Gardening: A bird-brain in the family

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A pair of blackbirds has taken up residence in the rose arbour above our front door. I think it is at least partly because the last of the cats has gone, having succumbed to an infection (the others mostly dived under cars). We are free of the kind of pets that make gardens into ecological deserts.

The birds are showing how wonderfully imperturbable nature can be. In fact, I can't help wondering if the mother is not

a very bird-brained creature indeed. We are forever roaring up in cars, banging boot lids and having scenes within feet of her. Then there's the ball practice against the wall that supports the roses that support her. At least once a day, someone flounces out of the house and slams the front door fit to bring it off its hinges.

We have tried to moderate our outdoor noises but instead are tempted to persecute the birds in a new way. From the bathroom window, one can lean out and see the mother bird on station over the eggs. I'm not sure if she can see us, because her eyes stick out like the gun turrets on an old bomber, and one is not sure what her range of vision is. I have a feeling that she looks at us with real terror and, dim as she is, may be beginning to wonder if it might be time to do a flit, and hang the next generation.

The mother is quite often away from the nest, and then one sees the three brown eggs nestling on the felty floor of their twiggy incubation ward. The nest's interior is as soft and inviting as that of a favourite hat.

The occupation of a bit of one's territory by blackbirds is, I think, the purest sign that one has a home. In London, we felt honoured when a pair came into our Hackney back garden and produced young from a nest beneath a bathroom window.

Blackbirds seem so obviously familial. They come into our lives as an identifiable pair, whose comings and goings become those of two individuals (nicely colour-coded) for whom one can feel something like affection. It would not be out of place to name them.

They are not exactly cocky, but their squatters' rights are asserted with justified confidence. They pull worms out of one's lawn, or watch one parking the car, with an air that approaches proprietorship. They do not fly off as one approaches. They are tremendously busy without being fussy or flighty.

It appears that there has been an explosion in the numbers of blackbirds because, though they are close relatives of the song thrush, they do not share its dependency on garden slugs. The thrushes have apparently been zapped by overzealous gardeners who kill slugs with poison pellets.

Meanwhile, as the potato farmers make their perfectly ordered deep corduroy furrows in the terracotta soil, I find they have harrowed the field round the copse where the buzzards nest. I wandered up yesterday, and one of the birds was hanging on the wind at, I suppose, 500ft. In Sweden the other day, I got close to an eagle and felt duly humbled: that thing was huge, if a little ragged. Our buzzards may not be of Flying Fortress proportions, but with a wingspan of surely 4ft they seem big enough for all working purposes.

What is more, as well as being lovely they are very public birds. There is nothing furtive about them. If you happen across a buzzard on its post, it gets up to go on its way with no sense of fluster, and conveys at most a little irritation that one may have spoiled its hunting for a while.

I was very pleased to hear that even a county as relatively suburban as Oxfordshire now has buzzards for the first time since the war. It means we are getting at least some things right. We must sort out the chronic shortage of food for some of our most familiar songbirds. These have been hit by the very efficacy of the pesticides that replaced the organochlorines which damaged foxes, otters, and various raptors, until they were banned 30 years ago. There are now, it seems, too few insects and weeds to go round.

Yet the countryside seems blissful just now. Last weekend, the first of the bluebells joined the wood anenomes, violets and primroses in declaring spring

in the copse behind the house. They are all in glorious evidence at Queenswood, our local arboretum (on top of Dinmore Hill, on the A49 between Hereford and Leominster). Sue Mayes, a WWF worker, writes to say that she is longing for hordes of people to ring her on 0295 721937 to get details of a sponsored walk

in Westonbirt Arboretum, near Tetbury, on 8 May. By then, she swears, the bluebells will be a riot.

As Richard Mabey so rightly noted years ago, it is not extinction alone we mourn but the

becoming less commonplace of things it would be lovely to take for granted. Presumably, there are fewer bluebell woods than there were in the Fifties, when I was implanted with a passion for these flowers. On the other hand, it is far easier now than it once was for people who have few or no rural connections to go to places where they know they are welcome, can be sure of seeing lovely things, and get a decent cup of tea as well. Rurbia is not all bad.

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