As Britons chuck out peanuts and breadcrumbs for the robins in our back gardens, we often have little knowledge of the life-and-death struggles that these little birds have endured over the course of the year. In Nightingales in November, TV naturalist Mike Dilger takes a dozen British birds and looks at their life cycle over a twelve-month period, with plenty of surprises in store.
Many of us like to think that the blue tits on the bird feeder are our own birds, and that we see the same ones over the course of the winter. Dilger reveals that this is pure fantasy:
Frequently seen in ones or twos, it’s easy to underestimate the number of Blue Tits visiting a popular feeding station … well-visited gardens are capable of pulling in as many as 200 different Blue Tits in a single day
Along with blue tits, Nightingales in November looks at other common birds including the hardy kingfisher (which weirdly nests underground) and the seemingly inexhaustible swallow. One odd candidate for inclusion is the lapwing, aka the green plouver, a particularly boring bird with little to recommend it. The green woodpecker would have been a more logical and iconic candidate to make up ‘Dilger’s Dozen’, but perhaps he has a particular fondness for lapwings?
Dilger certainly has a refreshingly positive view of the British countryside:
When we also factor in the immense array of habitats here – from forests to farmland and estuaries to islands – it is perhaps no surprise that Britain punches well above its weight in biological diversity.
Compare that to George Monbiot’s utterly pessimistic take in Feral, here ranting after a visit to the Glaslyn Nature Reserve in Wales:
Clinging to the steepest slopes were a few young rowan trees. Otherwise the sides of the gorge were torn by erosion gullies. The bare rock and soil looked like the hills of Afghanistan. No crows or choughs winged the midway air; a solitary gull battled down the updraft towards the mild hedged fields of the South Dulas valley.
Personally, I prefer Dilger’s upbeat tone. He does mention the problems caused by light pollution, intensive farming and habitat loss but never to the extent of letting it dominate the narrative. His childlike wonder at the behaviour of our British birds shines through.
However, like the best fairy tales, this book has a villain too: the wicked cuckoo whose deeds are truly diabolical.
Before laying, the female [cuckoo] remains motionless and hidden in a tree, Then … she glides down to the nest [of a reed warbler] and lands on the rim before bowing into the cup; a few seconds later she lifts her head, holding one of the warbler’s eggs in her bill and then moves to sit on the nest. Her abdomen moves as she lays her own egg, then without even a single glance into the nest, she flies off, still carrying the warbler’s egg in her bill. She lands in the bushes 30 metres away, swallows the egg whole and then utters a strange bubbling call as if in triumph’
What their chicks get up to is even worse.
Nightingales in November is a detailed, surprising and enthusiastic look at our feathered friends. It is sometimes a little too detailed at times, especially for people like myself who are not really twitchers, but it is still a very rewarding insight into the birds who live around us.