Working window on intimate secrets

BETWEEN storms, I put the box of seeds back on the sill outside my workroom window and so coax the birds a lot closer

BETWEEN storms, I put the box of seeds back on the sill outside my workroom window and so coax the birds a lot closer. To have a great green ocean terraced with white breakers as the distant view and a robin or a tit feeding just, so to speak, at the edge of my desk, seems to round off a satisfying compass of nature.

The blue tits zoom in and out like pickpockets, glancing six ways before they snatch and then retreating to the hedge to pick the seed apart. The robin, predictably is both bolder and more aware of the figure pausing at the keyboard. The trick is not to meet that appraising eye - "an eye" as Michael Longley says, "that would - if we let it in - scan the walls for cockroaches,/ for bed-bugs the beds".

In typewriter days I could leave the window open and risk the odd white splash on the carriage-bar of the Remington. But both robins and tits (who tear strips off wallpaper, looking for spiders) are forbidden such amiable trespass on an electronic cottage.

To watch a robin close up is to learn some intimate secrets (that lovely blue-grey collar to the red of the breast) but nothing of sex or identity. Both sexes look the same, sing a lot, and fight.


There are mornings when I try to sort out the exact marital status of all the little birds feeding outside my window - quite a gathering, sometimes, taking turns at the seeds on the window-sill and bird-table, or queuing up at the basket of peanuts swinging in the wind.

The two pairs of chaffinches are easy: cocks as gay as parakeets, hens drab and gentle (except when chasing each other - then how the wing-bars flash!). One pair of great tits, a brilliant match, but the male's black belly-stripe wider than his mate's.

Blue tits, two pairs - don't ask me which is which. I was hugely impressed not long ago by a young woman studying "Utilisation of provisioned peanuts by suburban tits in Belfast". She had to be certain which tit she was watching, between her resident birds and all the visitors, and here's how she did it.

"Variations in the colour of the crown, size and shape of the white forehead patch, the width of the white supercilium and nape band -encircling the blue crown, the width of the dark eyestripe and nape band, and the width of the dark border around the white earcoverts, all combined to give an individual an identifiable head-pattern." Perhaps she had little Identikit drawings pinned around the window.

Robins are robin-coloured, that's all I can say: when four of them turn up in the hedge together (two pairs, but which is which?) I go cross-eyed trying to keep track of the proceedings, like someone watching the thimble trick. Ah, here's a threat display, Robin A stretching up its little beak to the sky to show as much red breast as possible to intruding Robin B. Seconds later and they've all changed positions and are thinking of something else.

Frustrated robin-watching of this sort must have been what pushed J. R Burkitt, county surveyor of Fermanagh 1900-1940, into trapping all the robins in his garden - he didn't look at a bird until he was 37 - but ornithology is undyingly grateful to his technological breakthrough.

To know one robin from another told so much about behaviour. Fights between robins, for example, are nearly all bluff in defence of territory. In three years' close watching, Burkitt never saw one bird kill or seriously injure another (though it does, very rarely, happen).

He was also the first to prove that hen robins sing - most female birds don't - thus dismaying all the people who thought, they knew a cock robin when they heard one. As be made the round of the robin territories, setting out food, each bird greeted him with song (or so he said, and he was a devout Presbyterian). But such appreciation was odd, thought David Lack, in his classic Life OJ The Robin, since robin song is normally a mark of hostility.

Since Burkitt's work in the 1920s the Irish robin has had very little special research attention, despite the quirks that might be expected of a resident island bird living in a distinctive climate and countryside. Basic details such as clutch sizes and laying dates are rarely quoted for Ireland, and there is even less information on the area of breeding territories- and choice of nest site.

THIS makes it worthwhile trying to help young Gavin Fennessy, who has begun a PhD project on the breeding biology of the robin at the Zoology and Animal Ecology Department of University College, Cork. With the aid of special record cards, he wants to involve birdwatchers all over the country in an ongoing "Robin Nest and Habitat Study"

In any reasonable spring, the female robin may be seen in March carrying moss or dead leaves to build her little cup-shaped, hair-lined nest - or so the books insist. In practice, if she knows or even suspects you're watching, you rarely have a hope of seeing where she goes.

Like most birdwatchers, I have found the odd nest by accident (in a hollow on a hedge-bank, mostly), but Burkitt, for all his experience, thought the robin's nest one of the hardest of all to track down. It gets easier once the young are hatched and the parents are making frequent trips with good - but this is also the time when trampling the vegetation can expose the nest, or frighten the nestlings into rocketing out of it before they can even fly.

Gavin Fennessy gives advice on "correct behaviour at the nest", along With his hopeful record cards. His UCC department is at Lee Mallings, Prospect Row, Cork (021-904283).

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author