Sharing territories – learning from the birds

I have become a keen observer of the bird behaviour that I witness in my garden. And I realise that because I own my garden, it is therefore my territory. 

The birds have a different perspective, literally, because they arrive and leave from the sky, not a door. They visit the garden – not me. All because I have been putting food out for them regularly. So they now see it as a good territory to visit, in their own tribes. 

Some breeds work as a collective, such as the very vocal gangs of starlings that arrive and try to take over the space. They shout and yell to make their presence known and line up together, discussing when to make their noisy dive in the confining area of my garden steps that rise from my back door. The sound of them ruffling their feathers is quite ominous. They forage aggressively, they chatter and gossip within their social group, but scare off any others that dare to eat their mealworms. Presumably they only have empathy within their breed and see all others as attackers.

The adults are shiny, colourful and beautiful. The youngsters soft grey brown, leggy and curious.,

The only birds I have seen them ignore are pairs of sparrows, usually one of which is a fledgling. Maybe they are ok with other birds that are smaller than them physically, that aren’t a threat. They are terrified of me, the moment one spots me, they all take to the skies en masse, flying as a group. Sometimes they depart completely, other times they fly up to a safe space and watch, waiting for me to leave the garden. They fidget about, cawing and grumbling in neat lines. As soon as the door is closed they go down again. 

The blackbird families are so different. The males are often bombastic and very territorial. The larger one always chases off the smaller. The weaker. But all blackbirds would rapidly head for the exit when the noisy starlings arrived. 

Blackbirds sing, starlings squawk.

The blackbirds and I have developed ways of communicating. It began last year with a female bird, who later brought her fledglings for feeding. She and I developed a calling engagement process. She shouted when she arrived, I mirrored her calls. She was not phased by me at all. She called, I came and nurtured her. And watching her life unravel gave me much joy. I filmed her, she came into the house if she ran out of food and needed more. 

Before the little ones left the nest she came often, packing her beak with mealworms to take back to her young. The males later help to feed the hungry toddlers, taking an active part in raising them. Beaks wide open demanding to be fed,  the fledglings tend to rule the roost, so to speak.

As I consider these bird dynamics I see my garden as a microcosm of a street, a village, a city. Where humans are the dominant species. I can control the personal dynamics between me and the birds in my garden. I would never attempt to control anyone else’s garden. 

The streets, parks and footpaths in my village belong to everyone, and everyone is different. Like the birds, some people attack others, mostly vocally. Some form distinct groups and try to scare the others away. But ultimately the village belongs to the community. It IS the community. Just as the blackbirds take off to avoid confrontation, others behave like the starlings. At the end of the day, they are all negotiating their presence in the world. 

In my garden, I can mediate the level of bullying the blackbirds are subjected to by the starlings. I can stand at the back door and verbally reassure the blackbirds they can eat, while my presence is known to the starlings. The sparrows are ok if I am there too. 

I clearly upset the starlings, they are wary of me. But I have noticed some of the young starlings are less scared and will come alone. Maybe, naively, these pale young things have not yet learned to hang with the pack? 

I only put out mealworms, whilst other bird feeding humans offer a wide range of seeds and fat balls. Some cafes serve one thing, others have a different offer. Same for books, films, pubs, clubs.  I love diversity, it makes life rich and textured. This Jubilee week it is great to see people coming out of their houses and celebrating together. The Newnham Arts Fayre has done the same. Some of us enjoy one thing, others another. This should not create divides, there is room for everyone to follow their interests. 

Society is mixed and varied, as are birds. But we are all in this together regardless of personal preferences

Learning from the birds

Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

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