Bumbarrel - news is not all good

BLOSSOMS of blackthorn are frothing out all over the hedgerows.

Aidan Semmens

Good and not-so-good news for the bumbarrel

BLOSSOMS of blackthorn are frothing out all over the hedgerows.

The buds have just appeared in profusion on my apple tree, bearing first promise of another bumper crop - and we still haven't finished making our way through last year's bounty yet.


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The equinox is past and for the first time in six months the days are longer than the nights.

If we'd still been using England's old calendar, yesterday - Lady Day - would have marked the beginning of a new year.

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Outside my window the chaffinches and bluetits are singing their heads off about the joyous spring. (There's a robin going at it somewhere nearby too, but then they've hardly shut up all winter.)

And yes, as I look up there's a pair of long-tailed tits flitting round the feeder as they have been every day for months now.

You can get more long-tailed tits (or bumbarrels as they used to be called in the country) onto one feeder than any other type of bird. Nine is the most I've seen, packed together like a hyperactive rugby scrum. It's not just that they're tiny, but also because they are such sociable little beings.

I wrote about them here a couple of months ago when I'd just taken part in the RSPB's annual Big Garden Birdwatch.

In previous years they had failed to turn up during the designated hour of watching. But this time, as I wrote: “There they were, eight of them, jostling together on the fatballs and bouncing about the nearest branches of the apple tree.”

And it seems I wasn't alone in reporting the increase.

After sifting the evidence from a record 552,000 people who took part, the RSPB published the survey results yesterday.

In total more than 8.5 million birds, representing 73 different species, were recorded in 279,000 gardens across the UK.

One of the findings was that for the first time the bumbarrel had made it into the top ten of British garden birds.

During the observation weekend in late January, an average of 1.34 long-tailed tits was seen per garden, compared with 0.71 last year. And to think I'd never set eyes on one before moving to Suffolk in 1995, even though they are listed as being found throughout the UK.

Their success is not unqualified good news, however. It's down to a succession of mild winters - global warming, in fact.

The long-tailed tit is so tiny it's very vulnerable to cold weather. In harsh periods as many as 90 per cent may die.

Just days after the Birdwatch event we were hit by an icy blast, which I fear may have accounted for a lot of long-tails. It was, typically, a pair I just saw, not a pack of eight or nine. Next year's tally may be down again.

My garden, backing on to woodland and open green space, is obviously not typical. Neither of the top two species recorded in other people's gardens - the house sparrow and the starling - made an appearance in mine. They very rarely do.

I did clock five blackbirds, the third-placed species - about twice the average number.

In late autumn and early winter, when the bruised and windfallen apples were lying around in profusion, the apple-loving blackbirds were never away. At one point just before Christmas I counted 21 together (nearly enough for a pie).

Although still top of the list, the house sparrow and starling have declined dreastically since the survey began 30 years ago. Numbers of sparrows have fallen by 63pc and starlings by 79pc over that time.

All the other birds in the current top 10 - bluetit, chaffinch, woodpigeon, collared dove, great tit, robin and long-tailed tit - were up in numbers this year.

“Many species have seen a very slight increase in the last year,” said Sarah Kelly, co-ordinator of the Big Garden Birdwatch.

“The significant increase in long-tailed tit sightings highlights the impact that feeding can have on some species.

“They have only started coming to feeders fairly recently and more people are seeing them as this behaviour develops.

“As more and more people realise the importance of feeding and gardening for wildlife we are seeing an increasing variety of birds on our tables and feeders.”

So maybe there aren't really that many more bumbarrels around. It's just that they've discovered the joys of the fatball - and we've discovered the joys of them.

Rather as bluetits all over the country suddenly learned in about 1963 how to prise open the foil tops of milk bottles on doorsteps.

(I wonder how that bright idea caught on so quickly. The fact they don't do it any more is presumably because milk no longer comes with a nice topping of cream.)

One last stat you might want to know:

Which bird dropped out of the top ten this year to let the bumbarrel in?

Answer: The goldfinch.

And as it happens I can see one of those in the bramble hedge right now.

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