Roisin Ingle on . . . feeding the birds


I am in my good friend’s house on a sort of retreat. Not the kind I used to go on where you had to get up at 4am and meditate all day and eat lentils and you couldn’t talk to anyone or even make eye contact – those were the days – but a mini-one with gourmet food and, surprisingly, birdwatching.

The birdwatching is accidental. I’m in a room with a view of a corner of the garden where the birds congregate around a bare tree misshapen by the wind. It’s their happy place. In the morning the window is better than a television. Right now I am watching two blackbirds bounce across the grass, a robin wrestling with a worm and a female pheasant picking around the place waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. Ms Pheasant is nice enough in her own, plain, unassuming beige way but her feathery fellow is strikingly beautiful. Some people keep goldfish or gerbils, my friends keeps an eye on the birds.

And here comes Mr Pheasant now, strutting around slowly, tail feather bobbing, all the red, green, white and brown feathers of him, as though he’s the only bird in town. The downside to his taking up residence is, my friend admits, that she is spending a small fortune on bird food. She got suckered in a few winters back when Lidl or was it Aldi had a special on food for wild birds. At this time of year, the discounters sell food for roses instead, and you have to make your way to a garden centre or the hardware store to buy bird food at much higher prices. As indulgences go, she thinks it’s possibly less ridiculous than queuing up for over priced coffee pods being sold behind a red velvet rope and below a giant picture of George Clooney, something she did once but never again.

Yes, the wild-bird pet food bills are mounting but her collection of songbirds, “vastly intelligent” black-headed crows and the pair of pheasants are still lower maintenance than, say, a dog. No vet bills for a start, she argues, taking a ginormous bag of “peanuts for wild birds” from a cupboard and throwing them generously around Bird Central.

She knows not everyone approves of feeding birds in the spring when they can find food for themselves but her conscience is assuaged – slightly – by an assurance on the bag of birdie peanuts: “It is now recommended to feed wild birds all year round.” They would say that, wouldn’t they, she reasons, noting that anyway it’s breeding season and the birds are run ragged feeding their young and still need help on the nutrition front. She has spotted an increasingly elaborate assortment of bird feeders popping up in shops all over the place so she suspects cultivating a space for birds in the garden must be a growing phenomenon. A recession-friendly form of home entertainment.

The pheasants go for the peanuts but the gold finches and common-or-garden chaffinches are mad for the nyjer seeds, which the packet says have “essential vitamins, oils and carbohydrates”. As most of you (or maybe just one or none) will already know the nyjer seed is the seed of the African yellow daisy Guizotia abyssinica and is a cupboard staple of the most passionate back yard birders.

Apart from the bird -food bills, there’s another downside to the hobby. You have to make sure that you don’t distribute any foods that will attract unwanted visitors to Bird Central, like rats or seagulls. To listen to my friend, the seagulls are almost worse than rats and if she spots one invading the pheasants’ territory she’ll be out there shooing them away faster than you can say The Bird Woman of Alcatraz.

At home we have a beautifully illustrated game called Bird Bingo, bought in Article, in the Powerscourt Townhouse in Dublin, which my five-year-olds love, featuring 64 birds from around the world. It means when we go to the park they are pointing out “mallard ducks” and “mute swans” and wondering whether they might see any “magnificent frigate birds” or “splendid fairywrens”. Their Nanny got them the insect version, Bug Bingo, for their birthday earlier this week so pretty soon we’ll all know the name and look of 64 species of insects, some of which would give you nightmares.

My friend watches the birds like some people watch Netflix. And while I would never have taken myself for a birdwatcher I could be suckered in myself. You could easily turn into an avian nerd, sitting here at the window watching Mr and Ms Pheasant hanging out together in the rain. You could stop what you are supposed to be doing on your mini-retreat and just stare out at the wild birds foraging under bushes and alighting on bockety branches of the bare, misshapen tree peck-pecking away at yet another free lunch.

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