Tuesday 15 October 2019

Country Matters: Golden lining of a sparrow's nest

A sparrow's nest
A sparrow's nest

Joe Kennedy

Like crab apples in a hedge, the small spiked balls hung in green clusters where, a week or so previously it seemed, white panicle blossoms had been swaying in the wind.

Within two months some of this year's crop of horse-chestnut fruits will fall over an old river wall to scatter on a footpath where waiting bus travellers find shelter from rain.

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Each day that passes is a gradual drift in the annual cycle of aesculus hippocastanum. Few bother now to pick up the conkers glistening from their shells. Children no longer seem to challenge one another with swinging spheres which used be hardened in kitchen ovens for durability.

Unexpectedly, there is the iridescent flash of a kingfisher, a blue streak, hardly expected in an urban setting, but the small river below was once important enough to turn mill wheels and is still defiant to show that the natural world is alive behind walls, traffic and people.

Away in the south there is sparrow turmoil, a thriving farmyard colony of hundreds chirruping away in their busy lives where food is plentiful, spilling from animal feed troughs. The birds' nests are in high sheltered places, safely secure. All except one when last week an earthquake struck as a jammed door wrenched open, felling one sparrow dwelling.

It was empty and perhaps had been considered an unsuitable location the previous year but it was a cabinet of construction curiosities.

Within the moss and detritus was a lining of animal hairs binding a carefully woven cup of comfort for eggs, incubation and, eventually, brood.

The farmer's wife recognised that some of the construction material had come from within her remit. The farm kitchen is a comfort zone for family dogs which include a golden retriever, a gentle animal, mother to several families of puppies.

She is regularly barbered in preparation for gala appearances at guide dog charity walkabouts. The cosmetic activity takes place outdoors and golden threads drift off via lawns and shrubs to be sourced (now it is known!) by the farm sparrows - and perhaps other birds - at nest-building time.

There is a tale from medieval times of an O'Brien of Thomond - or an O'Connor of Connacht - an elderly chieftain startled from his slumbers as life ebbed by birds pricking at his long beard, reminiscent of a character, Moroney, in a McGahern story searching for honey bees lost in his facial appendage. The old chieftain's tormentors were pulling his hairs to line their nests.

One rook/crow knocking about near a bus stop on a busy street, and paying little attention to the passing parade, found a battered piece of dubious looking bread in the gutter. Rock hard and filthy, this was a feast in the making which needed some preparation. The bird picked it up and staggered towards a grimy rain puddle and dropped it in to soak! The bread needed turning and watching carefully for a couple of minutes until it softened. The crow then carried it to a stone pillar at a bank entrance to be carefully pulled apart. Waste not, want not was the message from this seasoned scavenger!

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