Sheps Nursery

The eight bird feeders were hanging expectantly around the garden, suspended from fences and walls and free-standing in the lawn, full to bursting with suet balls, sunflower seeds and mealworm delicacies. The spring arrivals would be there in no time at all. Would this year prove as popular with parent and fledgling alike as last year had been? The fecund female greater spotted woodpecker was visiting frequently throughout the day from dawn till dusk, the blue tits and great tits seemed to be more numerous, the blackbirds were clearly roosting over their eggs, noticable by their absense, as was the pair of nuthatches who only popped in hurriedly to gather supplies. The robins went about their business more quietly than usual, but still determinedly there, feeding each day from the bird table and under the shrubs, the demure dunnocks eternally discreet and the sparrows chirruping noisily. It was only a matter of time to see how the starlings, or sheps as they are sometimes known in Yorkshire, would fare this year. Their numbers had been reducing over the past few years due to the success of the greater spotted woodpeckers, depriving the starlings of ready made nesting sites. As the month of May progressed the starlings began to arrive. At first, about seven would appear at any one time to drill through the suet balls and fly off together in a posse. When they next appeared they had a few fledglings with them, doe-eyed with drab coats compared to the luxurious petrol shimmer of the adults, soft creamy bills, usually open, either to squawk loudly impatient for food from its parent or guardian. The daily ritual of replenishing the feeders with suet balls and mealworm nibbles and sluicing out the birdbath to refill with fresh water quickly became a frequent requirement, sometimes hourly. The starlings now knew that a wealth of food and water would be available at all times and continued to produce clutches of eggs, only to bring along new fledglings each day to continue the lessons in using feeders, personal hygiene and team spirit. Despite the best efforts of the parents the youngsters would squabble continuously about who went where on the feeders and whose turn was next. The absolute beginners would look on, bewildered by their confident elder siblings, only marvelling at their skills in getting a good meal. When all that got just too exhausting to cope with anymore, they would all decide, as a group, that it was now bath time, and swoop, en masse, into the bird bath, often thirteen at a time, to rock up and down, flapping their wings and tails rapidly, like outboard motors, bobbing their heads under, snatching a drink, but mainly having a whale of time frolicking in the bath, preening and cleaning for disease control purposes, but without a doubt, it was clear they loved every minute of it. Their siblings would be lined up on the fences to take their turn in the bath and it was obviously one of the highlights of the day for these proud and gleaming birds, later to become the speckled, shimmering beauties like their parents. Pity the last in the queue when bathtime would only be marred by their relatives faeces deposited in the bath water by over-excited and well-fed youngsters! By now there was a flock of at least 50 birds, which when it descended on the garden was positively Hitchcockian, with every fence post, every feeder, every bracket, every link in the fence chain a starling upon it, each instinctively knowing that when a threat loomed take-off and landing time were co-ordinated in perfect symmetry. The tactic of flock behaviour so beautifully demonstrated to confuse the predator, usually a crow or a seagull, by flying in arcing patterns at a rate even the huge carrion crow could not follow, lacking the agility and grace to shift direction so quickly – and anyway, which way would it turn with fifty possible meals to pursue! This flight behaviour develops to become the beautiful murmuration of up to 100,000 birds, comprised of flocks uniting to continue the strategy of safety in numbers. The sight of these murmurations is inspirational and awesome in its lyrical patterns, as these individual birds act as one to create huge smoky clouds of helical rhythm as they spread across the sky like an astral body, to the amazement of any lucky witness. The individual and group intelligence of these birds is phenomenal and profound.