Friday 13 March 2015

Birds Nesting

During my childhood in Kingsley a popular pastime was birds nesting, or more correctly, egg collecting. It was not illegal to do so in those days and had been a popular hobby since Victorian days. Like so much else in life the politicians banned the practice and criminalised a pursuit which country people had long enjoyed. Was it the right thing to do? Probably like the hunting debate the subject will, no doubt, arouse passions on either side of the argument. I tend to think that banning was probably unnecessary and it is probably the case that our representatives gave in to noisy pressure groups as so often they do.

Truth in these cases seldom stands for much, political expedient and emotion is all. However, undoubtedly the wild bird population, when egg collecting was legal, was far greater than it is today. Modern farming methods have certainly done far more harm than egg collecting ever did. A combination of habitat loss and pesticides did more to reduce bird populations in a few years than egg collecting had done for a couple of hundred years. Even in Victorian times when both egg collecting and taxidermy clearly had an impact upon wild birds, the numbers of almost all species were greater than those of today and remained fairly stable. For the most part country boys took only one egg from each nest and usually when visited again another egg had replaced the one which had been removed. Anyone who has kept poultry will know that all the while eggs are removed from the hen she produces more to make up the deficit. Leave the eggs alone and the female bird begins to incubate them as soon as her brood number has been reached. This would appear to apply in a similar way to wild birds. So, be that as it may, egg collecting was banned and remains that way.

During the time of which I write, I and my friends, spent day after day combing the woods and hedgerows for nests. We walked miles in search of as many varieties as possible. The list of species in and around Kingsley was huge and we learned where we could find the nests of most of them. Jackdaws in the iron work of the railway bridges, stock doves in the poplar trees beside the railway. Partridge, pheasants, lapwings and sky lark nests on the ground in and around the fields. Owls in barns and hollow trees. Water birds and waders by pond, river and marsh. The miles of old hedgerows supported many species and provided the idea nesting site for so many of our song birds.

We had the heath lands which provided the habitat for moorland birds, sandpits for martins and the occasional kingfisher nest. Old oaks in which crows and rooks built high in knurled branches. In short Kingsley had a wealth of different habitats within and around its boundaries. As with most things egg collecting needed certain bits and pieces of equipment in order get the best from the hobby. Since the eggs, when obtained, needed blowing a needle or knobby pin was useful. Blowing was the practice of making a small hole in the top and bottom of the egg and then blowing the yolk out by placing the egg between the lips and forcing air through the top hole thus causing the yolk to exit via the bottom hole. The empty egg would then keep for years and, actually, was less likely to break than a whole egg. If one did not have a needle or pin a large blackthorn spike would do the job very well.

The next important item was a box filled with cotton wool. The boxes we used were actually not boxes but tins and these came in the form of the red oxo tins in which oxo cubes were sold in those days. These tins were painted in a bright, post office, shade of red and were about ten inches square by about three inches deep. They had a close fitting lid and the oxo logo was painted on the tin in large black lettering. The tins came free from the village shop, and I think, most of us who collected eggs were given them as they became empty.

Another very useful piece of kit was a spoon. In fact two spoons, a tea spoon and a larger dessert or soup spoon size. These were used for accessing eggs in holes, tunnels or other recesses where it was impossible get the arm and hand. The spoon being used would be bound on to a stick which would then be carefully inserted until under the chosen egg and then withdrawn. In some cases, where a hole in a tree resulted in an immediate drop inside the trunk the spoon head had to be bent at a ninety degree angle in order to get it under an egg as room to maneuver was tight. The other benefit of the spoon on stick method of extracting eggs was the fact that some birds, if on the nest when the egg collector arrived, would not vacate but remain and defend. This was very much the case with owls. They would put up quite a fierce defence of their eggs and peck viciously. Most of us preferred not to have our hands shredded by either beak or talon so the spoon was very useful in avoiding those injuries.

When eggs were brought down from height, in the cases of rooks and crows, two methods of recovery were used. One was simply to bring the egg down in one’s mouth, the other was to drop it from above into an outstretched coat or jacket. The former was not so popular as only one egg could be brought down at a time which meant several climbs if more than one egg was required. The reader should be aware that the one egg rule did not apply to crows, magpies and jackdaws as these corvids steal both the eggs and the fledglings of songbirds, in fact any bird, they are not very selective. I suppose that since we did not have many gamekeepers in the area the numbers of these birds were quite high, this would not be the case in a well keepered shooting area as pheasants and partridge eggs and chicks would be attacked by this group of birds.

We often hear today that modern children are far less healthy than previous generations, this does not surprise me in the least as egg collecting alone ensured that we travelled many miles on foot each day in search of our trophies. Wind, rain and weather did nothing to deter our efforts, birds nesting and all that went with it was hugely popular and kept many of us fully occupied throughout the nesting season.

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