So here it is. The thing that inspires me more than anything else in the world.
It gives me a routine and responsibility. It makes me laugh and gasp and go all squidgy inside. It makes sure I get some fresh air every day, even when I'd just rather shut myself inside with a double bill of Jeremy Kyle (damn you, ITV2!) It gets me looking and thinking and dreaming and learning. I'll literally spend my last penny on it.
*Cue imaginary drum roll.*
(Although, actually, if you don't need to scroll down past this bit you'll have already seen what it is.)
Teatime at Café Val
My bird table.
I've always loved animals. Even the little ikky ones no-one else likes. Although I draw the line at headlice, tapeworms and anything else that would want to use me as a hotel. I'm not able to keep pets for various reasons, so my bird table's the next best thing.
As you can see, there are dozens of different birds that come and use our garden. We get house sparrows, starlings, collared doves, woodpigeons, blackbirds, magpies and a robin. About 6 weeks ago, I noticed that 2 birds which I thought were female sparrows actually weren't. They were plainer and behaved quite differently. Thanks to the good folk at the British Garden Birds website, http://www.garden-birds.co.uk/ I was able to find out that they were called dunnocks (hedge sparrows) - a bird I'd never even heard of before!
I'm no twitcher, I don't know much about the birds but I love watching how they relate to each other. There's a definite hierarchy in the garden - they don't call it a pecking order for nothing.
If anyone tries telling you house sparrows are dying out, they're wrong. They've just all moved up to live by me. We must have about 50 of them, at least it's very common to have over 20 in our garden at any one time. They always hang around in large flocks and are very skittish. At the slightest disturbance they all fly back to the tree, but then they'll come back to the table after just a few seconds. I'm sure they use up more calories than they eat doing that!
Woodpigeons have a strange idea of tolerance. If, say, there were 6 of them, pigeon A won't put up with pigeon B. Pigeon C won't put up with pigeon D. Pigeon E won't put up with pigeon F. But they're always one-on-one disagreements, they never get involved in each other's arguments.
Pigeon and dove mating behaviour is hilarious. The males will puff their chests out, strut after the females, do elaborate bowing and chase their competitors off. The females don't take a blind bit of notice of them and just carry on eating. You go girl!
The starlings are like a football mob. They flock down in their dozens, squawk their heads off and completely take over the garden. They're one of my favourites though, their seemingly drab feathers glint with iridescent flashes of purple, green, blue and gold. They also give me my favourite sight in the garden (sadly not easy to photograph)...
Shake a tailfeather, baby
There's nothing more enthusiastic than a starling in a birdbath. It gets its head and wings right in and splashes water everywhere (as above, you can see all the spray in the top right hand corner of the picture). Then it puts its bum in and gives its tail a darn good shake. Then its head, then its tail, then its head, then its tail. Repeat for minutes on end until there's no more water in the birdbath or the poor sparrow standing underneath the table has drowned.
There are other birds who don't like coming into the garden but still bring their wonderful characters into our lives. The crows who test the breaking strain of everybody's TV aerials. The white lovebirds who may still be someone's pets or who may have escaped, sitting on the corner of next door's roof watching what I'm putting on the table but never coming to get any. All the different types of seagull who've made their home as far inland as you can get in the UK, scavenging off the bits of junk food the kids drop on their way to and from school. The pied wagtail risking death by dashing into the road for squashed bugs. The swifts darting about acrobatically through the sky chasing flies, making their "scree scree" call that's like a soundtrack to the summer.
Then there are the other supporting characters. We have solid fencing or walls all round our garden, so we don't get things like hedgehogs or foxes (although I did find a frog last year and that was the first one I've seen in there since about 1990!) Underneath the bird table lurk various different types of slugs, snails and worms, polishing off the husks and nut skins the birds leave behind. I don't mind the insects, if they're at my table or in my compost bin they're doing a useful job and it keeps them away from the important plants.
There's one animal I DON'T tolerate though. A skanky bird-murdering cat that lurks behind the ornamental planters and pounces on anything having a nice quiet feed at the table. It's all black, so it's well camouflaged under there, but if I see it I walk into the garden and it jumps over the fence. It actually got a woodpigeon the other week, I only noticed because there were loads of feathers on the grass. My mum and I went and had a look and found it behind the planter with blood all round its neck, freshly killed. It was well hidden from view and if we hadn't noticed it there and then it would have soon attracted rats and maggots - yuk!
Last, but by no means least, the bird table attracts this little lady...
Friendly neighbourhood nut thief
She lives in the tall tree a few houses down the road. She has a boyfriend who lives across the road who also occasionally visits. She tolerates him sometimes (i.e. when she wants babies) but normally she chases him off.
It's a real battle of wits between me and my squirrel, but I can't help but love her. Suet balls have to go in a holder or she'd just nick a whole one. Peanut holders have to be all metal and this one had to have the perch reinforced because she soon bit off the original plastic stoppers, pulled out the perch, making the bottom fall off and unleashing the peanuts. My brother had to take the holder to work and make two special metal stoppers which she can't get off. The coconut is a distraction for her, I spoon in some suet treat and stick peanuts to it. If you want to buy a filled coconut and you have a squirrel, WHATEVER YOU DO MAKE SURE THE COCONUT HAS A SOFT FILLING! I've made the mistake of buying ones with hard fillings and within a couple of days she's managed to work out how to get the whole thing out in one go! So I'm there shouting "I hope you get a belly ache from it," but I can't help laughing at her cleverness. It's just up to me to do better next time.
When I see really interesting behaviour from the birds or other garden visitors, I take a mental "snapshot" of it. It's a big ambition of mine to be able to get all these ideas down on paper some day, I could probably have enough to make an exhibition. They wouldn't be cute, either, they'd be tales of life and death, sex and power, a feathery soap opera being acted out in our gardens every day.