welcome swallow’ and that seems to me a very happy choice of name. We now have to wait until next April – about the 18th if you want a specific date – before we can welcome the swallows back again. They are not quite the last summer visitor to leave, however. There are still some house martins flitting around, sometimes mixed up with the parties of swallows. They are easy to distinguish from the swallows even at a distance by their stubby outline, the flashing white rump and the rather different flight pattern. Swallows fly more directly, rolling and swerving as they go to catch flying insects on the wing, while house martins make little circular glides and have a more fluttery flight, a bit like bats. And the last visitor to go is also the first to arrive (rather like at some parties). You can still hear a few chiffchaffs singing in the village, the tiny warbler that arrives in March and leaves in early October. But habits are changing. With our milder winters now some chiffchaffs are staying on throughout the winter months, so avoiding that long and hazardous journey south. If the swallows too are able find enough insect food to get through the winter here, then I suppose they will lose their symbolic meaning. But by then ‘summer’ will be something different too.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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17 August 2005

Bats are something of a mystery to most of us, and perhaps a bit frightening. We think of them as creatures of the night, neither bird nor beast, weird and ‘other’, flitting through our dreams and nightmares. But most of our prejudices are wrong, of course. They don’t get in your hair (not much chance in my case, but their navigational skills are far too good anyway). They aren’t as ‘blind as bats’ (they can see a lot better than we can in the dark). There probably aren’t bats in the belfry (too draughty, and how could they stand the bell-ringing with their sensitive ears?). And they certainly aren’t ‘batty’. They have been around for some 30 million years and are superbly adapted for their very specialised life-style. They navigate by what is called ‘echo-location’, that is sending out a continuous stream of sounds which bounce back from objects and give them a ‘picture’ of the world at least as good as the one we ‘see’. It’s rather like radar or the Asdic submarines use, only much more sensitive. With this highly developed faculty they can locate, identify and pursue the insects and moths on which they feed and find their way safely round any obstacles on the darkest nights. Their calls are very high-pitched and outside the range of most adult human ears, but there’s a solution to this if you want to enter their world and listen to their conversations. John and Maggie (ex-Driftside) lent me a ‘bat detector’, a piece of apparatus which converts the bats’ calls into lower-pitched sounds we can hear and enables an expert to distinguish the calls of different bat species as easily as one can bird calls. I’m no expert on bats, but I had great fun trying out this magic box one night recently when Kevin Beal took me to a couple of bat colonies he knew of in the farm buildings in Great Thurlow. We heard all manner of clicks, gurgles and whistles from the machine which we think were the calls of pipistrelle bats and of one other species, maybe daubenton’s or brown long-eared bats. The pipistrelle is the commonest one in Britain and the one you usually see around here. They are tiny – they weigh about as much as a 2p coin and they can fit themselves into a space as small as a matchbox, but they are wonderfully agile hunters catching up to 3000 (yes, three thousand) mosquitoes in a night. So, they are greatly to be encouraged and if you have bats roosting in your roof space anywhere you should protect them. They don’t chew through wires like mice do and they are quite harmless lodgers. You can also get special bat-boxes which you can put up like bird-boxes in your garden if you’d rather go into the hotel business. There are apparently 17 species of bats in the UK,, but about 10 of these are very rare and localised. Do let me know if you find a roost and we’ll see if we can work out which kind it is.

Jeremy Mynott, Lavender Cottage

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13 July 2005

July and August are the quiet months for birds. The wonderful outpouring of spring song has now largely subsided and most of our local species have retired to rest and moult, exhausted by the demands of child-rearing. But it’s a very good time to watch butterflies instead, which are now at their loveliest and most active in their brief lives. So, I made a trip to Hickling Broad in Norfolk recently to look for Britain’s largest and most beautiful butterfly – the swallowtail. They are not easy to find: the Broads are the only part of the country where you can now see them, they are on the wing for just a few weeks, they fly low over the reeds, and they won’t appear in wet or windy conditions. They are also very specialised in their requirements since their only food-plant is the rare milk parsley. After some searching I struck lucky, however, and eventually picked some out in the reedbeds. Close up they have a spectacular appearance, with a striking combination of black and pale yellow on the sharply angled wings. (The caterpillars are much less glamorous, by the way, being designed to look like bird droppings, as a form of camouflage and protection.) And after a while I got my eye in, so to speak, and found I could identify the swallowtails at quite a distance just by their distinctive veering flight and their unique ‘swallow’ profiles. Perhaps butterfly watching is largely a matter of ‘jizz’, like bird-watching? In some ways it ought to be easier, of course: there are only about 60 species of butterfly found in Britain compared to over 400 species of birds and you can at least get close to them usually. For what it’s worth I’ve seen about 20 different butterflies in Thurlow, of which the commonest are: the large and the small white, peacock, red admiral, comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone, wall, meadow brown, ringlet, gatekeeper, orange tip and common blue. One other thing they have in common with birds, though, is that some of them, incredibly, migrate here on those fragile wings from the continent and August is the best month to look out for painted ladies and my personal favourites, the rare and lovely clouded yellows.

But it is hard to get a good fix on the fine distinctions between the very similar ‘blues’ or ‘browns’, let alone the tricky hairstreaks and skippers, as they flit about restlessly and then disappear before your eyes. I realised that one great advantage with birds is that they communicate by sound, and with a little practice you can easily learn most of the common calls and songs so that you can identify them even when they are invisible. Butterflies communicate more by scents and our sense of smell is so feeble by comparison that even if you crawl around with flared nostrils you are unlikely to do more than expose yourself to ridicule and pain.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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15 June 2005

Well, it really is summer now. Indeed – can you bear it – we’ve already passed the longest day. I am, however, still looking out for two late summer visitors to Thurlow: one is the spotted flycatcher, the other the turtle dove, both of which seem very scarce again this year. In fact, for the first time ever I haven’t yet found a single flycatcher. Has anyone else? There used to be several pairs: by the river, on Pound Green, along the Drift, by the playing fields, and so on; they even nested in our garden one year. They are rather unobtrusive ‘little brown jobs’, but they reveal themselves when they launch out from their perches on posts or trees to take flies and other winged insects in mid-air with a snap of the bill, and then flutter back to the perch for the next foray. I’m not sure what the problem is here, since there seem to be plenty of insects around – maybe the answer is in their winter quarters in Africa?

The turtle dove is a more conspicuous absence, however. The gently purring song of the turtle dove is for me, like the scream of the swift, one of the defining sounds of an English summer. These are the smallest members of the dove family and the only one that is a migratory summer visitor. They are superficially similar to the collared dove (which should perhaps be re-named the ‘common dove’ – common in numbers and nature, in my view), but the turtle dove is far more handsome, with a rich rufous-coloured back and a smart black-and-white striped collar. The population has crashed, along with many other birds which are dependent on a degree of wildness and weediness in our increasingly tidy countryside (the favourite seed of the turtle dove is fumitory), and the turtle dove is now officially on the Red List of endangered species in Britain. Ten or so years ago there must have been over twenty pairs in the Thurlows, but this year I’ve only found two so far – one in the grounds of LT Hall and the other up the Withersfield Road.

The turtle dove has always been a much-loved bird as a paragon of fidelity and an emblem of peace and hope. The association with the sounds of summer is best captured in the beautiful lines from the Song of Solomon: ‘For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come; and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’ You may wonder why, then, these summer visitors are said to appear on the second day of Christmas in the popular carol? I’ll try and answer that, together with the mystery of the three French hens and the partridge in the pear tree, at a more seasonal time.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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16 May 2005

Various villagers joined me recently for some ‘dawn chorus’ walks to enjoy the bird song at the time of day when it is at peak volume and intensity. We heard some 25 different species in song, including such recently arrived summer visitors as the chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap, cuckoo and whitethroat. Most species have very distinctive songs and calls and if you take the trouble to learn them this is by far the easiest way to find and identify birds at this time of year, since you hear so much more than you see in the woodlands and hedgerows. With practice you can even begin to identify individual birds, which isn’t so remarkable when you think how easy we find it to recognise a friend’s voice on the phone the moment they just say ‘hello’. Birds can identify each other in the same way, we must assume. Moreover, some birds have their own regional dialects, which like humans they learn from their families and neighbours, so you can learn to tell a north country chaffinch from an Suffolk one by its phrasing and rhythms.

The ideal time to be out listening is in fact about an hour before the official time of sunrise, if you can face it, in the dark before the dawn. The birds enter the chorus one by one, in a regular sequence: first, the skylark (catching the early light in the open fields), then the song thrush, robin and blackbird (all of which have large eyes and better night vision), then a little later on the warblers, the tits and the wren, and so on to relatively late risers like the finches and buntings. If you keep records over the years you find the order is fairly invariable and the time of day they start up on a particular day of the year is almost exactly the same to the minute, just varying a bit by the light conditions and weather. (Interestingly, at the other end of the day, in the ‘dusk chorus’, they bow out pretty much in reverse order). Anyway, when they have all joined in, at about the time of sunrise, the effect is of a whole orchestra absolutely at full crescendo. We’re usually fast asleep then, but it’s an experience you really should treat yourself to sometime. An hour later the songsters are still vocal, but that first great excitement has passed since they are now having to combine this activity with such other necessary needs as feeding, copulation and housework, all of which are easier in the light.

Birds don’t just sing for pleasure, of course – either theirs or ours. In spring and summer the dawn chorus is very much a male voice choir, and they are using their voices to express their virility and so defend their territories, attract their mates and defeat their rivals. But it’s not such a bad system, when you think of the human alternatives.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage, 16 May 2005

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17 April 2005

Has anyone seen our local kingfishers lately? I’m rather concerned because I’ve only found them very occasionally on my regular walks over the last few months. Nor do they seem to be present at their usual nesting sites this year. It would be a real loss if they’ve gone. Kingfishers are charismatic birds: the halcyon bird of myth and legend, brilliantly coloured, acrobatic divers, and just uncommon enough to be a prize symbol for any village privileged enough to have them as residents. They look slightly comical and clumsy at rest, as they sit motionless for minutes on end on perches over the river, sporting their short stumpy tails, tubby outline, disproportionately large heads and huge bills. But then in a sudden rainbow flash they spear down into the river and reveal the beauty and purpose of the whole design. They usually emerge with a wriggling fish, which they despatch with a smart thwack on the branch and swallow headfirst – the only time they hold the fish the other way round is when they are presenting them to another kingfisher, in courtship or at the nest. And the dagger bill serves a second function when they excavate their nest tunnels in the river banks.

I’m not sure what can have happened. Kingfishers do have problems if winters are long and hard enough to freeze the rivers over, but we’ve had nothing that severe for years. Perhaps they are suffering from the abrupt fluctuations in water level in the Stour locally, as the authorities first flush huge volumes of water into the river (so discolouring the flow and making it impossible to see the fish) and then drain the river down to the very low levels we have now (which can’t support many fish). The alternation of flood and drought must be difficult for fish and fishers alike. Does anyone have a better explanation? I would like to follow this up, so if you do have any thoughts or see the birds anywhere locally, please email me on the village website or send me a note.

I’m sure many people would be saddened if the kingfishers disappear for good, and they have a particular association for me. When we were house-hunting well over twenty years ago we visited Thurlow and looked at Lavender Cottage. There was, I have to confess, a sharp gender divide in our interests. My wife went over every inch of the house, while I looked at the garden and the nearest footpath, which turned out to be the lane down the Drift to the river. When I reached the rickety old bridge then in place I heard this unmistakable high whistling call and saw a trail of electric blue as a kingfisher sped past. Decision made, as far as I was concerned (and the house wasn’t bad either).

Jeremy Mynott, Lavender Cottage

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15 March 2005

This is a good time of year to be looking at tree-tops. Any earlier and they are rather bare and empty, any later and they are hidden in the haze of green leaves. But now they are full of life, especially bird life, since for many birds the tree-tops are their highways and bye-ways, the routes by which they travel and the places they pause to snack, rest, sing and nest. Not for all birds, of course, and here’s an important difference between birds and ourselves. Human maps are two-dimensional, on flat sheets, because we only really travel in two dimensions most of the time and rarely move more than a few feet from the earth’s surface (except in the very unnatural environment of airplanes). Bird maps would have to be three-dimensional, though, since they continually operate at different levels. Some, like us, stay very low. Have you ever seen a wren more than six feet off the ground, for example, or up a tall tree? Blackbirds go a bit higher, but the reason you see some many dead ones on the road, I’m afraid, is that their instinct is always to cross from one safe refuge to another by the lowest fight path; that puts them out of the way of sparrow hawks (and is presumably the reason why they evolved this behaviour), but into the way of oncoming cars. Maybe evolution will one day select only the high-fliers to prevent this mortality, since cars certainly outnumber sparrow-hawks nowadays, perhaps by a million to one. Further up at the next level, in small trees and the tops of bushes, you get foraging tits, finches and most warblers. And near the tops of the taller trees you get rooks, stock doves, woodpeckers, mistle thrushes and nuthatches.

I’d especially recommend that you look out for this last one. Nuthatches are charming little birds. They do occasionally come to bird tables but most of the time they are quite hard to find and see. Just now, though, they are active in the tree-tops and are calling a lot. The call is a lovely rippling trill, like a series of loud whistles running in to each other. They are compact little birds, rather larger than a great tit and much tubbier. The back is an attractive, slaty blue-grey, set off against the orange-buff underparts. They work up and down tree trunks and along branches like little woodpeckers, but with the difference that nuthatches are the only British bird which can actually walk down a trunk head-first. Look out for them especially in the big trees on Pound Green and along the Temple End Road. You have to overcome any embarrassment about looking eccentric if you are staring upwards for a long time; it’s worth it, but you do have to beware of the recognised complaint of ‘birdwatcher’s neck’, for which the recognised remedy is whisky, rubbed into the back of the throat.

Jeremy Mynott
Lavender Cottage

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Valentine's Day 2005

I can’t put it off any longer, I have to write about sex. It will soon be March and that’s all most of the birds are thinking about. Some other creatures think about it all year round, of course, but with birds the whole breeding cycle has to be very compressed and very precisely timed to take maximum advantage of the seasonal changes in light, warmth, leaf cover and, especially, food supply. Rooks, for example, nest in March so that the arrival of hungry nestlings coincides with the peak worm supply in April, blue tits are planning for caterpillars in late April, sparrow hawks for young blue tits in May, swifts for flying insects in June and July, and so on. So, most of our resident birds are now singing lustily (and I mean that literally) to start the whole process by attracting a mate. The males compete to show who has the best tunes or the loudest voice, who can hold down the best territory and build the safest nest, and who can bring home the protein. And when they have attracted a potential partner they then also have to court her, often making themselves ridiculous in the process: puffing up their breasts (like robins), bobbing their heads (mallards), flirting their tails and wings (chaffinches), or even performing somersaults in the air (ravens). When the female has put them out of their agony and made her choice she may then join in these ritual displays, to reward him for his efforts, strengthen the relationship and synchronise their mutual arousal. The effects are startling. The sex organs of the male (which have been kept very small indeed in the winter, to save weight) enlarge some 300 times (size matters) to prepare him for the demanding programme of copulation he faces – up to 15 times a day at the height of their activity. Well, it’s a fairly short season.

But these relationships vary a lot too. Some birds, like swans and doves, tend to pair for life, which takes a bit of the strain out of the foreplay. Others, like great tits, pair up in winter and are therefore ready to go when the sap rises, so to speak. Many find a new partner each year. All of these are monogamous, at least for the duration of the season, but a few, like the unobtrusive dunnock, have a much livelier time. Female dunnocks (or ‘hedge sparrows’, as they are sometimes called) make one main bond but then manage several secret relationships on the side to increase the number of partners who think they might be fathers and who will therefore contribute to bringing up the family; but then the male dunnocks play the same trick in reverse, to increase the chances that their own genes really are passed on. I tell you, there’s no need to watch this stuff on TV. It’s all there in your garden.

Jeremy Mynott
Valentine’s Day 2005

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15 January 2005

There seem to be a lot of bullfinches around the village at present. They are shy, inconspicuous birds, despite their striking plumage, and it’s easy to overlook them. Unlike the other finches they don’t come to bird tables but prefer to lurk at the edges of copses and woodlands where they can quickly retreat to cover if disturbed. A good place to look for them usually is near the corner of the copse that leads up to the Water Treatment Plant in Little Thurlow; but just recently I’ve also seen them down the Drift, by Church Farm (both Church Farms, in fact), up near the windmill and by the bridge in Great Thurlow. I’m therefore wondering if our resident birds have been joined by some migrants from Europe, since they are certainly more in evidence than usual.

The best way to locate them, as so often with birds, is to listen for their calls: a soft and plaintive dheu or phew, as if they were trying to whistle and inhale at the same time. The song is even quieter than their calls and most unlike the cheerful outpourings we hear from chaffinches, greenfinches and goldfinches: it’s a strange combination of very muted creaks and whistles, rather like a little music box winding down so that you can’t any longer recognise the tune. When you do get a look at them, however, they are impossible to confuse with any other bird, and very handsome indeed. The males are particularly smart – with glossy black heads and black bibs and tails, set off against the deepest rose-red breasts; and when they fly you see a flash of dazzling white on the wing-bars and the rump. The profile is distinctive too: very plump, with almost no neck (hence the name, I suppose) and a powerful conical bill.

Bullfinches aren’t very popular with orchard growers because late in the winter, when other seeds stocks like ash and bramble are giving out, they turn to the buds on fruit trees, which they nip off smartly with those strong chisel-edged beaks. Bullfinches turn out to be quite picky, however. They favour James Grieve dessert apples over cookers, the only cherry they really like are Morellos, and they prefer Conference or William pears to other varieties. They do seem to be less fussy about their plums, though, and one old country name is Plum Bird. In fact they have attracted a whole range of nicknames recalling their various characteristics, with every county coming up with some different version: for example, Bull Spink (Yorkshire), Red Hoop (Dorset), Billy Black Cap (Shropshire), Blood Olp (Surrey), Bud Bird (Devon) and, more mysteriously, Mawp (but that’s Lancashire for you!). We shouldn’t get too upset about their budding raids. I’m told a pear tree can lose 50% of its buds in any year without the crop being affected, and if you have to lose a few plums it couldn’t be to a more attractive scrumper.

Jeremy Mynott

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