Letter: Innocent magpies
Tuesday 30 November 1999
In 20 years, the species and numbers coming into our garden have steadily changed: kestrels have disappeared; house martins still visit but have not nested under our eaves for nearly a decade; collared doves, rare at the start, now visit daily in sizeable flocks.
Of the predators, magpie and jay numbers have increased slightly, crows more so: they, along with owls and great spotted woodpeckers, raid the hedgerow nests and for the last four years a pair of sparrowhawks have hunted the garden.
Despite this predation, the number of songthrushes remains constant while blackbirds, finches and tits show a steady increase.
I have no idea how much pesticide has been applied, but the numbers of flying insects including flies, bees, wasps, butterflies and dragonflies has fallen dramatically.
Without doubt the biggest killers in our garden are domestic cats. The one year I pruned the shrub and bush bases, depriving the cats of any ground cover, saw an increase in songbirds. Regrettably, mentioning this invariably evokes quite unpleasant abuse from cat-lovers, who seem incapable of accepting reality.
So, why single out the magpie for persecution? When I was a child these birds were remorselessly hunted because they were witches; in flight the tail is a broomstick, and people "just knew" they were evil. Does this superstition still linger today?
Finally the house sparrows, whose loss Lucy Lawrence (letter, 22 November) bemoans: they have increased annually, despite all my efforts to displace these "mice with wings", untouched even by sparrowhawks; they infest our roofspace, colonise nest boxes, rebuild destroyed nests, in fact they are a plague. In the spirit of Christmas, therefore, I offer Ms Lawrence a free box of house sparrows, all from a good home, reared on the finest birdseed and guaranteed to twitter endlessly.
VINCENT R HOLMES
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