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NATURE Nest boxes, feeders and garden birds

Outdoor Living
A great tit, temporary resident at this bird box, feeding his young.

Thoughtful preparations for the garden birds

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

Four whooper swans flew low over the frozen lake, evidently looking for a patch of clear water to land. They circled the bay twice before lifting away to the north with mournful cries. Coming down onto ice brings obvious difficulties; if they must come to ground in a field they will, but there would be some uncomfortable crash landings
The ice and snow disappeared almost overnight following an extraordinary rise in temperature, which went up from 17 degrees below freezing to eleven above in a mere 36 hours. I think we are not the only ones glad to see a return to normality, whatever that may be.
Our garden birds have quickly dispersed with the thaw. We hosted several dozen through the bitter cold. Now only a handful remain: a family of little coal tits; a pair of great tits and two jousting robins. Across the road a flock of redpoll continue to swing acrobatically through the twigs of alder thickets, where they extract tiny seeds from an abundance of cones. They have in their company a small number of siskin. The male siskin has no notion of camouflage; he is bright yellow and very active, so would appear to be an obvious target for the marauding sparrowhawk.
When the frost was at its worst, the hawk made occasional visits to the garden, where we caught glimpses of his speed and agility. He would appear suddenly, without warning, as a broad-winged missile, swooping to scatter the smaller birds except one, the fate of which was sealed.
Some of those that remain will soon be scouting for suitable nesting sites. They already know where the wooden nest boxes are. We have four, one in each corner of the garden, three of which were used back in the spring. The great tits had one and a pair of blue tits another. A male wren built a trial nest in the third but after his little brown wife inspected it the two of them went to live in the shed, where another of his constructions was wedged between an old swallow’s nest and the rafter behind it. The fourth box had been placed low on an outside wall with a view to enticing coal tits. It stayed empty.
In the heat of July leafcutter bees were going in and out, taking carefully cut out circles of greenery to build their home. I watched them closely – too closely perhaps, for they tired of my attention and moved away.
Today I must make the rounds of the bird boxes. Old nests must be cleared out to make room for the new and any necessary repairs must be made. There may likely be queen wasps asleep within, the fate of which will remain untold. Suffice it to say there were more than enough wasps around last year. They plagued us for a short while until a badger dug out their nest and devoured its contents. Each queen has the potential to establish a new colony that may expand to include thousands of individual insects – if it survives.
If new nest boxes are to be provided, there are a few simple rules to follow. Firstly, do not put them close to where the birds are fed. While some of us might like to live next door to the supermarket, birds are much more secretive. They want somewhere hidden from public view.
Several nest boxes can be placed in even a small garden. Most birds are happy to nest between six and ten feet from the ground, a height which ought to prevent cats from helping themselves to a free meal. To maximise the chances of it being used each nest box should have its entrance turned away from the prevailing winds, so face it to the north or east if possible. Try and keep it at least a foot away from anything that might provide predators with a toehold.
Once a nest box has been prepared it should be left alone and observed only from a distance, or any interest shown by potential tenants will be short-lived.
As long as we have the whooper swans we know winter is still with us. Yet in the coming days the robins will be bonding. One bright morning we will find the blackbird with his throat full of song. Then the swans will be gone, back to the north, leaving longer days of warm sunshine behind them.

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