Saturday 18 November 2017

Country Matters: Yellow birds in scrub fire flutter

YELLOWHAMMER: Or to try it in Latin, Emberiza citrinella
YELLOWHAMMER: Or to try it in Latin, Emberiza citrinella

Joe Kennedy

The beautiful and damned were together in the furze and scrub countryside of northern Leitrim.

Flashes of yellow feathers were flitting near the crackling of a timber inferno in a clearing off the roadside. A tractor was standing where broken branches and roots had been piled. There was no sign of the driver. The blaze was in defiance of recent warnings and specific regulations about landscape clearance fires.

The small bursting of birds were yellow prints in the thick, green hedgerows along a narrow winding road. All passed quickly with the momentum of the car, rising and turning on gently sloping bends. To turn back would have been futile. Apart from the crackling timber there was neither sight nor sound of human presence, and no buzz of a chainsaw in the jungle brush.

I looked out for traces on the return from Manorhamilton - but the fire was no more. No whiff of smoke or fumes filtered through the car. It was as if nothing had happened to disturb the peace of the countryside. The tractor had departed.

The brief sighting of these special birds had been totally unexpected as had been the beginnings of a robin's morning song when a cottage door was opened and a cuckoo's faint call had drifted over the valley. And then these yellow 'yorlings' of the bunting family, the "little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese" calling on this summer morning, "the plaintive yellow bird sighing in the sultry fields around - chary, chary, chary, chee - only the grasshopper and the bee" (William Allingham in the Fairy Shoemaker), I had not seen for many years.

I remembered in Mayo long ago, in the fields near Lacken Strand, or along the road to Kilcummin and the 'tra bhan', where children found tiny stones like polished gems in the sand, yellowhammers catching eyes and ears. There are fewer numbers now of this once common species but they are still there even in unexpected places. In Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, 10 birds were recorded at garden feeders, as reported by BirdWatch Ireland, the nature charity.

Yellowhammers are a little larger than chaffinches, with longer tails and are seen usually upright on wires or bushes calling their 'cheese' notes. Since the 1970s there has been a big population drop, mostly due to changes in agricultural practices - again! - so birds may appear in a few pockets here and there. There is an estimated figure of 10,000 breeders but the bird is firmly on the Red List of endangered species.

Yellowhammers are eaters of cereal and grass seeds and lay interesting eggs with dark spots and 'scribbles' which folk tales used to consider ominous - some farmers were reported as killing the birds on sight as harbingers of evil and having a drop of 'devil blood' on their tongues. 'Yorling' is a Scots name which may be also heard in Ulster. Robbie Burns used it, to mean something else entirely as was his wont from time to time!

Another rare sighting in Leitrim of the heavy hawthorn blossom was an orange-tip butterfly among many small whites and moths in the evenings as house martins chased insects for supper near their nests in the eaves.

Sunday Independent

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