Garden Sagas: Blackbirds

HomeThis week’s blogTime for teaBlackbirdsBorder collies

Successful classic crime writer Mary Tant, whose ninth Rossington West Country mystery – The Theme is Death – was published by Threshold in the spring, writes about the natural world which is so important in her imaginative life.

For a while during the summer of 2008 I had a blackbird in my garden with a distinctive grey feather in one wing and a ring round one leg. For no particular reason I called him Freddie. He quickly became used to me as I worked and sat in the garden, and he soon went about his own business quite happily. At the end of the summer he appeared, thin and balding, by the garden door trailed by a very large baby. Freddie was clearly keen to be fed so I handed over mealworms then, and ever afterwards on demand.

By the end of the autumn Freddie had gone with his baby, called Bertie, and I thought I had seen the last of them. Freddie, though, came back late the following year on his own for the last time, and frequently kept me company when I was in the garden.

In June 2010 a new pair of blackbirds nested in the thick creepers on a flat roof outside my kitchen window. I liked to think the male was Bertie, Freddie's last baby, now a slender and glossy black, who was quite happy in my company and expected to be fed when I appeared.

I was privileged to watch every stage in the budding family life. The nest was built by the female, Bella, in three days, and the first of the oval sky-blue eggs was laid in it as soon as it was completed. Three more eggs followed. For twenty-one days the female sat on those eggs through very hot weather. Most of the time she was in the shade, but for a couple of hours each day she sat there in the full heat of the day, sinking lower and flatter, wings spread out to shade her eggs, beak open wide as she panted. I only saw her leave the nest once each day, in the early evenings for about ten minutes, and she must have been both dehydrated and hungry by then. She became very used to my movements in the kitchen, but Bertie was much more cautious when he came two or three times a day towards the end of the incubation period, carrying food for his mate.

The first egg hatched early one morning in July, followed quickly by the others, and both parents became busy with the fetching of food. After the last hatching I went to bed and came down as usual the next morning, only to find the Bertie and Bella hunting desperately over and under the flat roof, pushing frantically through the creepers, seeking their missing babies. There was not a trace of any of them and I presume a magpie cleared out the lot as soon as it was light that morning. This may be an unfair judgment as there are always cats around and possibly rats too, with chickens in the neighbourhood.

I thought this disaster would deter Bella and Bertie from nesting in this spot again, but hoped they would stay nearby. I came out into my garden for tea one afternoon in early May 2011, intent on enjoying the sunshine. And there, sitting on the yellowing celandine leaves under the apple tree, was a small bundle of feathers enjoying the sunshine. Bright eyes stared up at me from a very young blackbird, with only rudimentary wings.

By the time I had considered my options and decided to stuff a hanging basket with paper towel and rush to the rescue, the baby had decided to move on. He strode away on surprisingly long and strong legs and disappeared from sight among the shrubs.

I went to bed heavy-hearted, wondering if I would find a small corpse in the morning, or never know what had happened to him, but late the next day there he was again. Only I was sure that he was smaller than the previous day.

As I studied him there was a movement in the laurel bush beyond the hazel hurdle at the edge of my garden. I turned slowly to find another baby cautiously stepping through a low hole in the hurdle. This was definitely yesterday's baby, so I had Senior and Junior, both now finding places to bask in the sun. And there was Bertie, asking for mealworms, which he took repeatedly to the babies, who squatted, chirping at him and opening their beaks surprisingly wide for such small creatures.

I think Bertie's mate, Bella, had built her nest in the fir trees beyond the bottom of the garden. It had obviously been disturbed and the babies either fell out, or were removed by their parents, given their loss in the previous year.

I was amazed at how sturdy the babies were, in spite of their fragile appearance. They moved round the garden during the day, choosing sunny spots to wait for parental food drops, with both Bella and Bertie constantly on duty. They were all quite unconcerned about me. Senior was more active, hopping up the terrace chairs and table into the pyracantha, tumbling out of it to visit the pond, drinking from the upper pool of the waterfall, then perching on a small rock in the centre of it before running down the garden path out of sight.

Junior was more relaxed, sunbathing whenever he could. He seemed to have a preference for small flowering plants, and I frequently found him sprawled like a soft ball of fluff in the bugle in front of the magnolia. When I found him happily spread out across the slats of my bench one teatime he stared at me quite cheerfully, sure I wouldn't disturb him – and of course I didn't.

Both the babies were very strong climbers, with disproportionately long legs and feet on their small bodies. Senior had more noticeable wings, which carried him in flight a short distance, from shrub to shrub. Junior only had rudimentary wings, but could scramble and jump with great agility.

At night both babies climbed easily up into higher perches. The first one I saw doing this was Junior, scrambling up through the tightly packed branches of my viburnum plicatum, shaking the whole bush, which is shaped like an elaborately iced tiered wedding cake. At last I saw his pollen-coated head pop up through the layers of white flowers, as he accepted a bedtime snack from his father. Then the disturbance subsided as he settled down for the hours of darkness.

Within a week of their arrival the babies had been dispersed, Senior to another garden, Junior staying with me. Bertie now summoned me if he saw the back door open and there was a dearth of mealworms on the lawn, hopping onto the back doorstep and uttering a piercing call. He came to know my voice and as soon as he heard it would fly down to greet me. Once, in the middle of the summer, he ventured indoors when he heard me on the phone. The doors were open throughout the house, and from the dining room I saw a small flickering shadow at the bottom of the kitchen door. I guessed at once who it was, but Bertie, brave explorer though he was, was startled when I appeared, and flew in a panic at the big kitchen window. Fortunately he allowed me to usher him out through the back door, and obviously decided not to come indoors again.

Junior soon identified the source of the mealworms. One morning I opened the back door to find him cheerfully tucked into the thick branches of the chaenomeles japonica right next to the door. The pink petals of one of the japonica flowers framed his head, giving him a rakish air. A little later he was sitting on one of the chairs, a squat feathery figure, considerably bigger and rounder than when I first saw him. His stance and large beak gave him a belligerent bruiser's appearance.

Bella began building a second nest almost as soon as I'd met the first babies. This time it was a deep cup on top of a fence post in the prickly berberis behind the shed. She was a canny operator, flying over or under the branches and diving quickly in, then shooting out at another angle at the back of the bush. Only occasionally did I see her feeding the babies, usually at dusk when she had the habit of dropping off a few mealworms at the viburnum plicatum for Junior.

Bertie's chief responsibility now was feeding the first brood babies and he worked tirelessly at the job. When they had grown a bit and developed proper wings, he brought Senior back into the garden. Both youngsters were stationed in the shrubbery and he darted backwards and forwards with mealworms, filling the gaping yellow-lined mouths as rapidly as he could. Later on, he brought them up to the terrace steps to feed them, leaving them to sip water and splash in the pools of the waterfall, where occasionally they balanced rather precariously on rocks over deep water.

Bertie also had to wage a constant battle against a determined male intruder. This led to lots of angry calling and posturing, with furious chasing flights and the intruder finally beating a retreat.

This challenger was Billie, the blackbird who lives in my front garden. He may well be Bertie's brother, but is almost certainly closely related. The front garden is not such good territory as the back. I don't normally feed birds there because a black cat regularly passes through it, and sometimes takes a siesta there. In an attempt to reduce the confrontations I made sure there was water in the front garden too, and put out mealworms whenever I saw Billie in the viburnum bodnantense, his favourite perch above the laurel hedge. I don't know whether this helped ease the situation, but for the rest of the main breeding season Billie's appearances in the back were more carefully timed to avoid Bertie, and he fed quickly and nervously, constantly scanning the garden.  

By the end of May, Senior and Junior were feeding themselves quite happily. If one was in the garden, the other would soon arrive to join him, and Senior was confident enough to copy his father and call to me from the back door step. They begged hopefully from Bertie whenever he arrived, but without any real urgency or expectation. The bright yellow of their mouths had become much less vivid when their beaks gaped open.

Bertie ignored such appeals, not surprising as I found he and the female were flying food in to the second nest, where the latest eggs had hatched. By early June he was actively repelling Senior and Junior. Senior tried to appease his father, crouching with fluttering wings, but to no avail. Junior simply waited in the branches and came down when the coast was clear. Both babies fed happily with Billie when he slipped in, and very occasionally Bertie would join them for a while before chasing them all off.

The first baby of the second brood came out into the open by the middle of June. He was a fine big fellow who sat on the hazel hurdle among the hibiscus leaves waiting to be fed. He was soon joined by a second baby, thinner and more anxious, but both babies were quickly able to feed themselves.

Watching these youngsters, who hadn't been ejected early from their nest, I realised just how much time the birds do spend on the ground. Once they were in the garden they explored it on foot, occasionally scrambling through the bushes. It was only when they were moving on elsewhere that they took to flight.

Billie's mate, Binkie, built her second nest right on the edge of the disputed boundary between the two territories, along the side path in the branches of the climbing hydrangea. As a result I was greeted one afternoon by a fat baby sitting complacently on the front gate post. The cheeping that greeted Billie's prompt arrival with mealworms from the back garden, identified two more babies, one in the laurel hedge and another in a bush beyond the garden.

So that was seven babies I knew of in a very small area. And by early July Bertie's third brood had hatched, again in the berberis nest, with both parents flying in with food. Billie gradually brought his three babies round to the back garden, perilously close to Bertie's nest. Through the kitchen window I watched one or other of the babies perched in trees at different times and being fed by their father.  Billie and his babies had a taste for cheese, while Bertie ignored it in favour of mealworms.

Bella was happy by the end of the summer to come and ask for mealworms if she saw me in the garden, but she never did it as easily or frequently as Bertie. The pair of them successfully raised seven babies from three broods to independent adolescence in my garden. I only had evidence of one of Billie's broods, the last, but whether this was his second or third I didn't know. But he raised three babies from it. So that's at least ten blackbird babies around my house during the summer.

I'd been concerned when the feeding on demand started that the birds would suffer whenever I was away. I left the garden in May feeling dreadful about letting them down, and was enormously relieved to return and find they'd got on perfectly well without me. I was greeted as normally as always, and was glad to realise how well diversified their feeding must be – and wondered how many other people they have trained as food providers. After rain I was further reassured to see one of the babies deftly pull a long worm out of the ground.

Bertie and Bella stayed in the garden all winter, unlike Bertie's father, Freddie, who used to move away. They were constantly busy feeding themselves, but the young family pressure had gone and they were much less frenziedly occupied. When the weather was bad Bertie came up to the back door for a snack to keep me in training. But it's the water that I think they most appreciate all year.

Both birds are happy to have me around, so we share the garden as well as ever.



More from this site

Submit your comments

If you have any comments, please send them in. They may be published on the site.