What was going on in the garden a year ago this week?
March 1st 2020
Spring is well under way and warm weather predicted for much of the month. The sparrows are in their mating colours. The plumage of the house sparrow is mostly shades of grey brown, giving them good camouflage as a prime prey species; but there are distinctions between the male, female and juvenile and these are more noticeable at this time of year, especially with the male and his black bib.
Sparrows are of course extremely gregarious. The call of the sparrow is a very frequent chirping which is used variously to make contact, to proclaim roosting rights, invite romance, protest or express hostility, and just about everything else. The individual does a lot of ‘social singing’ with the flock, calling together for long periods from cover. Sparrows love to tear apart any flowers that are yellow in colour; no-one but them knows why. They fly at 15 wingbeats per second, and can swim happily.
The house sparrow has been living with humans for eleven thousand years. Its split from its closest relative via a mutation which allowed production of an enzyme called amalay which enabled it to digest starch for the first time. This was exactly the same time humans in the middle east began settling down and growing agricultural grains which are extremely starchy but which they could therefore digest. The birds then spread alongside humans with the development of agriculture and the first cities. This niche helped make this bird an extremely successful and widespread species, the most widely distributed wild bird in the world, and widely adopted in human culture as a symbol of lust and sexual potency.
Adult females are known to be dominant over males despite their smaller size. How do they manage that? Maybe the males are post-feminist. Females fight over the males in the mating season, not the other way round. Sparrows are generally monogamous but can engage in extra-marital copulation, and copulation is always initiated by the female.
Our ever-inquisitive spaniel Rosa was barking at something in the garden today; she didn’t know what it was but she knew she didn’t didn’t like it. I went over and saw it was a big green frog. Maybe she hadn’t come across one that size before, or maybe she couldn’t understand why it didn’t hop away from here as frogs should.
I took Rosa into the house where she couldn’t see me, closed the door and went outside again. I picked up the frog, which didn’t seem to mind, and carried it by a circuitous route to the pond, placing in on the edge, whereupon it leapt into the water. When I went back into the house, Rosa wanted to go back to the frog. I let her out; she went straight back to where the frog had been and started sniffing around for it. Not finding any scent trail on the ground, she sniffed the air, picked up the scent, and with her nose lifted high proceeded to follow exactly the route I’d taken with the frog, ending up at the precise point where I had placed it at the pond’s edge. Working out that the frog was now in the pond, Rosa was happy to call off the search and move on to the next item of interest. And that’s why they use cocker spaniels to track down drugs.
Nest building is reaching fever pitch. In previous years we gathered bits of sheep wool off barbed wire fencing on country walks and hung it up inside those square suet-block cages, for the birds to pull out and use in their nests. But last year when cutting a hedge back in winter we found that strands of Rosa’s moulted hair formed a significant component in the inner cup of some nests, so this year we’ve been filling another suet cage with her copious haircut trimmings. When offered the choice of these two nesting materials, the birds have now switched to dog fur and left the sheep wool untouched, perhaps because Rosa’s coat is extremely warm and soft whereas the wool has natural grease in it. They empty the cage the day it’s refilled with the cosy black fur.
The birds’ choice here demonstrates an interesting principle in wildlife behaviour: they will use whatever they can get and be perfectly happy with that, but when something better becomes available they’ll go for that instead. They’re adaptable. It’s also a small way in which Rosa and ourselves can play an interactive role in the garden’s ecosystem.