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Photo by Alexandra MacKenzie, Flickr Creative Commons

Lately the weather has been humid and overcast. On many days a cold wind has blown, and at times it has seemed more like autumn for all the warmth there has been in the earth.

But it is summer, and the swallows and house martins have reared their first broods, and there are dozens of birds flying low over the grass, swooping up insects that are themselves too heavy to be lifted by the almost non-existent thermals of air.

Most of the nesting birds around here have now seen their firstborn learn to fly, and some are well into their second. The flock of jackdaws has almost trebled in size and they chatter noisily in the trees, or fly fluttering like flags in the wind. Magpies come to the bird feeder, the parents jumping up to tear off bits of suet to drop on the ground where their young greedily snap them up. In between their assaults a brood of young blue tits peck hungrily at the food, hanging upside down, their dusky yellow feathers scruffy and damp from the rain. On one of the lakes a pair of tufted duck have hatched their second brood: the chicks look like a string of black commas as they fuss around their mother: they are able to dive almost as soon as they are hatched.

If there is abundance there is also great loss. A mallard duck, whom we had christened Dark Duck on account of her plumage, had nested just a few feet from our front door in a clump of Hebe bushes. She had done so safely and with perfect equanimity as far as our presence was concerned, when one night something came and killed the lot. So clean was the nest, so free of broken shells and unhatched eggs that the most likely explanation is that a fox had got them. Foxes will eat eggs whole, leaving no trace. What became of the parent can only be guessed but as there were no feathers on the lawn one can only hope she got away.

Many birds expect a high level of loss amongst their young and will, if the conditions allow, have two or even three broods to increase the chances that enough may survive.

One of my favourite animal stories, which I first encountered as a child, is Bluemantle, by Henry Williamson. It tells of a pair of swallows who return to the place of their birth one spring. They set to work building a nest, and soon the female is sitting on a clutch of eggs. But the eggs never hatch, for the nest is discovered by a boy who steals the eggs. For a while the birds are distraught, but the instinct to mate takes hold again and soon the nest is repaired. But before they can lay a second clutch another boy comes along destroys the nest. By now summer is well advanced, and already the first-born chicks are emerging and soon will be practising their aerial acrobatics in the richly buzzing air. So the pair move to a different location and set about building a new nest.  A third clutch is laid and this time the brood comes to fruition and three chicks start to grow in the nest. But it is too late. Autumn is drawing on and the air is growing cold. There are not enough insects. The adult birds become increasingly restless, torn between the desire to raise their young and the urge to head south. Soon they can resist no longer; and as the other birds leave on their long instinctive flight along the invisible pathways that link the continents they join them, and the chicks are left to die.

Like so many of Williamson’s stories it mixes a romantic vision of the natural world (sometimes it has to be said described in rather purple prose) with acute observations that don’t shy away from the reality of death. Bluemantle lines the nest with feathers taken from the roadway where two sparrows had quarreled:

The quarrel was stopped by a sparrow-hawk that came without warning over the hedge, seized one, and took it away shrieking pitifully. (He) caught two feathers as they were in the air and came back for the others afterwards, when only two small glistening specks in the midst of the foot-marked dust told of the quarrel and its ending.

 

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