Here's what counts, when it comes to birds

The latest issue of Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds magazine carries an ad suggesting that we ordinary folks might like to take part in a survey. The idea is to count the birds in our garden, as we call it in the UK. ("Garden," to us, does not mean a patch of vegetables or flowers. It means everything that surrounds one's house within one's boundaries.)

It is the "boundaries" that puzzle me when it comes to the thought of accurately assessing the bird numbers "in" our garden. I can't imagine how it can be done - apart from the improbable notion of banding every pigeon, blackbird, flycatcher, or stonechat.

Our modest garden is joined by walls and hedges to five neighboring gardens, not to mention the narrow road that nominally separates it from two more. Seven, then. It's easier to count gardens than birds. How can we tell which birds make use of all the gardens or confine themselves to one?

I am aware, of course, that we have, in varying numbers, common species that regularly visit us. I think they come just to challenge the monopolistic tendencies of the gray squirrels that probably account for most of the "bird" food we generously offer.

The food is suspended from branches in special containers. The feeder nearest to a window is by the kitchen, and this peanut dispenser is frequented mainly by sparrows, blue-tits, cole-tits, and mice. Our mice are agile tree-climbers, and it is not unusual to see a sparrow, a tit, and a mouse breakfasting together amicably.

We have a bird table, a small platform with food on it. There is a bird bath in the front garden and another in the back. We do well by our birds, all told.

But are they "our" birds?

I have recently spent much time working in our glass-enclosed room at the back of the house. It is impossible in daylight hours to look up from a book and not see birds. We have collared doves, magpies, blackbirds, blue-tits, and, now and then, finches. And robins. Robins, UK style, are not at all like American robins, but sparrow-size, with brown backs and wings and orangy-red breasts. They are reputedly territorial. I have seen two at a time, I more often only see one. Only once have I seen three. Does this mean we have one resident with occasional invaders?

In other years, I have seen what I think are siskinds. I haven't seen them lately. They may have been green finches; I'm not sure. Once I saw a wagtail, near the pond. And we had a sparrow hawk for a short while that carried away some of our mice. On one grand occasion, a heron, like some prehistoric flying creature, stood commandingly on the apex of the greenhouse. And one night an owl alighted on the bird table. Maybe we have thrushes, but I am never certain if female blackbirds don't pretend to be them.

As for sparrows, they are two a penny. I guess they are "house sparrows," but I don't know one sparrow from another. I'm sure I read somewhere that house sparrows are declining in numbers. Rest assured, ours aren't. They use the bird bath (and, paradoxically, the dust bath provided by nature under the large conifer), and it's possible to see a dozen at a time. They sit in the ornamental pear tree by the garage at dusk and twitter with loud indignation if their habitual settling for the night is interrupted by humans.

But the one bird I feel almost positive does live all the time in our garden is my elusive friend Troglodytes troglodytes. I have never seen him fly out of, or back into, the garden. His Latin name, size-wise, is at odds with the fact that the wren is a small bird and, with his tail cocked, actually the shortest bird in the Western Palearctic. He is the only wren found outside the Americas.

What I love about our wren is that he (she?) is about as far from being a showoff as can be. The sparrows are vulgar by comparison, members of the chattering classes. The wren sticks close to the ground, is somewhat mousy, and flits about quickly, catching insects. He shows no interest in the bird food we provide. He allows me to see him as little as possible. He disappears behind plant pots, between stones on the pond side, down the bank, into the ivy. I think he lives in the ivy on the garage.

But the other day I spotted him vanishing into a crevice in a pile of flagstones, and I thought, "Of course, he's a cave-dweller." He is, says my Oxford bird book, "attracted to ... fissures ..., cavities, crevices, and interstices...."

Wherever he appears, it is clear he is already in the process of disappearing. I suppose he is "shy." Yet one morning, a mile away in the community gardens, I met a wren who was perched on a wire and was not shy. He was shouting abuse. He was berating me. His beak opened very wide and out came what the book calls "a rapid chittering or reeling, given rapidly in short series." He made me feel very unwelcome.

But in our garden (with thick glass between us), he seems silent to me. I would like to hear his "commonest call, a single, double or repeated sharp note, like large pebbles knocked together."

Why do I think he lives in our garden alone? I've only ever seen him one at a time, and he is always within a foot or two of where I saw him yesterday. Presumably he mates each year and produces young, but I have never seen his mate or his fledglings. He is still around now, in December, so I think he is not a migratory wren, though they can be.

As far as I am concerned, he is absolutely welcome in our garden. Even though I suspect that it is his garden and he would prefer it if we migrated.

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