WILD LIFE IN LOCKDOWN

Two months into lockdown I was awoken in the early hours of the morning by the sound of a heart stopping shriek coming from our garden. 

I peered out of our bedroom window and saw a crow perched on the branches of our apple tree.  The uncanny noise was coming from him (her?) and I can only describe it as crying. On the lawn I saw a large pile of black feathers.  The bird cried and cried – clearly mourning its loss of a partner or a parent.  The sound was heart rending.  It continued for a very long time before it finally stopped and only then was I able to get back to sleep.

The next morning I went out into the garden and witnessed the pile of feathers though fortunately could not see any body bits.  I gingerly swept the lot up and put it into our garden bin.

Since then I have learned a lot about crows because two have become regular visitors to our garden. Carrion crows form monogamous pairs, who stay together for life so we are probably witnessing a crow partnership.  Maybe the one I saw being mourned  was a crow baby that had been got at by a fox or a cat? Or did one crow lose his/her partner and quickly found another one?

I watch the crows from our kitchen window as they come and go throughout the day. Usually they bring their own bread and dip it into our bird bath before eating.  I am sure my blog followers will know that birds should not be given dry bread but will happily and safely eat bread when it’s wet. This is because the food swells in their stomachs and would very likely kill them. However, if you pre-soak the bread then it is already swollen and thus causes no damage. If I do nothing else today, this information of mine might save some poor bird’s life.

A number of times we have seen the crows with bagels.   Not the mini bagels. Full size ones.  I kid you not. The other day one of them brought a toasted bagel!  Left it in the bird bath to soften and then returned for it later. The bagel was so big that it took up the whole of the bird bath thus deterring other birds of being able to use it.  Have you noticed that there is definitely a hierarchy  of birds?  The smaller birds kowtow to the bigger ones.  Crows get first dibs at the bird bath, followed by doves and pigeons.  Smaller birds come much lower down in the pecking order – maybe that’s where the expression pecking order originally came from?

Another interesting expression is, “stone the crows”.  The older ones among you will remember that this expression was popularised in the 50s and 60s by the radio and television comedian, Tony Hancock (1924-68). He tended to use it in its shortened form of “stone me!” It’s an exclamation of amazement, disbelief or disgust as in, “stone me – the crow’s taken my bagel!” I’d be pleased to hear from anyone out there who has any idea how this expression might have originated.

It’s fascinating watching the antics of the crows.  I’ve seen them hide food in our hedge and return for it at another time.  The other day I saw one of the crows  searching for something he had hidden in the guttering just outside my study window. Suddenly he swooped down and picked up a large digestive biscuit and promptly flew off with it in his beak. I do wonder where they’re getting all this stuff from? I find it hard to believe that someone out there is feeding the birds digestive biscuits and bagels! Yesterday we noticed that our bird bath was suddenly attracting wasps.  I looked closer and discovered that the edges of the bird bath were smeared with jam – presumably from the stolen bagel!

Bird watching has always given me pleasure. But never more so than in lockdown.  If the bird bath dries out I’ll fill it up with water so that the crows have somewhere to dunk their bread. Other birds visit too.  There is a big fat collared dove who likes to drink from the bird bath. He then turns his back  and poos in it.  The dove is so fat that the bird bath basin wobbles when he sits on it. He also displaces all the water and I end up having to refill it – at the same time clearing out the poo, though I don’t think poo in the bird bath is any kind of deterrent to the crows and all the other birds who visit it on a regular basis.

When I was at school we learned a song about a carrion crow. “A carrion crow sat on an oak, derry derry derry derry down o – watching a tailor mend a cloak” is how it went. In music lessons we all had a song book.  The boys in our class took great pleasure in going through the book and altering the words in the song titles. “Where The Bee Sucks There Suck I”, from The Tempest (Shakespeare) was a favourite.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.   
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.
I bet they don’t teach today’s kids songs like that any more! Just as well.

Time for some bird spotting. See you later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Andrea Neidle, My Life in Poems

LOST FOR WORDS

Future generations of children may know the word, ‘celebrity’. But will they be able to name a daisy or a buttercup? 

In 2007 the compilers and decision makers of the Oxford University Press Junior Dictionary took it upon themselves to remove 50 words relating to the natural world because they felt that today’s children were out of tune with nature and were more likely to be sitting in front of a computer screen than to be out exploring the countryside.

All the more reason to include the words I would have thought!

I doubt they envisaged a future when children would be spending even more time exploring nature. As a consequence of the lockdown many of today’s children are exploring parks, fields and woodland, in a way they seldom did before, as part of their “daily exercise”. And, even if they weren’t, with today’s important focus on the environment, conservation and the natural world, shouldn’t our children and grandchildren be able to differentiate between a buttercup and a bluebell?

The OUP chose to remove words such as acorn, bluebell and conker – just to give three examples – and replace them with what they considered to be words far more meaningful to today’s children such as “celebrity!”

At the time, 28 authors including Margaret Atwood, Andrew Motion and Michael Morpurgo requested that the OUP reverse its decision and more than 50,000 people signed a petition calling for the words related to the natural world to be reinstated. But the OUP defended their decision and no changes were made.

A number of religious words such as bishop, saint, disciple, chapel, minister and sin were also removed in the belief that now we are living in a more multi-cultural society they were no longer needed!

In 2012 when the OUP brought out a new edition of the Junior Dictionary they had the perfect opportunity to rescind their decision. But they not only maintained the changes they had made but added to them! That edition of the dictionary, which is aimed at seven year olds, features words such as analogue, broadband and voice-mail. A justification for the removal of the words relating to nature was that today’s children were more at ease naming their favourite Pokemon character than they were at naming a buttercup or a magpie. Again, all the more reason for including them!

Would it have been so difficult to add a few more pages rather than removing the words altogether? After all, the children’s dictionary contains around 10,000 words. Would another fifty have hurt?

A Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the prize-winning author Dr Robert Macfarlane, was concerned about these changes and decided to take action.  He conceived the idea of The Lost Words, A Spell Book. This book,  stunningly illustrated by the watercolour artist Jackie Morris, was brought to my attention earlier this year by a friend, Tessa Spanton, who is herself an artist.

The Lost Words features a large number of the words that have been removed from the children’s dictionary. Adder, fern, heather, ivy and kingfisher are just a few examples.  Macfarlane has written acrostic poems to describe each missing word.  In other words, the initial letter of the first word in each line spells out the title of the poem.

For me, it is the illustrations, rather than the poems, that make this book the wondrous thing it is. It is a beautiful book and a joy to own.  My only quibble is that it’s A3 in size which makes for a large, unwieldy and heavy hardback.  More a book for your coffee table than a book to share on your lap with children, which is how I would have liked to have used it.

For reasons of copyright, much as I would love to share the book’s illustrations with you, I cannot. So, you will have to take it from me that this is a book to buy and cherish. If any further encouragement is needed, a proportion of the royalties from each copy of The Lost Words, will be donated to Action for Conservation.

It goes without saying that I’m not getting anything for this plug on my blog. Or shall we call it a plog? How’s that for a new word OUP?

 

© Andrea Neidle, My Life in Poems

 

Thoughts on a dead cat

When our cat was alive he terrorised all the birds, mice and frogs in the neighbourhood.  If you have read my poem, “A violent death” you will know what I am talking about.

Once he had died, our garden became a haven for wild life.

I miss my cat of course but I get a great deal of pleasure from observing the birds who visit our garden.  In the winter I put out food for them.

Whenever I am doing any sort of gardening or even just pottering in the garden, one little robin always keeps me company.  He’s very tame and comes so close I could reach out and touch him. I like to think it’s always the same robin – but who knows?

It makes me think of the little girl who was befriended by a robin in that wonderful children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett,  “The Secret Garden”.

The photo below shows “my” robin perched on top of a bucket in the snow.

I thought how, in the days when our cat was alive, this simple pleasure would not have been there for me. And I wrote this poem:

Robin

My cat is sleeping.

Just as well

he can’t see the robin

boldly standing there.

Once upon a time

no bird would dare

to venture near.

But my cat is sleeping now

And has been

For a long long time.

A lump of stone

marks his last resting place.

ROBIN PIC

© Andrea Neidle, My Life in Poems