Feeling the bird-house blues

It was a miracle to see new life just outside our back door, until the cat spotted it too

“We decided to eschew blissful ignorance on all things feathery and get up close and personal this spring by erecting a nest-box right outside our back door.” Photograph: Getty Images

“We decided to eschew blissful ignorance on all things feathery and get up close and personal this spring by erecting a nest-box right outside our back door.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

It’s that time of year when your garden suddenly seems to be full of small birds flying hither and thither. You may have been unaware up until now the role your garden or the eaves of your house played in hosting a new generation of bluetits, robins and finches, to name but a few. Oblivious to the fact that all throughout March, April and May, a hidden cycle of nest-building, hatching and feeding was going on which has now exploded in a melee of feathery comings and goings. Apparently the activity that you can see is only 10 per cent of the actual activity. Yikes!

New life here in our garden, right outside our back door

We decided to eschew blissful ignorance on all things feathery and get up close and personal this spring by erecting a nest-box right outside our back door. It was designed specifically to attract bluetits and, sure enough, only a short while later, we were amazed to observe a nesting pair check it out and set up shop. What a charming addition to our garden, we thought, not to mention the very effective eco-friendly pest control that birds provide. Bluetits alone make up to 1,000 visits a day to a nest at the height of chick feeding. That’s 1,000 less caterpillars and insects in your vegetable patch and fruit trees. What’s not to like?

Tiny cheeping

It wasn’t long before the sound of tiny cheeping became audible from within. We watched in awe as all through May the parents delivered a never-ending stream of food from dawn until dusk to the steadily growing clamour from inside the box. Finally, in early June, we got to see the result of all the hard work when tiny feathered heads poked out through the hole to take their first look at the outside world. What a miracle! New life here in our garden, right outside our back door! Now all we had to do was wait to see them fly away to join their parents in the nearby apple tree.

And that’s where Aughrim was lost. The last two fledglings didn’t so much fly as fall to the ground. We have a cat. You can see where this is going. All the advice is to leave them alone. Don’t intervene, which we didn’t at first. The parents kept coming down to feed them but by nightfall I caved, wondering how they would survive defenceless on the ground overnight. So I put them in a box with a lid. At first light (that’s 5am these days), I went to check that they were both at least still alive, which they were so I put them back out on the grass again so the parents could see them.

I blame myself. Early morning is the most dangerous time for fledglings. I let my guard down and too late noticed that the cat hadn’t quite logged off for the night. It ended in a desperate struggle to wrestle one of the chicks off the cat (not a fun experience and one which the chick didn’t survive) and caused the other one to hop away in fright under our log pile.

My last act of intervention was to keep the cat grounded that night

For the rest of the morning the (unremorseful) cat was banished to the garage to think about what he had done and I watched heartbroken as the parents continued to land at the spot where the chicks had been, looking around in vain for the surviving one. “It’s under the logs,” I mouthed (traumatised) from the kitchen before finally having to leave my post to tend to my own neglected chick currently sitting its Junior Cert and also in need of a constant supply of food (the less eco-friendly peanut butter and sliced pan – hey I was busy with the bluetits).

Oh happy day!

I could barely believe it when later in the day, I heard the unmistakable sound of cheeping coming from inside a shrub further down the garden. Oh joy! Oh happy day! The chick had survived and better still, the parents had found it and were still feeding it. It even looked like it had managed to fly a little. Surely it would be airborne soon? Dear God, please let it get airborne soon. My nerves couldn’t take much more of this.

My last act of intervention was to keep the cat grounded that night and more crucially during the early morning (not easy as he had been asleep all day – we let him watch Netflix and order in a pizza). Later, there was no sign of either the chick or the parents so I am going to assume it finally became airborne and flew away. I wasn’t emotionally able for any other outcome.

And the verdict on nest-boxes? Charming at first but emotionally traumatising unless you are made of stone or don’t own a cat. Okay, I admit I may have been a tad ‘over invested’, I realise that nature can be cruel and in the end all God’s creatures got a place in the choir (even the damn cat) but I felt responsible as the little drama had played out on our turf. Next year, wake me up when all chicks are safely singing out loud on the telephone wire.

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