“The most interesting parts, by far, of published natural history are those minute but most graphic particulars, which have been gathered by an attentive watching of individual animals.” Those are the words of Philip Henry Gosse, a Victorian naturalist whose belief I share. I would only broaden his comment and add the word – nature. There are many advantages of being introduced early in life to nature-watching, from development of memory and constructive thinking to retaining a balanced view of the world, so essential to our, as individuals, happiness.
It is surprising how many people go from A to Z without noticing anything in between. A child who is shown the various shades of green in springtime, the varied textures of tree bark , a spider’s web after the rain, the richness of autumn’s shades of rust, what can be found under the stones in the garden, among many other things, is going to be much more observant than a classmate that is nudged all the way to school to walk quicker because they are late. Yet, it is very easy to teach a young child to have an interest in details through a close observation of nature. Take an apple, for instance. There is this exquisite scent of an apple, fresh and sharp, then its colour, shape and the variety of tastes. And that is only the beginning. In fact, if we were to teach a child about an apple, going back as far as pollination of an apple tree by insects, and how pleasant it is to lie in cool grass under one, or even about the Guinness Book record of a blackbird’s speed in devouring an apple, not to mention (for older children), Newton, a falling apple from an apple tree, and the concept of gravity, it would be a valuable lesson that nothing and no-one exists separately.
There is no such thing in nature as “just” a tree, a house, a man, an animal; all seen individually. Only we humans suffer from the condition of “tunnel vision”. Children taught to be alert and observant, and consequently curious, are going to do much better at school because these qualities lend themselves greatly to other subjects. Love and understanding of nature and our environment will provide a lifelong interest.
Apart from an educational benefit , we must not forget the lighter side of living close to nature – the entertainment. Picture this: it is 6.30am and someone is knocking on my door. I jump out of bed to find myself, by now fully awake, face to face with the impatient caller glaring at me through the bedroom windowpane. For a full second we stare at each other in wide-eyed amazement. The bird is hanging by the tips of his toes from the lead strips on the window, his tummy pressed flat into the glass, his wings flapping in a finely balanced act. Realisation is swift – this is my morning roll call to feed the troops, a large number of starlings, and it happens every year during the fledgling season.
There is such great entertainment going on in my wild garden that I thought it could be of interest to other nature lovers. Here is one such tale of the Del Boy rapper of the garden. “Are you ready? Are you ready? Let’s go!” Do you recognize this signature tune? And what a tune it is! When millions of TV viewers tuned in every Saturday in the Nineties for Gladiators, little did they know the boisterous song they were chanting together with the competitors had been adopted from my own team of back garden gladiators – the starlings.
Starlings are the fittest and most resilient of all our garden birds, hence their large numbers. They don’t befriend humans since they regard us as intellectually impaired in the same manner that the Del Boys of this world regard gullible punters. They are sharp, harmlessly aggressive in their big-mouthed display of strength, streetwise, great mimics, and above all, inquisitive. Any challenge to their daily routine is greeted with shouts of delight. Every morning, I have to distribute their breakfast in the most unusual way possible. This is expected of me, and I rise to this demand by festooning the dense bushes, tree boughs, hidden crevices, steps of an old ladder, or wooden trellises with an hot porridge and fat mixture.
The starlings love the the big-hunt game. The food on the main table grows cold while they track down every single hidden speck of porridge everywhere else. This requires a concentrated effort on their part. They have to squeeze into tiny spaces, balance on the lead strips of my windows, hang upside-down while rummaging through the bushes and checking inside my buckets, and much more. All these activities are performed with an infectious enthusiasm, bravado and a real zest for life. They spar with each other for ever bigger mouthfuls, and when successful shout excitedly: “I got it!”, only a second later to drop the over-large morsel and wail in frustration:”I ain’t got it!”
They rap while they work. On seeing me in the morning getting everything ready in the garden, they chant from the rooftops in unison: “Is she ready? Is she ready? She is ready! Let’s go!” Some of my visitors wrinkle up their noses on hearing the starlings chanting their little ditty which is a great shame as no other bird is as entertaining. Their “Red Arrows” routine occurs in springtime when they are feeding their young. The starlings cram in as much food as possible, and it hangs out over both sides of their beaks while they make their way back to the roof in an octal formation. Eyes looking well ahead, feet hanging loose and eight pairs of wings beat the air together, with all birds flying in a perfectly straight line. This sight is as awe-inspiring as you can get.
The real entertainment starts when the fledglings are first brought out to be fed by their parents with the food I provide. They are fed in front of me, on the trees, tables, chairs, and on the ground, and it is an utterly lovely sight. In a day or two, they will be expected by their exhausted parents to eat by themselves, but here the problem for the young birds starts and the entertainment, for me, continues. The youngsters’ earlier experience, namely that to eat you must open your beak as wide as possible, seems well ingrained and so for a day or two they peck with their beaks wide open, just like scissor blades. Of course, the result is nil. Next they try to close the “scissors” while the “blades” are still stuck in the food, again without much success. The expression of total bewilderment on their faces is priceless. At the time, they very much resemble small children – they are eager and curious, they walk, stand or even sit on widely spread legs. They toddle about in little jumpity jumps, and just like young children, they observe and imitate their parents. A couple of chicks often sit alongside their preening parents on the tree branch, their heads turned at the same angle, their beady eyes taking in the whole procedure, before starting the same routine – first the chest and then the armpits. And their bathing routine, copied from their parents, but not quite, is just as hilarious, with the youngsters running in the water container, round and round like a hamster in a wheel, flapping their wings and splashing madly in an infectious display of the joy of life, just like our children do, loving every minute of being beside the seaside. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is entertainment.