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Outdoor Living

FEEDING STATION  Goldfinches and greenfinches vie for position on a bird feeder containing sunflower hearts.

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

Back in December, I couldn’t let another year pass without taking part in the ever-popular Irish Garden Bird Survey – Ireland’s longest-running Citizen Science Project, now in its 30th year.
Survey participation is open to everyone, completely free and extremely easy. Help and advice is available from Birdwatch Ireland, Birdwatch Mayo or even our own Facebook wildlife group, Westport Wildlife & Tidy Towns.
Like many other participants who eagerly await the survey’s return every year, I’m now totally hooked. It brings another layer of interest to your garden that you think you know so well. A constant soap opera of the natural order, my garden will never quite seem the same again.
It’s been a total revelation, such that now, long after the survey ended in February, I’m still fascinated by what’s happening in the garden every day. Territorial disputes, bitter rivalries, overly eager suitors and eventually lots of little ones, lots and lots of little birds to be fed from spring on and right up to September. Bird drama has it all, and the story will continue.
It’s always recommended that your bird feeder should never be too far from the cover of a tree or a shrub. If you were to place the food in the middle of a wide-open space then only the youngest of birds will visit, and only because they are still naive or just very hungry. They aren’t as hyper vigilant as the mature adults, for out there and when they least expect it, there may be a sparrow hawk.
This beautiful predator keeps the garden birds on constant alert, but is actually to their benefit in the broader picture. With a strike rate of only once in every ten attempts, that’s a lot of work for dinner. The hawks will pass over your garden, rarely seen by human eye. However, if you observe the activity on your bird feeder you may notice the telltale signs.
On one or two occasions I noticed that all the bird feeders I have dotted around were deserted. Silence deep in the hedgerow and far into a nearby grove of alder. Not a movement either. These are the usual signs that a sparrow hawk had been through. Ambush hunters, they have to keep moving, but that’s nature at work. Nature’s way to keep balance.
Many years ago, I witnessed some of this Top Gun action in my own garden. A mistle thrush nest wasn’t well hidden, and the thrush was always wary when leaving the nest – too wary in my opinion. I didn’t understand its nervousness.
Then one day, a sparrow hawk emerged. It had been perched in a such a way as to obfuscate its presence even from the most vigilant of vigilant. It smoothly soared in from the hedgerow, locked on its target. Our thrush zig-zagging briefly to evade sharp talons, then, climbing high, whoosh and it was quickly out of view.
One lucky thrush I thought to myself, and watched to see where the hawk would go next. But the drama wasn’t over yet.
Offence being the best defence, now our thrush was on the downward curve and on the attack, with the hawk on the defensive, zig-zagging to evade a fiery thrush full of vengeance. Another tale of high drama from Woodland Edge that wouldn’t have gone amiss on Game of Thrones. Not something you will see every day, I admit, but that’s the beauty of keeping an eye on your garden’s comings and goings. Most of the time it’s more Coronation Street, which is still very entertaining, but the occasional high drama will leave you open-mouthed at nature’s ways.
With so many gardens in Ireland having bird feeders, it says something about our concerns for these small birds. We are happy to keep filling those feeders to the brim with peanuts and the likes, and our feathered friends are happy to keep us entertained and in touch with the natural world, keeping our spirits up with bird song.
During these strange times, I wonder, are we sustaining our little feathered friends, or are they sustaining us? I think we’ve got the better part of this arrangement. Spring is here, and the circle of life begins anew.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.