Spring has sprung - and these are some of my favourite sounds of the season
It is officially spring - at long last! Against a sombre background of worry and alarm, with war in Europe, storms, floods and the diminished though still lurking concern about the pandemic, nature carries on regardless.
Flowers are bursting out of their buds and the birds are prospecting, pairing up and building nests. As ever, nature provides us with some solace and reliability in an increasingly turbulent world.
It is the sounds as well as the sights of spring that grab my attention. Some favourite natural sounds for me at this time of year come from rookeries, now busy with constant comings and goings as the adult birds fly in and out with small twigs to add to their almost complete nests, calling loudly to their mates and other members of the colony.
Their calls are varied, contrasting with the repeated, monotonous cries of their carrion crow relatives which, unlike rooks, build solitary nests.
The lazy, richer, and more complex calls of rooks contain some high-pitched elements and probably hold more information as the birds communicate with each other in the treetops.
Seen close, rooks can be distinguished from carrion crows by their glossier plumage, the pale skin at the base of the bill, and the shaggy ‘trousers’ on their upper legs.
Rooks forage in fields for seeds and grubs and prefer pastures that are grazed by livestock such as horses, cows, or sheep. This may explain why they have become less common around Cambridge where so much of the countryside is intensively cultivated.
On a recent trip to Devon, we watched flocks of rooks feeding in the meadows alongside sheep with their new-born lambs, then flying off to gather thin twigs from tall trees.
This they did with remarkable strength and persistence, twisting the thin stems until they snapped, and sometimes carrying more than one twig at a time, cleverly gathering the second without dropping the first. Rooks are intelligent birds, and they quickly learn how to solve problems.
Like rooks, seagulls are noisy too, especially herring and lesser black-backed gulls, and both these species now nest increasingly in towns and cities. In Bristol, for example, they were first recorded nesting in the city in 1972, increasing to about 100 pairs in 1980, and now there are over 2,500 pairs.
Herring gulls are in decline in the country with only around 140,000 breeding pairs, but they certainly make their presence felt where they do occur, and indeed can be a nuisance by swooping to take food from unsuspecting tourists in some places.
Flat spaces on tall buildings are favoured nesting sites for these large gulls where their eggs and young are relatively safe from predators. I keep seeing lesser black-backed gulls circling around certain buildings in Cambridge, so maybe they will nest here soon.
The birds in our garden are getting into the mood for breeding too. The blue tits have been courting with their fluttery display flights and I hope they will rear a brood again.
To this end, last year I attached a home-made bird box onto a silver birch, giving them plenty of time to get used to it. This was an earlier pandemic project, constructed from hardboard, cork tiles and wine corks.
Cork is one of my favourite materials and (confession time) I have hoarded wine corks for years, and it was very heartening to have finally found a use for them as well as for the content of the bottles.
The cork sides of the blue tits’ new home provide good insulation and are also waterproof. I left a small entrance hole at the apex which the tits have enlarged to their satisfaction. I shall now watch and wait, willing them to take up residence.
- Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based nature writer and conservationist.
Read more from Martin Walters by visiting his author page