Acrobatics and insatiable appetites

Outdoor Living

RUMBLED One of John Shelley’s regular garden visitors, a pine marten named Pongo, on the prowl.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

The second swallow’s nest had fallen from its lodging, as if the increasing weight of the growing brood within proved just too great for that little mud-built bowl to take. It sheared off cleanly, coming away in one piece, leaving nothing more than a thin, horseshoe-shaped layer of clay to mark where the happy family had been. One solitary half grown chick was all that remained of the brood.
I named her Summer and took her photograph. At the sound of the camera shutter she took fright and spread her wings to take her maiden flight – in a clumsy, downward, half-spiral to land on the ground at my feet. I picked her up – a mere few grams of fearful trembling – and returned her to her rudimentary perch. Down she came again, and scurried across the floor into a dark corner. What could I do now? If I left her where she was she would have no chance and if I didn’t leave her alone she would become overstressed. I placed her on a shelf where her parents would easily find her and feed her for the next two or three important days, until there might be enough power in those little wings to carry her away.
The following morning Summer was gone, leaving me with a lesson more fully learned. Don’t mess with baby birds. Didn’t I know that already? If I had kept my distance instead of getting so close, would she not still be alive and, even now, be gracing the sky above alongside her parents? She might.
Yet what had happened to her nest mates? Into who’s hungry maw had they disappeared? I blamed the magpies immediately, although I know that Pongo the pine marten has been hanging around lately. He would make short work of any baby birds he found and would even slaughter those beyond his physical appetite, doing so with nothing less than lustful glee. With his keen eye and sharp sense of smell he wouldn’t pass by such a delicacy as little Summer.
We’ve seen quite a bit of Pongo lately. He comes to the bird feeder every night, but cleverly varies the time of his arrival as if he fears being discovered. On rare occasions he comes to see what he might find during the day and it is then that we get to watch him at work.
There is one thing about him – he likes his food. It doesn’t seem to matter what we leave out, he takes it. Salted peanuts, scraps of bread, sweet biscuits, sausage and chicken bones, he eats the lot. Tonight, Sunday evening, he has the remains of my chicken dinner; by morning there will be nothing left.
Monday morning, 8am: I had been woken at first light by the sound of paws scampering from one end of the roof to the other. I felt I should investigate – first light is so early and the bed so warm…. When I did get up I made coffee and checked Pongo’s table. There was nothing left from the night before, so I topped it up with a handful of biscuits and sat at the window to write.
A small chocolate-coloured face appeared in the flowerbed and there was Pongo, looking rather gaunt in his scant summer suit.
I found his manner of obtaining food quite amusing. He slipped up the apple tree to the bird table, which hangs from a branch by a short cord, in order that it might not be raided without difficulty. That was the idea anyway. We had failed to take in the agility and intelligence of the pine marten. He climbed onto the roof and peered comically beneath, to make sure there was something there worth his effort. Satisfied with what he saw there, he swung backwards and forwards, then shifted his weight to one side to tip the feeder up and cause some of the food to fall to the ground.
Pongo jumped down behind it, ate what he could find and repeated the exercise several times until he was sure there was nothing left. When he left the scene I put out the next course – a pork chop that had been destined for my own plate. I had barely regained my seat before he was back. Up the tree he went, swinging back and forth, and down came the chop with Pongo at its heels. I hoped he might stay there to feed but he grabbed it between his jaws and ran quickly across the road and into the trees, where he might dine in comfort.
I did, however, have the camera close at hand and here he is, filled with the joy of Summer, no doubt. The little villain. I heard that martens adore marzipan. We might yet teach him some tricks.