Living in London, it can be rather difficult not to feel completely cut off from the natural world. Most of the greenery I see all week comes from walking down a tree-flanked dual carriageway towards the Strand, and the abundance of wildlife in the capital can really be limited to an overgrown population of pigeons and the odd mouse scrabbling about on the tube-tracks. Luckily, though, the city becomes a wealth of fascinating natural history once you know what to look for. So here’s the start of a sequence of blogs on exactly that – little things to keep an eye out for that small enough for you to catch on your way to work or outside your window, but big enough to give you an idea of what’s going on in another world besides our human one.
Firstly – the budding shoots of wildflowers, a sure sign that winter is singing a bitter swan-song. Taking a walk recently I was cheered to discover a green stalks, white flowers and dots of orange and purple of a cluster of snowdrops and crocuses all braving the odds in an old abandoned flower-pot. Bluebells clung to long grass like glitter to wool along the woodland paths, and the crocuses and snowdrops splattered the old greens and browns of the countryside with rolling trails of colour. As soon as these wild-growing flowers start appearing, you can be sure that warmer weather and longer days are on the way, and best of all, that we are one step closer to summer.
Another thing I’ve been noticing recently are big clumps of twigs and grass in the skeletal winter branches, about the size of basketballs. I saw a lot of these in Regent’s Park, which is incidentally one of my favourite places to catch up on nature’s projects and indulge in some wildlife-spotting in the middle of the bustling city – as well as its famous collection of rare and exotic waterfowl, here (even in my limited experience!) you can catch glimpses of herons, butterflies and the odd hedgehog. It’s a lot quieter than the other royal parks in the centre – presumably because everyone is looking at the exotic animals in London Zoo next door rather than bothering with the quotidian offerings of the park. Anyway, a bit of research told me that these constructions are made by magpies, and are the beginning of these birds’ especially impressive nests. These nests are amazing, really: huge, spherical, layered, intricately woven, and incorporating thousands of miscellaneous pieces. They are big messes but they’re strong – some smaller mammals,such as foxes, will live in them for years when they have fallen to the ground.
Magpies are also a very underrated bird, I have always thought. They have an absolutely terrible reputation as pests – their populations are soaring at a time when songbirds and garden regulars are struggling to survive. Their hoarse, cackling call doesn’t endear them either, imitating their literary and folkloric associations with evil and misfortune .
Magpies will always remind me of my dad – when I was little, he told me a silly story about it being very good luck to salute whenever you saw one and greet them with “Morning Major!” (I still have to clamp my tongue down now to avoid any public embarrassment).The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described them as “usually nonchalant and absurdly dignified”, which I think is quite a perfect description. They are opportunists and scavengers – inquisitive, curious, talkative, and skilled in disclosing things that have been concealed. If they were people, they’d undoubtedly be journalists or academics, picking and picking at whatever they can find, putting together scraps of information to build strong and artful projects.
Everyone knows what magpies look like: they are truly striking birds. Look out for its bright patches of white off-setting an elegant black iridescence of bronzes, greens, blues, reds, and purples, like colours rippling on the surface of a deep lake.
And next time you see one, remember to count them – you can read your future with this rhyme! (Yet another of my silly dad’s stories!)
“One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told.”