The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
A Paradise of Birds

by H. D. Geldart
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 118-121

[Herbert Decimus Geldart, 1831-1902, wrote "Fauna and Flora of Norfolk: Flowering Plants and Ferns" and was a very active member of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalist Society. He married Fanny Railton and they had two grown children.]

My garden is about an acre in extent (including site of house); it slopes down sharply to the valley, and is a dense mass of trees with undergrowth of hollies; it is, in fact, a little bit of primeval forest of scrubby oaks and hollies, which used to clothe the low hills on the north side of the River Yare, and which was kept by the Bishops of Norwich as a hunting ground, and some of the hollies (the oldest trees) may very well have seen as seedlings the building of both castle and cathedral. Although it is within a mile of the centre of a city of 100,000 inhabitants, and close by the railway terminus, which is never quiet all the twenty-four hours, excepting for about three-quarters of an hour between 3 and 4 a.m., and has all the trains, both in and out, passing at a short distance, it is a veritable birds' paradise. No gun is ever fired, and no nests are taken save those of sparrows, and sometimes of blackbirds when the latter prove a nuisance and steal my pears from a kitchen-garden at the side.

On a terrace in front of the house, and about ten feet from the window, stand two pans of water, where on a summer's day are birds bathing, drinking, fighting, flirting, nearly all day long, but specially at certain house--10 a.m., 2 and 5 p.m., see favourite times--and so bold and confident are they that you may sit at the open window, and watch them without their minding.

Fully a score of different birds have been seen to drink at these pans: woodpigeon, missel thrush, song thrush, blackbird, flycatcher, robin, redstart, nightingale, blackcap, bullfinch, hawfinch, chaffinch, greenfinch, sparrow, hedge sparrow, great tit, blue tit, march tit, cole tit, chiff-chaff, Jenny Wren.

Besides these, many others come and rest in the trees, rooks come for acorns, starlings come and chatter, swear and whistle, imitating every sound they hear. In the winter, nuthatches sometimes come for nuts which are put out for them, and redwings for the holly-berries. I have counted over forty in one tree; these latter birds, too, never sleep; go out at any hour of the night and you will find them stirring in the hollies over your head and calling gently to each other. I have once or twice seen little flocks of Bohemian waxwings perching for a short time, and then moving on. In spring come wrynecks, and sometimes a tree-creeper. On a summer's evening, as the twilight draws on, I have heard goatsuckers "burring" on a heath about a mile behind. Cuckoos are often heard, and in years gone by the owls used to hoot in the woods across the valley--these, alas! have all been killed. Swifts come up from the town and hawk for insects, shrieking; and as the sun goes down herons cross us flying home from the "Broads" to the herony, about three miles beyond the town. We have no swallows, nor any wagtails.

Every year one, and sometimes two pairs of woodpigeons build in the taller trees, and we see their young ones--look out early (4 o'clock), and on the terrace you may see a pair of hawfinches with their chicks, the old ones bullying the blackbirds, and driving them away with thrusts of their enormous beaks. Bullfinches build close at hand; a flycatcher has brought off her brood within a foot of the dining-room window. Chaffinches and greenfinches nest in hollies, and every year there are about a dozen nests of missel and song thrushes and blackbirds; nightingales have sometimes built. Robins are in the banks every year, and we are rarely without at least one Jenny Wren and family. For the tits and redstarts, we put boxes--inside measurement, 7 inches long by 5 inches broad, and 5 inches high at the back; the lid, which turns up on two pins, overhanging the front, and sloping forward to throw off the rain; with a hole bored in the right-hand top corner of the front about 1 1/4 inch diameter for the small tits, and 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inch for the great tits and redstarts, for a little bird will not build in a box with a hole much larger than so that it can just get in. The great tits are very shy, and are off the nest before you can get within a yard of it. Redstarts are not quite so shy, but as for the small tits, blue, marsh and cole, you may raise the lid and stroke their backs while they sit on their eggs, and when my daughter was young she would often amuse herself with "taking Mrs. Tommy for a walk." Lifting the blue tit gently off its nest, she would carry it about in her hand for five or ten minutes, and put it back again without the bird struggling or objecting in any way farther than a little sharp hiss when it was put on the eggs again. The great secret of lifting the lid without frightening the bird lies in never for an instant putting your hand over the hole; if you do the bird thinks it is trapped, leaves the eggs, and tries to escape. The boxes are nailed to a tree-trunk or a wall--last best; but they must be so far below the top of the wall that it is not possible for a cat to sit on the wall and catch the bird as it flies in or out. I have known a cat jump from the top of a wall, and alighting on a box with all its weight tear out the nail, and bring box, bird, young ones, and all to grief. The boxes should be made of half-inch stuff (old packing-case does well), and if painted, should be done the summer before they are to be used; if any smell of paint remains, the birds will not go near them.

None of the birds do me any harm, excepting sparrows, blackbirds, and bullfinches. Sparrows pull my flowers to pieces; steal everything they can, fruit, peas, buds from the gooseberry bushes, and worst of all, spoil pears. Blackbirds, too, are very keen on pears. Sitting on a branch, they pick a small hole at the base of the stalk; they will do this to a dozen pears instead of eating up one; the flies and wasps follow them, and in a day all those pears are rotten. Bullfinches bite out the little sweet piece at the base of the apple blossom that would form the future apple. I have watched a bullfinch and his mate and seen them completely clear an apple-tree in a day or two. On the other hand, the tits do a great deal of good; they pick about the buds, but never touch a sound one; it a tit is seen pulling a bud to pieces, be sure that there is a grub in it--he is doing good, not harm. I feed the tits in winter. Cut off a little piece from each end of a small cocoa-nut, pass a string through and hang it up in a tree. The tits will begin at each end, and eat till they meet in the middle; very often two, one at each end, will be at work at the same time.

The birds repay one well for the care taken of them by the pleasure they give both by their pretty ways and their songs. I have from my hall-door heard five nightingales singing at once, and very often a thrush will come at the same twig of the same bush every evening for weeks and there sit singing while we walk about underneath and close at hand. Sometimes we get too much of this--it is hardly pleasant at 2:45 a.m. to be woke by a bird singing within twenty yards of one's bed. "hi-jiddy-jiddy-gee. Did he know it? Did he, did he know it? &c. This provokes retaliation--out of bed, find a missile, lump of coal does well, open window: "There, you brute! now you know it. Let me go to sleep again."

Besides the birds, my garden yields a few animals, all of which are preserved, except the rats--war to the knife with them! They steal the fowls' food and kill the chickens sometimes. When the river floods the meadows they come up the hill, and they come down from my neighbour's farm some way behind in swarms. The pretty little long-tailed field-mice do a little damage among bulbs, and steal the fresh-sown peas if you do not "paraffine" them; but they are so pretty I cannot find it in my heart to kill them, and they flourish. There are generally at least two bats who hibernate behind the rain-water pipes. One came out and had a little flutter about a week ago, and then went to bed again; they are never hurt. Squirrels come sometimes in winter and early spring. I have seen three at once, but they never stay with us. Every now and then a hedgehog is found among the heaps of leaves: he is brought up to be looked at, and then returned. One has been here this winter, and has been dug up a time or two for the benefit of admiring children.

Slow-worms, I fear, are extinct. Say what one will, the labourers will kill them. "There was one at a railway once, and it bit a man, and has hand swelled up as big as your head, sir, and he died," said an old gardener to me, when he found one and chopped it up with his spade, and no demonstration that it could not have been done so by any possibility would persuade him. "I know ter was so." "Well, did you see it bite the man?" "No, but I heared on it, and I know ter was so, and he died, sir."

We have always in summer a toad or two with whom we are well acquainted, but I have never found them at all tameable; they tolerate your presence and wink at you with preternatural solemnity, but we never get any further.

These hanging woods are inhabited by a race of prodigious spiders--"Tegenariae." [funnel weavers; this is likely referring to the giant house spider, which was re-categorized as Eratigena atrica in 2013] A tale was started that they were tarantulae, and were introduced by the Romans, and this was published in a would-be scientific work, but it is all nonsense. They come into houses in the autumn, and are so large and so hairy that I have known them several times to have been mistaken for mice when running across a floor or up bed-curtains in an uncertain light.

Proofread by LNL, July, 2023