Country diary: sticks, moss and dog hair – the nest-building has begun

Country diary: sticks, moss and dog hair – the nest-building has begun

A handful of sticks in the fireplace: someone placing kindling, someone casting fortunes, someone marking a spot? The sticks, about 50cm long, are mostly ash, knobbly and without buds, dead wood gathered according to a standard: they measure the same length, diameter and straightness. There is something conscious about the selection of sticks, but their arrangement in the hearth looks random, as if they’ve fallen from above. Someone making a nest?

This is jackdaw work up the chimney. There have been April nests up there for much longer than we have known Aprils down here. Occasionally we meet when a fledgling follows lost sticks down the flue to leave sooty wing marks on the ceiling, before being caught and released to its clacking parents in the trees outside. This is where our cultures overlap. The jackdaws know the risks that go with chimneys, but they’ve occupied these next-best-things to tree holes for many generations.

Jackdaw nest sticks in fireplace

In April we also share the same address with blackbirds, robins, wrens, blue tits, dunnocks, house sparrows, wood pigeons, sometimes spotted flycatchers too. We put out dog hair – often enough to knit a new dog out of – for the upholstery of their nests. We try not to burden them with our gaze or pry too closely into their affairs for fear of drawing the attention of cats, squirrels, magpies – as TS Eliot says, it’s the cruellest month.

As we are drawn to the abandoned melancholy of ruins, so we find a sad beauty in derelict nests. A blackbird’s nest – prised out of ivy, meticulous in its woven bowl of thin dry stems, each representing one of hundreds of flights, lined with moss and earth and finished with a circlet of box honeysuckle, a deliberate touch of character and beauty – now lies abandoned.

April is ova rattling with unlaid eggs, syrinxes bursting with song, the summoning of leaves and flowers for the new life to be that leaves the old life that was. Birds dare far more than hope, and sometimes what remains of all that work, that careful selection, that culture, is a ransacked, abandoned nest or just a pile of sticks.

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