Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Two weddings and a funeral

If birds have Michelin guides, Grillou must have at least a two star listing (mérite le détour). We find ourselves sharing our daily lives here with our birds in a way that even we, as seasoned nature-watchers, didn't expect.

The jardin d'hiver, which is destined to become part of our guest accommodation, is home to just about the most persistant wren I've ever met. When we moved in last year, she'd clearly had a nest in there, and still liked to come in most days just for the hell of it, seemingly undeterred by our presence - in fact she soon took to exploring the rest of the house as well, always finding her own way out through - well, actually I don't know what. With major work in the pipeline though, we decided we should remove last year's nest in the hope that she might take the hint (but oh - how ridiculously guilty we both felt!). Now I don't know whether you've ever watched wrens getting it together, but it's better than the Archers. The male's aim is to have as many nests, and therefore as many mates, as possible; at the start of spring he circles his territory, building basic nests - just domed shaped cups of moss and leaves - anywhere he can. When a female enters his territory, he sings to her manically, gradually moving towards one of his nests; still singing, he hops around outside it and finally goes in. She follows, looks around, and says yes or no. If it's a yes, she finishes and lines the nest. If it's a no, she simply flies away.

One Sunday a few weeks ago, we watched in fascination as Verdi, our male wren, was desperately trying to persuade our resident female into a nest that he'd built inside the old porcherie. We of course were all in favour of this particular move and were doing our best to egg her on into accepting it. She went in, she went out, she went in again. She feigned indifference, until he flew off for a few minutes (although actually we could see him hiding behind the walnut tree, watching). Then she went in again, on her own. Yes!, we thought. Back he came, clearly thinking it was in the bag, and sang again. She came out and looked at him. "What, you want me to live in there?" she said. And flew away.

Since then, she's rejected a few of his offerings, including this one, which I'd thought would have been rather desirable:

Clearly there was only one place that she wanted to be, and he must have known it because within a few days he was building away in the jardin d'hiver. We made a couple of vain attempts to deter him by removing his half built structures, but after a while we just didn't have the heart to keep doing it. So he built, he sang, he conquered. And the building work will just have to wait.

In late winter we'd noticed a rather impressive-looking pair of birds in the plum trees outside the kitchen window, eating the buds. We identified them as bullfinches, a species on the red list in the UK and noted for their shyness and secrecy. At first we thought they were just passing through, but gradually we started seeing them more often, sometimes in the big ash tree at the back of the house, and always together.

Then early one morning a month or so ago, I found the female dead on the terrace. I've no idea what happened to her - she hadn't been attacked as far as I could see, and as her neck wasn't broken it's unlikely that she'd flown into the window (a number of birds have, and we now have an emergency first aid kit to hand to help shocked casualties!). We were both very quiet that day.
We thought that that was the end of that, but within a week the male was back ... with another female. And they seemed to be spending more and more time in and around the garden. It soon became apparent that she was nest-building. Not, as you'd expect, somewhere well away from prying eyes - heaven knows, there are enough options in the woodland around here - but in the rose bush right on a part of our terrace. You can see it in this picture, just to the left of the large blue shutter:

We've spent a lot of time watching them over the last couple of weeks and enjoying the soap opera. The pair are inseparable; it's the female that was the nest builder this time, but the male followed her everywhere. He didn't actually do anything mind - she rushed around collecting bits of twig and lichen and building the nest, while he sat on a branch nearby dancing from side to side and chirping quietly. Occasionally when he considered it too risky for her to go into the nest his dancing got more and more frantic until she gave in and flew off with him until it was safer. Where she went, he went. She started sitting on Sunday, and for two days he simply didn't know what to do with himself: he'd turn up every half an hour, calling her out of the nest to feed or just to reassure him that she was still there. He still turns up several times a day; they go off together for a few minutes, then he sees her home, sitting on a branch of the ash looking concerned until she calls from the nest to say that she's safe. It's rather sweet, really (though it would drive me insane, personally, and I'd probably have committed violence by now).

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