Ornithology With Orwell

Older readers may remember the feature Nest Watch, which appeared on this blog in March of last year.  In it, I observed a pair of magpies painstakingly dismantling an old nest (or, as a reader suggested, a squirrel’s dray) and reassembling it into a new nest higher up the tree.  At about the time the nest disappeared from view behind foliage, the magpies seemed to have been chased away from their nest by a crow.  

Once the leaves had fallen – as leaves do – the full magnificence of the finished nest was revealed.  I have often reflected on it – and the effort that went into its manufacture – throughout the winter as I smoked a reflective gasper or two in the garden of the vanished St Mary Aldermanbury.  A week or two ago, I spotted two magpies – probably the same ones (you can see them – if you look closely – in the photograph below) making what seemed to be a reconnoitre of the nest with a view to reusing – or possibly reassembling – it when the mating season arrives.  And so, reassuringly, and at last, we begin again.    

By coincidence, I was re-reading* Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier recently when I came across this passage (he is leaving Wigan by train).  It struck me as unaccountably funny (particularly the line in bold) –

Although the snow was hardly broken the sun was shining brightly, and behind the shut windows of the carriage it seemed warm.  According to the almanac this was spring, and a few of the birds seemed to believe it.  For the first time in my life, in a bare patch beside the line, I saw rooks copulating.  They did it on the ground and not, as I should have expected, in a tree.  The manner of courtship was curious.  The female stood with her beak open and the male walked round her and appeared to be feeding her.”

Why this is funny, I’m not sure.  Perhaps the image of the tall, awkward Orwell in his workingman’s disguise peering from the window of his railway carriage, sucking his pencil and gravely noting down –

Rooks copulating – on ground not in tree

 or, perhaps, because of Orwell’s insistence on that pseudo-medical vogue word copulating (I suppose that – in spite of his natural almost-prudishness – he was still trying to be a little more like Henry Miller).

His publisher (Gollancz) changed “copulating to “courting” – Orwell agreed to settle for “treading”.  “Treading”?

Anyway, roll on the mating season.

*This can be a very irritating expression, but I have reached the stage in life where there seem to be an awful lot of books to re-read.

Empty Nest Syndrome (with Louis MacNiece)

What of the nest?  The nest itself is now harder to see  through the fresh green leaves –

and, since the incident with the crows, I’ve only seen the magpies once more.  Perhaps they are lying low and incubating their eggs, or perhaps they’ve been reading Louis MacNiece –

In a between world, a world of amber,

The old cat on the sand-warm window-sill

Sleeps on the verge of nullity.


Spring sunshine has a quality

Transcending rooks and the hammering

Of those who hang new pictures,

Asking if it is worth it

To clamour and caw, to add stick to stick for ever.


If it is worth while really

To colonise any more the already populous

Tree of knowledge, to portion and reportion

Bit of broken knowledge brittle and dead,

Whether it would not be better

To hide one’s head in the warm sand of sleep

And be embalmed without hustle or bother.


The rooks bicker heckle bargain always

And market carts lumber –

Let me in the calm of the all-humouring sun

Also indulge my humour

And bury myself beyond creaks and cawings

In a below world, a bottom world of amber.

I Watched A Blackbird : Thomas Hardy

What to do for Easter?  I had some rather attractive pictures of  The Man of Sorrows from my brief holiday in Spain, but these are presumably still somewhere at Wantage Road with my lost camera.  I tried to Share a video of  Easter Parade, by the Blue Nile, but it didn’t want to be shared.  I found a couple of interesting poems by A.H. Clough and A.E. Houseman, but these were discouraging and frankly atheistical.  So here is an Easter poem of a sort, by Thomas Hardy.  Back to nests again, I’m afraid.


 ‘I Watched A Blackbird” 


I watched a blackbird on a budding sycamore

One Easter Day, when sap was stirring twigs to the core;

I saw his tongue, and crocus-coloured bill

Parting and closing as he turned his trill;

Then he flew down, seized on a stem of hay,

And upped to where his building scheme was under way,

As if so sure a nest were never shaped on spray.


(Wouldn’t you know it?  I did try to take a picture of a blackbird to accompany this with my new, improved, replacement camera, but – although they are everywhere to be heard-  not one is anywhere to be seen.  But I’m sure you have probably seen one before.) 

Nest Watch Extra : A Crow In The Ointment


Unwelcome news, I’m afraid, from our nest. 

Yesterday morning I arrived at work to find two large crows squatting in our magpies’  laboriously constructed nest.  The magpies gamely tried to expel them, but all their flapping and chattering were to no avail.  It’s hard to know whether the crows were aiming to annex the nest for their own use, steal the building materials or eat the eggs (if any), but, apparently, this is a common sight at this time of year – RSPB.

No sign of either magpies or crows since.

Let’s have a poem about crows.  This is by Ted Hughes.


Examination at the Womb-door


Who owns these scrawny little feet?  Death.

Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face?  Death.

Who owns these still-working lungs?  Death.

Who owns this utility coat of muscles?  Death.

Who owns these unspeakable guts?  Death.

Who owns these questionable brains?  Death.

All this messy blood?  Death.

These minimum-efficiency eyes?  Death.

This wicked little tongue?  Death.

This occasional wakefulness?  Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?


Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth?  Death.

Who owns all of space?  Death.

Who is stronger than hope?  Death.

Who is stronger than the will?  Death.

Stronger than love?  Death.

Stronger than life?  Death.

But who is stronger than death?  Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.


(The volume this is taken from – Crow – has the dedication “In Memory of Assia and Shura”  – Assia being his partner, who had recently gassed herself, alongside their daughter Shura.)

Stump Watch and Nest Watch – Together At Last!

I promised dramatic developments in the continuing story of the stump and – as you will see – this was no idle boast.  You may remember that – a few months ago – I noted the arrival of a sort of official alternative  to our feral stump, in the shape of a young sapling (a beech, possibly), planted a few feet away.

And now – someone has removed the support from the sapling, cut it in half  and tried to dig it up!  Like so –

Although it is perfectly true that I expressed misgivings about the effect that the sapling might have on our stump, I can in no way condone acts of mindless vandalism.  In fact it is a great pity that the actions of a small number of violent hooligans, hell-bent on trouble, have diverted attention from the much larger group of law abiding citizens making a legitimate and peaceful protest … (continued all newspapers p. 94).  Anarchists, probably – they seem to get everywhere.

The stump does seem to have taken advantage of the situation, and is beginning to bud a little –

Meanwhile, back in the Belly of the Beast, our magpie’s nest is now a robust and sizeable structure (the remains of the old nest are visible towards the lower left hand side of the tree, with a magpie in it) –

They now seem to be at the stage of lining the nest with mud – I did try to snap one with a great clod in its beak, but it seemed to find this undignified and flew away. 

I fancy we shall soon be hearing the beating of tiny wings.

“Bred in Darkness” : the Kingfisher of Little Bowden Returns

The other big news this week in the fast moving world of bird life, is another sighting of the Kingfisher of Little Bowden.  First thing Tuesday morning there he – or she – was, sitting on the river bank near to the bridge.  When he saw me, of course, he shot off under the bridge and down the river on to private land.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last time I saw him this year, or at least not until the dawn in the late Autumn, as they tend to keep out of the way when and where people are likely to be around.  Perhaps I should try to locate their nest?  Easier said than done, according to Flora Thompson (writing in the Catholic Fireside). 

“I have never seen a kingfisher’s nest, never even met anyone who had a friend who had a friend who had seen one, so I cannot describe it from first, second, or even third-hand experience.  In former times the nesting of the kingfisher, or the halcyon, as it was called then, was supposed to be one of the romances of nature.  About Christmas time the hen was believed to put out to sea on her nest, as on a raft, and during the time of her incubating such a tranquillizing spell was exercised that the very wind and waters were stilled.

Modern naturalists, following Truth even more assiduously than Beauty, and often finding them one at the end of the pursuit, have tracked the kingfisher to its real home, and given us facts instead of poetry.  They tell us the bird makes its home underground, usually in the banks of the stream which forms its fishing-ground. A neat oval opening leads into a tunnel two or more feet long, and that, in turn, leads into a circular nesting-chamber, where the pure white eggs repose on a bed of disgorged fish-bones.

It is not difficult to account for this secret underground home, for the brilliant colours of the hen brooding on the nest in the open would expose her and her young to all sorts of dangers; but, none the less, it is a striking thought that the flash of gem-like light we call a kingfisher should be bred in darkness.”   

 One way of tracking the nest down, perhaps, is suggested by this passage from “The Little Grey Men” by the Northamptonshire writer, illustrator and sportsman ‘BB’ –

“The gnomes remained silent for they knew Kingfishers’ nests of old, did they not have to hold their noses every time they passed them?  Kingfishers are filfthy birds in their nesting habits, and it was always a source of utmost amazement that such gorgeous and kingly beings could be so dirty.”

 All I have to do is snuffle around the various holes in the river bank until I find one that really pongs of fish!  And then? 

I shall catch him in a net and keep him in a cage and feed him on pilchards …

OH NO YOU WON’T, YOU HORRID MAN! – S. Vere Benson and the British Bird Lovers’ League

No, you’re quite right, I won’t.  I shall try to take a photograph of him, though (which probably won’t turn out like this one) –

Nest Watch : Week Two

I must admit that, last week, I was feeling a little pessimistic about the prospects for our pair of nesting pies.  If Robert the Bruce had sat and watched them instead of the spider I fear he would have concluded that if at first he didn’t succeed it was probably best to call it a day.

I should have had more faith.  By Tuesday the nest had achieved a sort of “critical mass” – enough of a stable base for new twigs to be added without too much danger of them dropping down again.  Of course, the odd twig still tumbles down, but I imagine our pies can laugh this off (“do you remember, only last week … this used to happen all the time?  To think of it now!”)

The happy pair have a new spring in their step (or spring in their spring – they don’t really step) as they approach completion and are probably giving some thought as to what shade of moss they’d like to line the nest.

Almost finished

I hope you appreciate, by the way, that I am putting my liberty on the line to bring you this important news story.  The building in the background is the City of London Police Station, and this is a few yards from where photographer Grant Smith had his collar felt last year – (The Guardian had the story) for taking photographs.

I wouldn’t be too surprised either to find that our magpies – given their reputation for thieving – were being kept under surveillance.  “We have reason to believe your nest is being used to store rings and other valuable shiny items that may be the proceeds of crime. I must ask you to allow me to search the premises and I have a warrant …” 



Come and get me, Copper!


Nest Watch : Week One

So – I hear you ask – how are our magpies getting on with their nest-building project?

Well, they’ve been at it all week (except Monday, which they seemed to have taken off).  They’ve certainly been hard at the work thinning out the old nest –

and carrying the twigs to the site of the new nest at the top of the tree.  Unfortunately most of these twigs then promptly fall down again, pursued by a vexed magpie.  There is a tiny smudge of twigs where the new nest ought to be, and a growing carpet of them at the foot of the tree –

I believe that magpies have a deep rooted instinct to mate for life.  It’s a good job that it is a deep rooted instinct, because I don’t think most relationships could take very much of this nest-building.

Male (as umpteenth twig falls to the ground) – “Well, I still can’t see what was wrong with the old nest …”   

Female – “Well, I read in the paper it’d be full of parasites.  Of course, if you want our chick to grow up in an unsanitary nest …”

M – “When I was a chick our nest was full of parasites and it never did me any harm.  It’s health and safety gone mad if you ask me …” 

F – “I suppose you mean your sisters?”

M – “You leave my sisters out of this and if you could keep your beak shut for five seconds you wouldn’t drop so many twigs …”

F – “Are you going to fetch that twig you just dropped, or are you going to spend all day arguing?”

M – “Why don’t you fetch it yourself, if you’re that bothered?”


That's it - I'm off to the pub!


And so on.  Mind you, I’m sure it’ll be lovely when it’s finished.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Square Mile, this duck – inspired by the atmosphere of cut-throat competition – prepares to make a hostile takeover bid for my sandwiches –

Nest Watch and Postcards to Nesta continued

Some significant new developments in the two big stories of the week on this blog – Nest Watch and Postcards to Nesta.

There have been clear signs of nest-related activity from the pair of magpies.  At first it seemed possible that they were – as it were – preparing the old nest for some new arrivals, but it is now clear that they are, indeed, dismantling the old nest and making a new one higher up in the tree.  They haven’t got very far yet, but I shall continue to monitor the situation and report back.

Hi ho, it's off to work we go!


And I have learnt a little more about Nesta Hughes.  In the 1901 census she was described as being 18 and a “Musical Teacher” (we can picture her already playing the piano at morning assembly and at Sunday School).  A speculative Google then led to me to this message, on the website Genes Reunited –

“I have an old postcard sent to Nesta Hughes of Poplar Grove Sea Forth Liverpool in 1909. I think she may have been there due to ill health.”

So there we have her in 1909, at the age of 26, presumably having been sent to take in some sea air for the sake of her health – perhaps a respiratory complaint? (I’m not sure, incidentally, that, in these circumstances, the choice of card would have had a cheering effect on the patient.  But maybe she would have interpreted it differently.)

In the 1911 census, there is no Nesta Hughes listed who could be ours.  But there is an Amy Nesta Hughes, of exactly the same age, living in Haverfordwest, who did not, I think, appear in the 1901 census.  Let us hope they are one and the same.

Picture Nesta, by the way, sucking on her pencil as she fills in her census returns – as many of us will be doing over the next few days – and wondering “who is ever going to be interested in all this?”