Nature Notes

A Crop of Birds.

A fieldfare in snow is a beautiful thing; in its element, it seems, having come from Iceland, or Norway perhaps, Sweden, Austria or Poland. The snow frames its aurora borealis colours like nothing else. The black tail and chestnut wings brighten against the white; its snowfield breast is speckled with hearts-and-darts and its slate-blue head and rump are the colour of a volcanic ash cloud. Nomadic and omnivorous, they travel systematically along a previously foraged hedge, just in case, managing February’s cruel hungry gap.

But here are other, spectacular flocks: we round the corner and the sight of them takes my breath away. Songbirds, in their thousands. Several hundred sit out on the snowy cornfield so thickly, they turn the earth black in patches.

We pull up and watch. There are constant streams and exchanges from hedgerow to field and from the wood. Here are clouds of hundreds of chaffinches, goldfinches and linnets, but I can also see flashes of orange, black, yellow and green. I focus on individuals preening or resting in trees, or that have landed on these acres planted for them. Some feed on extra seed that has been spun out for them onto the ground, getting them through the hungry gap and ensuring they meet spring in good breeding condition. There are yellowhammers, bramblings, greenfinch and siskins and other birds that for now, evade identification – there could also be redpolls, corn and reed buntings, perhaps tree sparrows.

They leave and re-leave the trees, making a constant play of budburst and then winter in the ashes; others lift to form great wheels and endless, loud-twittering strings and Mexican waves with the density of a starling murmuration. They rise above the field like a sheet lifted and floated down onto to a bed, and when they come from the hedges, they are like great handfuls of seed thrown out to instantly reflower the grasses, in a re-enactment of what has been done here for them.

These are the flocks my granddad spoke of and I could only ever imagine. I have never known flocks like these.

But look! Like a conjuring trick, we can sow seed and bring them back. This is the fruition of bird cover crops, this is its harvest. It helps make up for what the extreme efficiency of modern agriculture gets rid of. It is the crop that we do not get to consume, yet it sits alongside ones we can. It puts back value and joy to the farmed countryside. And I, for one, am so grateful for this wonderful gift, I could cry. A crop of wild birds for the sake of just that. It’s what makes us human.

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