Or, Close Encounters of the Bird Kind
It’s sadly apt, but hopefully not prophetic, that an article about the decline of UK bird species is on the Natural History Museum’s website. “48% of species have shown a decrease in just five years” (2015-20). The data comes from the government, recently updated on 13th April 2023. In response to this, and to support Garden Wildlife Week, I’ve decided to focus this article on garden birds.
The Big Garden Birdwatch, the RSPB’s annual survey, has been conducted since 1979. During which, 60% of house sparrows have been lost from our gardens. But not just sparrows, “we’ve lost 38 million birds from our skies in the last 50 years” (RSPB). Changes in agriculture are thought to have been the largest cause; the loss of habitats and the use of pesticides which kill all those tasty insects.
Our gardens and green spaces are vital to the health of birds and wildlife. Today, as I write, is 1st May. I just phoned my dad to convince him to participate in No Mow May and Garden Wildlife Week at the beginning of June. After some persuasion, using lots of techniques from the writing curriculum, we compromised on a part cut, part wild look. My parents love looking after the birds in their small/manageable garden and have lots of regular visitors. This is the suburbs in an area which has seen a lot of recent development. Anyway, I’m hoping this little experiment will have a noticeable difference. Read on to find out the results. In the meantime, here are some books featuring garden birds.
If you want to help and encourage birds to your gardens, balconies, green spaces, or schools, you need to know how. Different birds have different habits but have the same basic needs. The Children’s Book of Birdwatching by Dan Rouse (DK) goes into wonderful detail about these needs. Sections on food, nests, plants, and water will give you some great insights. For example, I’ve been clearing some relentless ivy in my garden. And although I will keep it under control, I’ve learnt it attracts insects. I’ve also learnt that the host (the collective noun) of sparrows in my hedge isn’t unusual, and they all love hedges. Mine wasn’t going anywhere, but I will now be encouraging it to fill-out in other places.
Now I’ve thought about it, all books should come with stickers. Tell me Bleak House wouldn’t be less bleak with a courtroom scene where you can decorate the barristers. Until Penguin Classics pull their finger out, Nosy Crow and The National Trust have Robins, Wrens and Other Birds. It contains eleven double-spread scenes of British habitats, including In The Garden, Baby Birds, and Feeding The Birds. These three scenes are the most relevant to this article, and although most people aren’t lucky enough to have a garden that looks like the one shown, birds don’t care as long as you’re fulfilling one of their needs. I also love checklists… I really hope someone from Penguin Classics is reading this.
Another book for EY and KS1, perfect for encouraging observation, identification and patience, is My First Book of Birds. This book is by Walker, illustrated by Zoë Ingram and contains 23 birds that can be found in gardens. Not every garden, but all bases have been covered. Set out like a manual, each double page has a large accurate illustration and a table of information on diet, size and habitat. There’s a short description and an illustration of what the eggs look like too. The illustrations highlight the patterns and colours, making you appreciate how beautiful and unique they are. They will definitely inspire children to draw their own accurate illustrations. When I was about 8, I made a similar fact book on butterflies.
Books like these follow the traditions of ornithological artists and natural historians who would make observations long before cameras and even after. The artist’s ’lens’ can capture these details and moments just as well, if not better. Going where a camera can’t and drawing scenes that a photographer wasn’t quick enough to snap. I’ve always favoured photographs in nonfiction, but I am beginning to turn in more circumstances for exactly these reasons.
Books like Nesting by Henry Cole open my mind to why illustrations can be superior. Nesting (HarperCollins) is a nonfiction narrative picture book telling the story of a pair of American robins from spring to winter. Its monotone grey pencil makes the scenes more dramatic, with our attention focusing on patterns, textures and movement. The eggs of electric blue are the exception, and the reader can “feel” how smooth they are from the images. The author’s viewing positions, angles and frames create drama and emotion. Imagine a BBC documentary following two robins in one of their multimillion-pound productions for a year. This is the equivalent of thirty-two, no less stunning, pages for just over a fiver.
Swooping back to KS2 and up, I have to mention Dara McAnulty’s A Wild Child’s Book of Birds. Last year I read Diary of a Young Naturalist; I love the mix of thoughtful prose and fascinating information of nature writing. If you’ve also read it, you will know his fondness for birds. The design of A Wild Child’s Book of Birds is like a scrapbook. A genius choice because scrapbooks are objects of love and passion. I can imagine children creating their own; the page titled Types of Feather would appeal to the collecting nature of children who could easily do this too. Responding to memories and experiences is something Dara does well. Another purpose of a scrapbook. Definitely a school activity idea there for Garden Wildlife Week!
Another page that caught my eye was Feed the Birds. Sunflower hearts are good in the summer because the “majority of birds love these”. However, Dara goes on to say the best solution is to “provide wild plants”. The fairy clock stage of the dandelion’s life cycle is great for birds. I’m going out to plant some of these in a moment, and I think I will also take the netting off my raspberry plants as well.
So far, the books mentioned have been realistic. Fiction can inspire in less obvious ways. Otto Blotter Bird Spotter by Graham Carter (Andersen Press) is a fun and sweet picture book. The Blotter family are ardent bird spotters, but they do so in their home. However, Otto prefers to be out exploring. He finds a tiny bird, which becomes ‘less tiny’ as it grows up, and up, and up. He eventually enlists the help of his family to find the bird’s family, who learn to enjoy being outside.
Interests which start in a garden, balcony or other green space can lead further afield. And although the beauty of garden wildlife is that it comes to you, flying the nest means finding out about so much more.
So how is my parents’ back lawn looking? It’s impressive. My dad has sown some bee-friendly wildflower seeds too. Maybe a few weeks isn’t enough to see a noticeable difference in wildlife, but there must be so much that goes on that we don’t see. Plus, he’s going to keep the experiment going the whole summer. So, Garden Wildlife Week is set to become Garden Wildlife Season… with very, VERY neat edges.