Sorrow, Joy and the combat pigeons – tales from my sparrow farm

I’ve taken some time over the years to turn my garden from a chaotic mess to a planned mess. I don’t like gardening, so I wanted a low maintenance space where wildlife could find a refuge but that I could enjoy and move through without risking attack from wild animals. When I started, I didn’t know what was living in there and risked serious injury every time I ventured beyond the patio. Little by little (as I said, I don’t like gardening), I tamed the flora and catalogued the fauna. It took 5 years to manage a large patch of brambles and unidentified bushes and I discovered a small pond beneath the undergrowth. I removed old ornamental bushes, spent a few years growing apples before the apple tree stopped working and generally managed the garden back to something I’m happy with. It took 10 years altogether.

An important part of the plan was to create a space that insects and birds could thrive in. I also wanted to grow vegetables and continue to harvest the blackberries that appear every year. It’s only in the last couple of years that the plans have started to bear fruit (yes, pun intended).

And so to this year. After Rufus passed away, I decided to encourage the fox back into the garden and if you’ve followed my social media posts you’ll have seen that it was successful. I used to see her often when Rufus and I went walking around the houses in the evenings and before he lived with me she was an occasional visitor as a young vixen. But this year it was obvious that she was suckling young and I was rewarded when she started bringing her cub with her. It was playful and inquisitive and while she ate from the bowl, it would wander about looking into the bushes and under the spud plants. She would feed it from her mouth and it would have a snuffle around the bowl before they both disappeared again on their way to their next meal.

A couple of weeks ago I was attracted to the garden by the sound of several crows squawking and making a fuss in the sycamore tree. It was clear they weren’t happy and my immediate thought was that the fox cub was somewhere at the top of the garden. I chased the birds away and in doing so, disturbed the cub who darted into the garden and under some bushes. Not wanting to scare it, I headed back to the house but the cub almost immediately darted back to it’s hiding place in the rubbish at the top of the garden, where I let it be. The crows didn’t return and I avoided any unnecessary disturbance. The cub accompanied it’s mother that evening and I was happy.

Sparrows have come to see my garden as a sanctuary. I feed them ( I have to – if I’m a few minutes late filling the feeders they start to make a racket and flit about in the bushes to express their annoyance) and they’ve taken over an old bucket under a bush as their watering hole. Earlier this year, there was the faint sound of romantic bird song and I caught the occasional glimpse of candle lights near the feeders as the boys wooed the girls and not long after I was rewarded with a flock of little sparrows, all making a noise as they tried to fly between branches. You could see they were just learning to fly as their clumsy attempts to land gracefully on branch, bucket and feeder were comical. But over the next few days, they got better at it. For some reason, their gathering place was under the green canopy of my potato plants and I would often see a writhing mass of sparrows dusting themselves in the shade. Trying to count them was nearly impossible and the best I came up with was losing count at 20. I would guess there are between 20 and 25 sparrows regularly visiting the garden.

All those sparrows aren’t good for the spuds. I’ve had to re-cover them several times as their dusting and other antics have exposed the potatoes themselves. There are rows of little indentations in the soil where individual birds have dug themselves baths. I’ve watched them follow each other around like a gang of teenagers, one or two finding a perch and all the rest coming to joint them. Branches sag and birds fall off. There are often scuffles at the water bucket as they all vie for a place on the rim. And while they all fly off into the higher branches when I go out in the garden, they don’t go far in case I’m filling up the feeders. Recently, I have heard the romantic songs and spotted the little candles again so I suspect there will be additions of the flock before long.

Inevitably, where there are feeders there is grain that had fallen from the mesh to the ground. The pigeons prefer this grain and will wait for the sparrows to dislodge it as the youngsters crash into the feeder in their attempt to emulate the older, more skillful birds. I have also noticed that when the sparrows aren’t around to dislodge the seed, the pigeons will jump on the feeder to do it themselves. The pigeons (and a couple of doves) chase each other around the garden on foot, waddling along the lawn to make sure that everyone knows who the boss is. Of course, there is a different boss every day. One pigeon, not having any interest in all the fuss, just settles down in a little dip to sunbathe. But the real pigeon combat takes place out of sight in the sycamore tree. They go up there to loudly settle disputes and I wouldn’t be surprised if a little betting goes on as well. The pigeons love drinking from the water bowl I have set up on the patio wall. They dip their beaks and necks in the water and once one comes over to drink, they all follow. I watched five gather around the bowl the other day. There wasn’t room for all of them, mainly because one had decided to stand in the water.

Also inevitably, where there is grain there are small mammals. I’ve seen brown rats climbing the bushes where the feeders used to be sited, balancing out along the branches and reaching out to grab the feeder. I once surprised two who were dining on bird food and in their desperation to get away, they were climbing over each other. Recently, with the fox a regular visitor, I haven’t seen any rats. I did see a small bank vole though – I know because I’ve recently completed a mammal ID course for the National Trust.

I have two regular magpie visitors. I dislike magpies in general and refuse to give them the courtesy of saying the rhyme (“One for sorrow, two for joy etc”) as they used to torment my blind and deaf old stray cat (now long gone). But these two are little characters and have been named for the rhyme. This morning, they were both drinking from a bowl of water I’d set up for the purpose, and then they decided to explore the mostly dry pond. All I could see was the occasional head popping up to see what was going on.

I have a pair of blackbirds that have been regulars in the garden for years. They were here earlier in the year, gathering nesting material from the pond and taking advantage of the sheep’s wool I’d put out for the purpose. But the nest was elsewhere. They’re back again and today they have been gathering more nesting material, and feeding on the dried worms I put down in their favourite quiet spot.

I have seagulls – they steal the food that I put down for the fox. And today, I had a special visitor. I was sat in the garden reading and watching the antics of the sparrows, pigeons and blackbirds when I started to notice everything going quiet. The normally vocal sparrows were disappearing deep into the bushes. The pigeon fighting in the tree stopped. The blackbirds flew off and the magpies followed them. There was no activity in the garden. I noticed a few seagulls wheeling about high up and then a red kite flew low over the garden. It was at the same height as the tree and had taken an interest in my garden for some reason. I managed to grab the camera (it’s always to hand) and went out to get some photos. I expected the kite to fly off or at least climb higher but it continued to wheel and float about 30 feet above me. The gulls weren’t happy but weren’t interfering like they normally do. I had a full five minute flying display as the kite flew off and came back again. It was such a beautiful sight and I felt privileged to see this magnificent wild bird hunting. Ironically, I’d been at the bird of prey centre at the Botanical Gardens on Friday, watching kites on display.

Also in my garden, the visitor can see butterflies (my next project is to try and attract more) bees, wasps, plenty of flies, spiders and in recent years (although not this year) a frog. In the fading autumn evening light, bats can be seen flying over the garden. In the past I’ve had a hedgehog or two. a squirrel, robins, blue tits and starlings. It’s a lovely place to spend an hour or so just sitting and watching (and listening to) the world go by.

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Kitchenwatch 3 – the canine perspective.

Dave’s finally lost his marble (there was only ever one in that big head of his). I was having a post breakfast doze on Wednesday when all of a sudden there were some people in the house. I barked a bit for appearances sake and went back to lie down, as Dave seemed to have it all under control. Next thing I know, there was a lot of odd noises coming from the kitchen area. I had wondered why a lot of my food was in the living room – I guess it was luck he’d moved it there before they came.

Anyway, I took Dave out for a walk and when we got back, the people had moved bits of the kitchen out into the drive. Including the cupboard where my food is kept! Dave didn’t seem too surprised and that’s when I began to suspect a conspiracy. Sure enough, for the rest of the morning Dave was quite relaxed while the people cleared the kitchen of everything. Even the fridge, that sanctuary of ham. Gone! He knew what was happening and hadn’t told me.

I had an appointment at the hair stylist in the afternoon and when Dave picked me up afterwards, we went straight off to the river where we had a splash about and then a picnic on the river bank. It was most enjoyable but I knew he was only trying to make up for the disturbances of the morning. Sure enough, when we got back to the house, the people were gone and so was the kitchen. It was just an empty space.

Thursday was more of the same. The people returned and this time they dug the floor up and dug holes in the walls. We went walking in the hills but it was all still going on when we got back. By Friday I was tired from all the walking and having to keep an eye on the people and on Dave in case he did something equally silly with the living room. But fortunately we had a lie-in and the people didn’t show up until the afternoon, after we’d strolled around Fairwood Common. After they’d gone, Dave pointed at the ceiling and went on about ‘fresh plaster’ and ‘looking good’. It was pink, and I don’t do pink. I wasn’t impressed and instead I used mind control to get him to give me more than my usual portion of ham.

This morning, I was up ready to take on the people and find out when the kitchen was going back in. But they didn’t show up and instead Dave disappeared off mumbling something about new tyres. It’s a rubber thing, apparently. Not my scene but I don’t judge. It turns out we have the whole weekend free of the people before they come back to make more noise next week.

I indulge Dave some of his bizarre whims despite not really understanding them and I’ll give this one time. But it better be good!

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Weekend

Both of us have been feeling under the weather this weekend. Rufus woke up on Saturday with a bad belly – I knew there was something wrong when he wouldn’t have any breakfast. Not even a morsel of scone. I felt as if I was coming down with a cold – sore through, headache and a bit of a dodgy tummy too. Being blokes, these were no ordinary, mild illnesses and so we decided to have a poorly lads day in.

All morning, Rufus’ belly rumbled and squeaked and he struggled to find somewhere comfy to settle. Eventually, my bed seemed his favourite spot, so apart from occasionally checking on him, I left him be. I spent the morning channel hooping and doing some housekeeping on the PC.

After lunch, Rufus had picked up a bit – the test is always will he eat a piece of chicken. He did, and after he’d eaten some dog biscuits as well, I decided we should go out for a breath of fresh air. We headed out for a quick wander on Fairwood Common. Neither of us was feeling particularly energetic but we had half an hour of fresh air, during which time we watched two lots of parachutists drop from the sky, whooping and screaming. I was surprised at how quickly they descended once the parachutes were open.

Back in the house, the inevitable consequence of a bad belly started. There’s no delicate way to say that Rufus started farting and didn’t stop all night. By now he was eating  properly but this didn;t help. By the end of the night, I had to be careful not to accidentally create a spark or the whole house would have gone up in a flash of flame and smoke.

This morning, we were both feeling a lot better so after breakfast, we set off for a walk on Cefn Bryn. It was a lovely morning and everywhere I thought of going, there were sheep, horses of cattle. In many of our usual spots, there were combinations of animals. So we ended up walking out to Arthur’s Stone. The view across the Loughor Estuary was fantastic and still air meant that the sound of the countryside – dogs barking, sheep and cattle and birds – were clear and sharp.

About half way around our routes, I crested a little hill to see a herd of wild horses galloping towards us. They were far enough away to allow us time to get out of the way, but for a few minutes there was some urgency to our walk. It turned out they were being scared by a quad bike that was coming up behind them. At first, I thought it was someone deliberately herding them, but the quad bike turned off after a while and left the horses alone. By now, they were following us although without the influence of the bike, they were no longer galloping. Nevertheless, for the last 20 minutes of our walk, they followed us at our pace, some 50 yards or so behind us.

In the tradition of lads sticking together, it would be wrong of me to mention that one of us tried to steal a bar of chocolate from another one of us, unsuccessfully.

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Contract, renegotiated

I have decided to adopt Dave.

I have not taken this decision lightly, and I have done so in consultation with and with the blessing of my previous owner. After several chats with her recently, it is clear that Dave needs someone to look after him and keep him on the straight and narrow, as it were. I feel I am best suited to do this and so I will be moving in permanently.

As a result, the contract that was in place, and which I told you about here has been renegotiated. I say negotiated, I mean it has been changed by me. After all, I know best in these matters and Dave would only get confused and wander around in circles. He’s getting on a bit, you see.

Rules concerning the bed, sofa and food remain the same, i.e. they are mine. But now I have had to add a clause about the bed that Dave uses. It’s a bit big for him on his own, so I will also take ownership of it, with the understanding that for the time being he can use it whenever he wants. (I find that when there is thunder and lightning around, he gets a little nervous, so I join him on the bed to settle him).

I’ve noticed Dave has put on a few pounds recently and so I have introduced a clause in the contract that states that he must exercise, under my supervision, at least five times a week. It’s for his own good. Poor weather is not an excuse, although to hear him moan and groan you’d thing the rain was going to melt him. I have a number of excellent routes for him to train on and it is only coincidence that they allow me to explore my world and leave my mark on lamp posts, trees, bins, walls, bushes… ahem.

The standard of food must improve. I like a variety of meals and have recently enjoyed Mediterranean Chicken and Italian beef stew. I see no reason why this standard of cuisine should cease.

For the time being, that is it but the contract is quite fluid and over the coming weeks I expect to put a few more clauses in, for his own good of course.

Rufus

Rufus and Me

Me and Dave on Cefn Bryn

 

 

 

 

Staying with Dave

By Rufus

 

I’m staying with Dave. It’s not ideal – he has some odd habits, like going out at 7am and not coming back until 4.30pm. But it’s ok and I think I’m teaching him how to do things properly. Like going out in the garden. It’s an important task. I have to make sure that the garden is free from intruders, and I can only do that by frequent and random visits. I know best where this is concerned, despite what Dave thinks. And if I think I need to patrol at 5am, it’s for a good reason.

Where food is concerned, he seems to be under the impression that what is his, remains his. How naive is that? I let him have a lot of leeway on that matter, but I make sure that I give him one of my ‘everything you do is by my consent’ stares while he is eating. It works every time.

He has learned that the back bedroom is mine and he is only allowed to keep things in there because I am kind and generous. The bed, of course, is out of bounds and I have arranged the pillows in just the right way. They are perfectly set out for comfort.

He likes to play with the large bone chew. His favourite game is to chase me around the house trying to get it. I give him chances to take it from me but he never does. He particularly likes it when I growl – for some reason it makes him smile.

I had to help him out last week. He was trying to tear pieces of paper up and when I went to see what he was up to, he said something about shredding for security purposes. I don’t know why he didn’t think to ask me but I grabbed a piece of paper and showed him exactly how to shred. Once he saw how good I was at it, he let me have loads of paper to work on and I was much quicker than him.

He took me to have a haircut last week. To be fair, I was beginning to look like a hippy and some of the cats were calling me an Afghan Hound. But I’m looking much better now.

But all this looking after Dave I do is quite tiring and I do like to have a snooze now and again. One good thing about Dave’s house is that it has plenty of places where I can bask in the sun.

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Contract

An agreement in law between Me (Rufus) and you (Dave), setting out the terms and conditions by which you must abide when playing host to Me.

Rufus on his bed

1. A bed must be provided, with clean bedding. I am not required to use it, but it must be available at all times.

Rufus in the garden

2. Access to the garden must be provided on call, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week. Weather conditions will not prevent access. Interruption of a good film is not a sufficient excuse to prevent access. Neither is reading a good book, enjoying a cup of coffee or using the computer. Being asleep may, depending on the hour, be used to delay the garden visit, but in any case by no more than 30 minutes.

Rufus looking at me

3. Food must be provided on tap. Your food is my food but my food is most definitely not your food.

4. If I am lying on your lap, you may not disturb me. You do not need to get up. There are no circumstances that require you to disturb me except for paragraph 2, above.

Rufus in the shower

5. I do not at any time require a shower. If I smell like a farmyard, it is because I want to smell like a farmyard.

Rufus on the sofa

Rufus and me on the sofa

6. The sofa is mine. You may have paid for it, but it is mine. I allow you to use it at my discretion. You do not need more that 30cm width and any more is a luxury.

Italy IV – Our Retirement Home

We both wanted to see Tuscany. The photos in brochures and guidebooks were stunning and so attractive. We’d had a taster yesterday, driving through the countryside our our way to Chianciano but today the schedule said we would be visiting a small Tuscan hilltop town, San Gimignano.Our route took us through the country roads, avoiding the autostrada which would have ruined the atmosphere. Instead, we drove over hills, passing rows of arrow straight vines. We passed through Montepulciano, a classic hilltop town and our rep told us that the best red wine from the area was called Vino Noble (we were later to have a bottle and it was indeed delicious).

Eventually we pulled into the car park of San Gimignano, a small town set on a 334m high hill overlooking the Else valley. It sits on an old pilgrim route, which assured it’s prosperity. San Gimignano was famous for having a large number of tall towers within it’s walls. They were built as status symbols by wealth residents and while in other towns and cities, the towers have been destroyed by war, here fourteen still survive.

Incongruously, we were in the car park of a supermarket and it was full of people doing the weekly shop! But we soon walked away from that and once we’d entered the town walls, we were in a different world. The single street, more like a narrow lane, was bounded by 3 or 4 storey shops and dwellings. We were fortunate that there were few people there and it made the place more atmospheric. Early on, we visited the museum of torture, a bizarre place to find in such a tranquil setting. But it was fascinating in a morbid kind of way. This is not the place for detail, but it made us think about what people will do to other people in the name of religion, for most of the exhibits on show were related to punishing witchcraft, heresy and paganism.

We walked slowly to the top of the hill, where two markets were taking place. Just before we reached the markets, we found the church. It was large for the size of town and clearly dominated both life and skyline. Expecting touristy wares to be on offer in the markets, we were pleasantly surprised to finds that the top most one was the local produce market, selling fresh fruit and vegetables to the locals. We managed to locate a narrow back alley which, after a few yards walk, opened out to provide a stunning view of the surrounding countryside. The undulating hills were green with cypress trees and the patterns of rows of grape vines. Small fields bounded by hedges filled in the gaps. There were no livestock visible.

We slowly made our way back down again, for we had only two hours here before we headed off to Siena, a larger city nearby. For me, San Gimignano was one of the highlights of the tour so far (and turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip). I could see myself coming back here and it would be a pleasant place to spend a retirement.

Siena was almost a complete opposite and we talked afterwards about how we should have had more time in San Gimignano. I think we visited Siena at a time during the trip that we could have done with a rest day. The mid afternoon heat was stronger here than anywhere else we’d been, and we spent the first 45 minutes sat in a sheltered cafe with a welcome breeze blowing, sampling the local fare. The Piazza del Campo, (the town square) square was bordered on three sides by art galleries and tall blocks of dwellings and cafes. The fourth side was dominated by the Palazzo Pubblica (the town hall) and the Torre del Manga (tower of the eater, named after a local dignitary famed for spending all his money on food).

Unusually for the places we’d seen so far, the Cathedral (Santa Maria Assunta) was located away from the centre of the town, almost in a back street. We found it when we were looking for a place to eat our ice cream in some shelter from the sun.

I’m sure Siena has its charms and secret places but I think on the day we visited we were beginning to suffer from some overload of the senses. Siena didn’t do it for me and that’s probably partly my fault. But to some extent it was because we were comparing it unfavourably to San Gimingano, which matched our ‘ideal’ image of Tuscany.

We arrived back in Chinaciano for a welcome rest before a 5 course meal which was, once again, delicious. As was the bottle of Vino Noble we had with it.

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