Apologies for the title - I couldn't resist - particularly as my previous blog had such a pasting after a similarly-titled feature. That post was bemoaning the lack of birds in my nest box and pondering the British love of innuendo in popular art and literature. Ooo-er Missus! Not everyone got the joke.
Anyone who's been following my SnapChat Story (I'm so modern - thanks to my teenage kids!) will know that this year I've finally had a pair nesting in my closed-circuit TV bird box. A female great tit has taken nightly refuge since early Autumn and I was delighted in April when she started nest-building. We have been glued to 'Birdbox TV' since then! Everything happens so fast for birds - here we are just a month later and we've seen the whole cycle of events.
The camera has given a voyeuristic glimpse into the private lives of these hardy creatures. I've witnessed her hissing and thumping pretending to be a snake to ward off would-be sparrow tenants. I've seen her manic nest-preening and laughed at her comical egg-rolling technique. We waited and watched as the glorious clutch of 6 shiny perfect eggs hatched into 6 translucent chicks.
We were impressed by the never-ending supply of tasty morsels brought in by the parent birds. We gawped in horror as we ate dinner and saw the teeny tits upend to deliver their 'waste package' straight into mum's beak. Keeps the nest clean! All seemed idyllic in our perfectly-positioned wooden house. But the camera does not lie. The flip side of the view was tinged by the truth of smaller weaker siblings trampled and pushed aside as they scrambled to get fed. Ruthless nature.
Both parents worked from dawn to dusk to satisfy the ever-demanding beaks - until some disaster befell the male bird and he stopped coming. The food supply was cut in half and over the space of 3 nights we lost half the chicks. As each one died, the mother tried to nudge the tiny corpse back to life and then finally worked doggedly to push the remains to the corners of the nest box - the feathers forming insulation in the core of the nest for the chicks that remained. Ever practical nature.
Once the birds grew their wings and started to flap - I knew they would be away soon. I hadn't realised though, they fledge before they can fly. What evolutionary madness is this? They, along with many other birds it seems, leave the nest and then spend 2-3 days on the ground until their full flight feathers are grown. I've heard of "sitting ducks" but this is ridiculous. I wonder why they don't stay in the nest 'til they're done? If anyone knows - please leave a comment below.
The first bird left on Sunday afternoon - but not before a session of impatient squarks and shouts from the parent in a nearby bush. This little chick did a fair impersonation of Buzz Lightyear - "Falling with style" from the film Toy Story. I'd give him 8/10. The tiny bird glided and swooped just missing my head and made it to a nearby hedge. The second one sort of tumbled through the rose bush and managed some "air" to reach the garden path - taking refuge under a heap of garden waste sacks. He gets a 5/10. The third and last chick thought better of the whole business and stayed in another night. There was no sign of mum in the nest for the first time in months - she must have felt the need to chaperone the other two on their first night on the town. Just as well, we had a torrential downpour as dusk descended.
So yesterday morning I turned on my TV with trepidation - still one left in the nest. He was mighty agitated and he and I could hear the shouts of his family out in the garden. I spotted the mother - she was gathering food from our feeders and tending a noisy little fluff-ball who was now on the ground beside the hedge he had flown to the day before. Between them and me was a tiny sodden clump of yellow and black feathers - the remains of the other chick. The rain was probably the undoing of this little chap, it had been so forceful. So now there are just two left. Before I could remove the dead bird the one in the box decided he too would take a dive through the rose bush. He landed in a drain trap, the main outlet from my kitchen sink. 2/10 for him. Luckily the dishwasher was not running and I quickly put plugs in to stop the poor chick from drowning.
I waited and watched. Mum was happily feeding both birds - although it was hard for her to get into the drain trap and not ideal having them in separate locations. The tiny creature would never be able to get out - the walls were too high to jump and he was just not going to be able to do the necessary vertical takeoff. What to do? Should I intervene or let nature take it's course? The internet is brilliant - I Googled "what to do with baby birds" and following the advice from the RSPB, decided to reunite the drain-chick with the other one over by the hedge. Apparently birds do not have a good sense of smell and do not reject chicks handled by humans. Here is the moment we caught and relocated our drain buddy.
Once reunited the siblings seemed very happy and snuggled up together against an old railway sleeper that forms a raised flower bed. They were still precariously vulnerable and during the course of the day (yes I stayed all day!) I saw off a couple of cats, a curious magpie and a pigeon (I didn't think pigeons attacked other birds - but this one was definitely on the offensive). After a couple of hours of feeding, they got bolder and explored separately but by the end of the day both were hopping about in the hedge somewhere. We could still hear their distinctive chirping - the older one favours four cheeps, the younger one three. As dusk settled, Mum carried on flapping in and out of the hedge feeding them. We gave up when we got cold and bored in the dark and left them to their fate.
Today? Well I've seen the mother - recognisable as her feathers are moth-eaten and ragged from months of courting, brooding, foraging and feeding her family. Her own state is less than pristine but it means she's easy to spot. She's been busy as ever, gathering meal worms, suet insect 'treats' and the odd seed from our feeders and disappearing over to the hedge. I stood by the bushes but can't detect the familiar cheeps of my two remaining chicks - but I'm pretty sure they're in there as she's still so busy back and forth.
That's it I guess. The show's over already for this year. So much effort to survive even to this stage - to say nothing of future predators. I suppose two live chicks at this stage is good odds - especially as a single mother? They only have a couple of breeding seasons and the numbers of birds in this country is fairly static so out of all the eggs laid in this time, they only need two to make it to adulthood to sustain the population. Pretty efficient when you compare it to the human equivalent - with our chicks in the nest these days for nearly twenty five years what with university, house prices etc.
So I now have that all-too familiar "End of the Tour de France" feeling. Something that has occupied my waking hours and entertained me for weeks is over - and for a while I skulk around lost and without purpose.
But hey - it's May and the summer season lies ahead. That means - Giro D'Italia, followed by The Dauphiné and then it'll be... Le Tour! Time to get out in the countryside on my bike... maybe I'll see some great tits?