I have recently hung a bird feeder from the willow at the back of the house. It is a modern looking contraption – rocket shaped, with a clear plastic saucer at the bottom to catch some of what is spilled.
It has been fastened halfway up the tree to make it easy to see from the window. After all, feeding the birds is only ever partly for the birds’ benefit. Much of the pleasure belongs to those who provide the food.
Though strong winds have several times made it unusable over the past few weeks, it has been a popular addition to the garden.
Yesterday, once again, the feeder was hanging empty from the branch. And so, once again, I went out and removed it, unscrewed the top, poured in the dry mixture of seeds and mealworms, returned the feeder to the tree and then returned to the house.
Nothing stirred at first except the hens, who shuffled confidently beneath the tree, kicking about in search of anything I might have dropped. They found little, but knew not to stray too far.
The first to the feeder was the robin, nervously looking about before taking a mealworm in its beak. The bird twitched furtively, as it always does, and stayed only a moment before retreating to the safety of a bush.
Then, at once, came the starlings and the sparrows – a horde of twittering, bickering birds. The sparrows held back on the outer branches but the starlings had no such patience. They barged each other out of the way, fighting to be closest to the action. Beneath a torrent of wings, the feeder swung precariously.
Down below, the hens’ patience was being repaid, and the pair made short work of anything that fell. Two collared doves, then three, landed on the lawn and joined them in the flower bed. And a blackbird, last of all, came to take its place in the shower of seed.
But something spooked them. All activity ceased and the birds were still, as though listening for something. One starling flew, and then all were gone. The sparrows, doves and blackbird too. And the feeder was left unattended.
Five minutes later, the procession was repeated. The brave, nervous robin came first, alone, and left. And then, a flurry of wings and feathers.
This afternoon, sitting writing at the dining room table, I could hear the birds were still about, though not in such numbers. When I lifted my head, I could see only a single starling in the tree.
This one bird remained for much of the day. Every time I looked up, it was there, scraping the last of the food from the plastic tray. I could hear it too, talking loudly to itself in the absence of companions.
And then the noise grew more insistent. In a second, it rose to a fearful squall, three times, four times, then nothing. I stood up and went to the window. On the ground was the sparrowhawk, pacing about in the flower bed beneath the tree, three metres at most from where I stood.
Arriving after the event, it wasn’t exactly clear what had happened. I could no longer see the starling, though there was no doubt it had been hit. The sound alone was confirmation enough, but from this close I could see blood on the talons, and a little puff of downy feathers lying on the soil. Perhaps it had escaped the hawk’s clutches and managed to hide in the undergrowth. That, anyway, was what the hawk seemed to think.
It was wary – too close to the house for its comfort – and it stopped repeatedly in its search for the starling, looking and listening, then rummaging about again in the dead leaves and stalks of the bed. For a moment it disappeared, pushing its way behind the bushes, against the fence, and then it was back, the look of bafflement and frustration almost palpable in that perfect, expressionless face.
The hunt couldn’t go on. It was reluctant to give up the prey, but the starling had disappeared. And so, suddenly, did the sparrowhawk. It lifted and was gone.
All that was left was that little clutch of feathers, and the feeder, once again hanging empty.