Friday, 22 June 2012

Avian Dilemma

Something in the eco-system of southern England has changed, for better or worse; this summer, there are house sparrows everywhere, after a decade or more of almost total absence.  All over town, that irritating "cheep, cheep" can be heard coming from front garden shrubs and house eaves, and it doesn't take long to remember what annoyingly ubiquitous little opportunists they used to be.

So, I was sitting in the car waiting for my daughter to come out of college, where she had just finished her very last A2 exam paper.  As I scanned the exit gate, checking the body-language of the young people emerging, I could hear a steady "cheep, cheep" coming from the small suburban front garden behind me.  It somehow matched my inner mood; I've been considerably more anxious about my kids' exams than I ever was about my own.  As I've said before, one of the worst things about being a parent is having to relive the bad bits of school, without the power to do anything much about them.

Eventually, the cheeping started to get on my nerves, and I turned to look where it was coming from.  Yes, as expected, a cock sparrow on its mobile phone, cheep cheep, cheep cheep bloody cheep, in a bush about two yards from my ear.  But a movement beyond it caught my eye. A larger bird, a starling, was flying repeatedly against the garden owner's front-room window, like a moth trying to get into a lighted room.  Weird.

Then I realised the starling was not outside the house trying to get in, but inside trying to get out.

Now, I have a lot of experience with birds trapped inside houses.  I have ejected a panicky bluetit from a living room with a squash racket, and captured in a cardboard box a sooty pigeon, that had fallen down the chimney and got itself trapped in our fireplace.  I have also seen the evidence of what anxiety does to the avian digestive tract, distributed all over the furniture.

From the closed windows, and lack of curtain-waving, it seemed likely no-one was at home at number 37.  A frightened bird in an enclosed space is not something you can simply ignore, as you watch daytime TV or snooze on the sofa.  My problem is that I always experience such situations as a moral dilemma.  I blame my Baptist upbringing.  What action, if any, would be sufficient to quieten my conscience?  Drive off and ignore it?  Not happy.  Call the emergency services?  I think not.  Break in and release the bird?  Are you mad?

Meantime, my daughter emerged.  All had gone well; the questions were completely different from the ones predicted, but she was nonetheless able to turn what she knew to advantage.  Excellent news.  I explained I had a small mission to fulfil before we left for home.  No problem; she knows well enough that her father is not entirely normal.

I rang the front doorbell.  After a long interval, a shuffling figure was visible through the rippled glass, slowly approaching the door.  I put my face nearer the glass, and smiled.  I forget that I am not a pretty sight, these days; the figure turned, and began to shuffle away.  I rapped on the glass, and the figure shuffled back.

An old guy of eighty or so opened the door, and I explained the situation.  "Really?" he said, and shuffled out into the garden to look.

"Well I'm buggered", he said, "How did he get there?"

"Down the chimney?", I offered.

"Ain't got one", he said.  "Never mind, I'll get him out.  Thanks for that, boy".

He declined my offer of help, and I did wonder whether he would have forgotten all about the bird by the time he reached the other end of the entrance-hall.  But: good enough for me.

Conscience?  Clear!  Fasten your seat-belts, we are now ready for departure.  We apologise for the delay.


Paul Mc Cann said...

We go though bouts of kamikaze birds committing suicide by flying headlong into our windows. Not just small birds but large thrushes also. The semi feral cats that prowl around often get a free meal.
Lots of swallows this year, something I never noticed before.
I'm not a twitcher but living in a country area one cant help notice these things.

David G. said...

Birds, especially young birds, find it difficult to differentiate between a window reflecting sky and the sky, and will fly at windows presuming it's a hole in the wall. This can be fixed by marking the glass on the outside of the window in some way. The cheapest and most efficient system we have found is to use small post-its from the pound shop, stuck on the outside in any arrangement you fancy! The expensive option is to buy bird silhouette shapes in stick-on vinyl. Anyway, since adopting the former system on the windows near our bird feeder we have had zero casualties.

Mike C. said...

Paul & David,

Speaking purely photographically, you sometimes get these wonderful dusty birdprints on windows, where a bird has flown full tilt into the glass. A bit like those Cat-shaped holes in brick walls in Tom and Jerry... It's almost impossible to get a decent angle on them, though, as they're usually too high up.

Just last week I noticed a new anti-pigeon device, a distinctly unconvincing hawk-on-a-wire, wobbling above the Social Sciences building. The pigeons seemed utterly unperturbed.

Those pigeons do make a mess wherever they can get established, though... We had a "fire walk" last year that required going over a rooftop fire escape route: in places it must have been 6" deep in a rich mix of guano and feathers.


Martin said...

I did free a green woodpecker from my grandmother's conservatory, once. But at this time of year, we're entertained by our resident house martins. One advantage of living in a first-floor flat is that the martin's nests are only inches above our lounge, and bedroom windows. In twelve years we've witnessed no fatalities, despite the fact that their approach is made with frightening speed. Things really heat up when they're swooping and diving in competition with our local, rather upper-class swifts, who nest in expensive thatch.

Mike C. said...

Martin's martins, eh?

Don't swifts lay their eggs on the wing, then? I'm disappointed -- I always imagined the eggs with little fins, carried aloft on the jetstream.

A good place for swallows is under the M3 bridge over the Test, opposite the Hockley viaduct. They nest on the girders, directly above the water.