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How Bird Watching in the 1950s Led to Some Unexpected Visitors in the Garden

Updated on October 3, 2019
Mum with my brother Eric outside their house near Middleton Woods, Yorkshire, in the 1950s.
Mum with my brother Eric outside their house near Middleton Woods, Yorkshire, in the 1950s.

My family's love of wildlife

For my whole life, I can remember my family has always loved wildlife - and in particular, the birds that have come into our garden over the years.

We have always left out food for them, even for the seagulls, whom some people dislike.

My grandma took great pleasure from feeding the birds as she grew older and increasingly housebound due to rheumatoid arthritis in her knees.

She would sit and watch them feed on the shed roof as she gazed out of her bedroom window during the 1980s.

There were quite a few cats around where I grew up and grandma would anxiously protect "her" birds, as she fondly called them, chasing off any predators.

One year, my dad even erected a nesting box high in the garden, which was inhabited by a family of sparrows.

Unfortunately, we never did that again after they were all wiped out by an unseasonal storm while the young birds were learning to fly.

Despite our best efforts to save their lives, scooping them up countless times and putting them back in the nesting box in a sheltered spot to protect them from the elements, they all died. Poor grandma said she couldn't face the heartbreak again another year, after watching them grow up.

Grandma's love of wild birds was inherited by the younger generations of the family.

My mum, Audrey Evans (nee Trigg), a young woman in the early 1950s, recalled feeding the birds in the garden of the family home near Middleton Woods, in Leeds, Yorkshire.

She would take my brother Eric, who was then a toddler, into the garden and they would throw out bread and other scraps for the wide variety of wild birds which fed there.

My Grandma Trigg and my mum, both of whom always fed the wild birds in the garden.
My Grandma Trigg and my mum, both of whom always fed the wild birds in the garden.

Living near woods meant an abundance of wildlife

In those days, the area in which they lived was adjacent to the woods, renowned for their brilliant display of bluebells in the spring and summer. There were also fields separating the woods from the gardens.

Mum, now aged 86, recalled what it was like living there in the summer.

"Living near a large wood, it meant lots of birds flew across the fields to scavenge in the gardens," she said. "There were more in the summer, when the nests were full of young birds."

The timeless beauty of Middleton Woods, with an abundance of bluebells and wildlife.
The timeless beauty of Middleton Woods, with an abundance of bluebells and wildlife. | Source

One day, however, what started out as a pleasant afternoon's bird watching in the garden led to something wholly more unexpected occurring.

"It was a warm, midsummer day and the birds were twittering loudly," mum remembered. "They were calling out for crumbs of bread to feed their young."

Mum was looking out of the window with young Eric, who was just a toddler at this time. They had been looking at books, but were distracted by the large number of noisy birds in the garden.

"We saw birds on the garage roof next door and on our bird bath, so we went outside, scattering crumbs for them," she explained. "We then settled back to read again, but could still hear the noisy twitterings.

"So once more, we took crumbs and scattered them over the paving stones."

My brother Eric as a toddler in the garden in Leeds, his dog Peggy in the background.
My brother Eric as a toddler in the garden in Leeds, his dog Peggy in the background.

But mum soon realised it was going to be impossible to have any peace and quiet.

No sooner had she resumed reading to Eric than they heard the noisy chorus of birds again!

She took yet more bread into the garden, throwing it on the paving stones a third time.

"They're certainly noisy and greedy today," she commented to young Eric.

This time, mum decided to peep from behind the curtains, to see how the birds were managing to devour the bread so quickly.

A shock when mum looked out the window

This time, the mystery of the twittering birds was explained.

Mum recalled, "Some short time afterwards, it became apparent why the birds were all twittering so incessantly.

"As I looked on in amazement, first one large rat appeared, followed by another and another.

"In fact, it was like a continuous stream, a whole army of rats pouring in and out of the garden and under the huge, commercial garage next door, taking all the bread with them."

Mum saw a constant stream of rats running across the garden.
Mum saw a constant stream of rats running across the garden. | Source

She added, "There were grey rats, brown rats, black rats ... big, fat and small rats of all shapes and sizes."

Although mum sometimes saw the odd rat in the garden, it was unusual to see so many together at one time.

They were running in to grab food, but then running off again and not hanging about in the garden.

Perhaps unusually, mum was quite philosophical about the unexpected invasion of rodents and didn't start to panic.

"At the end of the day, they too must have been just feeding their young," she said. "But in doing so, they were depriving the birds of crumbs.

"No wonder the birds were shouting so loudly!"

The sudden invasion of rats dispersed almost as soon as they had appeared and life in the garden returned to its normal tranquility.

In those days, people just got on with their life and didn't call out "pest control" on occasions such as this.

Mum's philosophy has been passed down to me

Incidentally, I appear to have inherited mum's calm approach to wild rats.

One of my cats, Harley, is forever bringing wild mice home. Some are sadly deceased. Some are alive but injured and these usually end up living out their days in various mouse dens at my home. Some are alive and well and manage to make their escape when I distract my cat.

However, he excelled himself one day when he brought home a wild rat. It was early evening in the summer and I heard a terrible commotion coming from the kitchen.

My cat Harley, who brought home a live wild rat one day.
My cat Harley, who brought home a live wild rat one day.

I can only describe it as a high-pitched screaming.

I ran in, thinking it was one of the dogs in pain, but instead found Harley hanging on to a small, brown rat, which was screaming its head off and going frantic.

When Harley saw me, it momentarily disturbed him and he dropped the rat. It took its chances and scuttled off behind my freezer.

There was a gap of about three inches between the back of the freezer and the wall and the terrified rat hid there. It was just narrow enough to prevent Harley from going in and grabbing his prey again.

The task of removing the rat proved quite difficult, as I wasn't going to reach into the dark space in case I was bitten. But nor did I want to drive the rat out into Harley's jaws again.

My aim was to capture it and release it back into the wild. I hoped it might escape of its own accord, as the back door was left open most of the summer for the dogs and cats to come and go as they pleased.

Rat ran off into the sunset...

However, this little rat wasn't too bright and didn't realise the back garden and freedom were just a few feet away.

That night, I heard it scuttling round behind the freezer, so I popped some bread and biscuits at the edge of the freezer, while my friend and I stood there with a towel (in which to grab the rat) and a large cage (so we could pop him in and then release him).

But things didn't go according to plan when, literally seconds later, the bread and the biscuit suddenly vanished at lightning speed as the rat simply pulled them back to his hiding place! We even heard him munching away on the biscuit!

This happened about three times, so we had to give up this ploy eventually.

However, the rat, presumably feeling braver with a full tummy, made the mistake of coming out into the kitchen, popping up behind the microwave! We sprang into action and threw a bath towel over him as soon as he ventured out.

He began screaming - in the same way as he had when my cat caught him - but we ignored his protests as we wrapped him in the towel and bundled him into the waiting cage.

I thought long and hard about where to release him, having no idea where he had come from, as my cats tend to wander quite a bit. Deciding against releasing him in the alley behind my house, as I thought Harley would be waiting to pounce, I took a short drive to some nearby waste ground behind an industrial estate.

There was plenty of grass, trees and bushes and also, I reasoned, a pet food warehouse nearby, so I guessed there would be some spillage and waste on which the little guy would be able to feed.

As soon as I took the cage out of the car, placed it at the edge of the long grass and opened the door, he sprang out and was off like a whippet, never looking back and obviously relieved to have his freedom again.

I guess some people might think I'm crazy for going to all this trouble for a rat. But he was only trying to live his life, eat and survive, so I couldn't have done anything else really.

A wild starling, a breed whose population has been in decline in recent years.
A wild starling, a breed whose population has been in decline in recent years.

Will we still be watching wild birds in the future?

It's ironic that more than 60 years on since my mum's experience of seeing rats around her home, I have had a similar experience.

Sadly, however, I seldom see birds in my garden these days. There are probably too many cats around where I live.

However, I am also saddened to read of the decline in wild bird populations in recent years. A survey by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds revealed that in London, sparrow numbers fell by 60 per cent between 1994 and 2004. The house sparrow is now on the "red" list of conservation concern.

The RSPB is continually carrying out research to ascertain why wild bird numbers are in decline.

Similarly, starling numbers have declined across much of the UK, a trend which began during the early 1980s and has continued ever since.

Recent data from the Breeding Bird Survey suggests continuing population declines affecting starlings in England and Wales have been occurring since 1995. The cause of the starling decline in the UK is unknown.

What a great shame it would be if future generations in urban areas could not enjoy the simple pleasures of watching and feeding the birds as our ancestors did.


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