Wildlife in an English Garden: Noisy, Nosy Neighbours
We live under an oak tree on the edge of a small copse, which borders a suburban golf course. Our house (yes, we do have a house!) is at the end of a small cul de sac and, by and large, our human neighbours are exemplary. It’s the other ones who cause most of the problems!
Our property is bounded by a high fence, but the fence is not high compared to the oak tree so, naturally, it is not a boundary to squirrels, let alone birds! Even the odd urban fox has been known to scale it – on one occasion, having woken us up by setting off the security lights at night, he just stood there, surveying us with contempt, his whole stance saying, “Who the devil are you, and what are you looking at?”
We moved into this house about 20 years ago. Ironically, our last house was in what is a much more rural part of the UK, but it was in the middle of a modern housing estate, so we didn’t get much wildlife apart from small garden birds. Admittedly, I do remember being both fascinated and appalled by the sight of a sparrow hawk putting our bird table to the use its name implies (there wasn’t much left of the unfortunate sparrow afterwards), but that was an isolated case.
Our first night’s sleep here was curtailed at about 3.30am – not by the kids, because we’d left them with my mother for the move. I’d read about the dawn chorus in books – now I was experiencing it first hand. A song thrush singing the soprano line with a melodious blackbird supplying the alto, the staccato of a robin, the comfortable cooing of collar doves and woodpigeons, and the machine-gun effect of the magpies, all joined together in pleasing cacophony. Tired as we were, we didn’t swear too much – not that time, anyway!
Some sounds were not so easy to get used to. Owls begin their “Whoo, whoo” call before bedtime, and it’s much more difficult to get to sleep when that’s going on. And when it finally stops – yes, you’ve guessed it – the day shift’s ready to take over. After one such night, we went to bed the following night determined to ignore it only to be awakened by the shrill “Come and get me, boys!” yapping of a randy vixen.
It’s probably sad, in a way, that we’ve become accustomed to all these nocturnal sounds now and it takes a lot to keep us awake. On the other hand, I do need my beauty sleep…
Having lived in a more westerly location along the south coast, we were used to seeing grey squirrels in the chines (the local name for narrow valleys leading down to the sea). We were not, however, prepared for living on such intimate terms with them! The family living here before had fed them regularly, and naturally they were not inclined to allow the standard of service to decline. If we left the patio doors open, there they were – begging, nicking cakes or biscuits from plates, and generally being pains in the proverbial. But they were (and are) so cute! Our first really tame one was called Charlie, and she brought all her family to see us. She grew very old and slow in the end and, the last time we saw her, she was in our living room, eating peanuts, and letting my husband stroke her head.
We’ve often named the squirrels, but we’ve made many mistakes. We found out, for instance, that Charlie was ‘Charlene’ rather than ‘Charles’ when we saw her stretched out on a branch of the oak tree with four tiny tails hanging down from her suckling babies. Many years later – fairly recently, in fact – my daughter called one after a boyfriend, with whom subsequently she parted acrimoniously. She took great delight in informing him that ‘Dave’ had turned out to be a pregnant female! Unfortunately, Wayne Rooney Squirrel suffered the same fate…
Our squirrels are the usual (for southern UK) American greys, but there is a strengthening strain of albinism among them. There’s nearly always been a white squirrel, and our present regular customer is known by my daughter as Billie Piper Squirrel – don’t ask me why! By the way, my daughter was no more successful this time, as ‘Billie Piper Squirrel’ has turned out to have a couple of very masculine attributes.
When we had guinea pigs, it used to amuse us to see them sniffing noses with the squirrels through the netting on their run. We were not so amused by the attention they received from the magpies! Which brings me neatly on to…
I’ve lost count of the number of bird species we’ve seen in this garden. Probably just about every common variety of tit (blue, great, long-tailed, coal) and most finches (gold, green, bull) along with hedge sparrows, dunnocks, robins (who love my husband because he’s the one who digs up the worms!), song thrushes, blackbirds and wrens have visited at one time or another. Personal favourites of mine are the nuthatches and treecreepers. I love to see the way they move up and down the oak tree trunk as if they have suckers on their feet!
Perhaps the most enchanting were the goldcrests – smaller even than wrens, and quite difficult to spot. On one occasion we found a confused looking goldcrest on our patio. It had obviously flown straight into our window (unfortunately a common, and occasionally fatal, occurrence). While we were looking, wondering what to do, it fluttered lazily right on to my husband’s shoulder! My husband is short (5ft 4in on a good day!), and I rather unkindly told him it was Long John Silver to scale! It suddenly realised that it was perching on a something that moved and fluttered off into the oak tree in some alarm.
Unfortunately, we haven’t seen goldcrests in our garden for some years now, and the same is true of many of the finches. Also, in our early years here we used to hear to cuckoo in the woods, but we haven’t heard that for some years, either. Climate change? Pollution? I don’t know the answer to that!
Time to Relocate?
Now that we are older, and the ‘kids’ are no longer living with us, we keep talking about moving to a smaller place. However, I don’t really think I’d like to move unless I could take all the wildlife with me – and I don’t think they’d like it in a two-bedroom flat!