The balcony is awash with babies. A plethora of fluffy fledglings, often with soft grey down still competing with new adult feathers. They make me think of cuckoos, these innocent babes, for invariably they are larger than their industrious parents: puffed up by their motley mix of feathers, with their wings fluttering and their gapes wide and demanding. Life is so precarious for these infants in their first few days of life in the big wide world. I learned recently that some fledglings leave the nest a day or two before they are able to fly and must wait, perilously, on the ground, until their adult feathers are fully developed. And at the same time as learning this lesson I was reminded that as well as being the future generation, fledglings are of course, prey for others in the chain. They are not all destined to survive.
This poem is new to me and captures the precariousness of life for the newly – or nearly -fledged:
So, art thou feathered, art thou flown,
Thou naked thing?—and canst alone
Upon the unsolid summer air
Sustain thyself, and prosper there?
Shall no more with anxious note
Advise thee through the happy day,
Thrusting the worm into thy throat,
Bearing thine excrement away?
Alas, I think I see thee yet,
Perched on the windy parapet,
Defer thy flight a moment still
To clean thy wing with careful bill.
And thou are feathered, thou art flown;
And hast a project of thine own.
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1985 – 1950)
We have had countless sparrows and chaffinches – which are generally the puffed-up ‘cuckoos’ – and tiny blue tits, paler than their parents but already agile and dexterous by the time they’ve made their way to our feeders. Watching juvenile nuthatches is a joy – and a first; we never had young nuthatches in our former garden. Again, paler imitations of their parents, but already agile and careful. I’ve noticed fewer, if any, baby great tits and coal tits. They must be here. Perhaps they are already too similar to their parents when they reach us; I must look more closely over the next few days. The tiny baby goldfinches are easy to spot: they lack the colourful red, black and yellow headgear of their parents but they’re a whizz with the niger seed feeder. Juvenile robins seem leggy and disheveled; they make me think of scruffy teenagers. (Not that all teenagers are scruffy of course – hasty disclaimer here. It’s the awkwardness of limbs growing too long too quickly that I am reminded of.) And we have many juvenile woodpeckers. In contrast to most babies, the baby woodies seem more colourful than their parents. Both sexes have vivid red caps which makes them easy to identify as youngsters.
I struggle to see the infants sitting haplessly on the ground. Not only are their feathers needing a little longer to develop, it seems that they also have yet to learn their parents’ caution and wariness. The adult woodpeckers are our most cautious birds on the balcony: leaving at the slightest movement from us indoors. In contrast, their red-headed offspring stay gorging on nuts for long minutes at a time, totally unconcerned by us watching. But they are safe of course; as in fact are the babies on the floor at the foot of the feeding station. The balcony is not accessible to most predators and we do our utmost to keep Harri away from them. But if they’re safe here on the balcony, they will be sitting targets elsewhere: playing Russian roulette with cats, birds of prey and other hunters. Chaffinches appear to be the worst offenders, sitting motionless for all the world to see. Bernie rescued one and brought it up to the balcony. Its beak had been trapped in a seed: it had pierced the hard casing and then couldn’t disengage. We freed its beak and left it on the balcony all day. It flew away every so often but always came back. By morning it had gone. I’m not sure it was the right thing to do in hindsight; I suspect its parents may have been close by initially but did they find it up on the balcony? I like to think it survived.
Moving up in size, we have juvenile jays which visit shyly – snatching what they can and retreating to enjoy the spoils somewhere of their own choosing. And a magpie family took to gathering outside our bedroom window for numerous mornings in a row. The youngsters were already in their smart livery: just a smaller version of mum and dad. And every bit as chatty. Why is it that magpies seem to enjoy an early morning chat so very much?
At the far end of the scale, I’m also watching what I think can only be juvenile buzzards. They are much like the common buzzards I’ve been watching since we arrived here, but they seem smaller, and fly very much closer to the ground. I can’t help thinking that they’re practicing, but I’m sure I’m just being fanciful. As always, whenever I begin writing about what I’m seeing of the birds who share their space with us, I am left with so many unanswered questions. And contrary to expectations, the internet can’t necessarily answer them. I am coming to accept that if I want to know more, I need to join a local group and talk to some local experts.
One final birdnote: an homage to the seagull.
I am not a fan of seagulls. When we were first talking about moving to Cornwall I made it quite clear that I didn’t want seagulls in my airspace. And as it happens, we have very few of them; I don’t find them bothersome at all. And last week they gave me a real treat.
I was gazing across the valley on one of the cloudless blue-sky days. The air was fresh and clear. It was warm and peaceful. And I came to realise I was watching seagulls. A pair of them were flying much as the buzzards do: catching the thermals and eddies, soaring and circling – and in complete silence. Two white streamlined shapes against a vast blue canvas. As graceful as any swallow, as majestic as any buzzard: high and low, fast and slow they went, tracing intricate patterns together; banking and wheeling as gulls are wont to do, but slowly and with artistry. It was beautiful to watch, and uplifting.
And of course, it made me think of that most famous of seagulls, Jonathan:
“He was not bone and feather
but a perfect idea of freedom and flight,
limited by nothing at all”
(Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull)