July 2011 – Home Sweet Home – by Nick Tomalin

What makes a house a home? Does it take more than the ‘welcome’ door mat to make us feel like we belong? What is the first thing we unpack to give a new place, or even a room, a sense that we live there? When I think of the places I’ve inhabited, I struggle to come up with a common thread for each of them. Whether it was a shared flat at University, a family house where I grew up, or my Cornish cottage, the only concept of ‘home’ I can allocate to them was the fact that they provided a roof over my head! Perhaps the need for home to be a shelter is the most primitive but obvious need of all, and the most fundamental requirement for our feathered friends at this time of year. A search of the avian estate agents reveals a bewildering display of various options available.

The biggest properties tend to belong to our larger species, with osprey and other large raptors building massive ‘eyries’ high up on tree tops. I once had to build one of these vast structures as part of a ‘Generation Game’ style competition where brave members of the public had to emulate the demonstrations of the ‘experts’, of which I was apparently one. I’m not sure what qualified me for such a title in this instance, as this was my first and only experience of building an eyrie. Herons are also fans of sizeable apartments, nesting communally in the forks of tall trees. These birds have no need to hide their nests as their size makes them much less vulnerable to other airborne predators. Perhaps this is a more important aspect of shelter: not just protection from the great British weather, but also from predators and competitors.

Many birds try to hide themselves away in holes and crevices – a fact that we fully exploit by hanging nest boxes for them. Woodpeckers will drill themselves a nest in a tree trunk, but will also enlarge entrance holes in other birds’ nests in order to eat the young, which is why some nestboxes come with a metal panel surrounding the entrance hole. Tawny owls use hollow tree trunks and can be vigorous in their defence of nest sites. The famous 20th century photographer, Eric Hosking, was dive bombed by a defensive tawny owl which struck his face with its claws, costing him the sight in one eye. He later wrote his autobiography and titled it ‘An Eye for a Bird’.

Many seabirds combat the issue of predation by nesting high on cliff faces, often in vast colonies, where some don’t even bother building a nest. These cramped tenements can feature millions of residents jostling for position. And though they put little energy into decoration, some species like Guillemots have a wedge shaped egg that prevents it from rolling off the narrow ledge. Other seabirds will spend the day at sea and only return at night in order to avoid predators awaiting their arrival. Most of these birds nest in burrows so that their chicks remain out of harms way. If you’ve not been to see a seabird colony during the height of the breeding season, I strongly recommend you do. This may require travelling north in the UK, where the largest aggregations can be found, but the sight, sound and especially the smell of so many birds is unforgettable.

The majority of our more familiar songbirds will build a simple cup shaped nest, although even here there is variation. Some prefer to line it with moss, others with downy feathers, and in some cases spiders’ webs will cushion the sitting bird. The cup is perfectly proportioned to accommodate the incubating parent, who will often use camouflage and stay motionless to remain undetected. Since females tend to be responsible for incubation duties, they also tend to be the more cryptic of the sexes, allowing them to stay hidden when danger threatens. Many of these nests you will have found when tending the shrubs in your garden, or perhaps in winter when the leaves have exposed the delicate structures beneath.

These structures really are works of industry and art. The effort required to build, manage and maintain these residences can be considerable. I acknowledge that ledge-nesting seabirds are perhaps less house-proud than most birds, and that woodpigeons’ nests would not confirm to any current health and safety regulations, but many birds go to extreme lengths to house their young.

Some males build several nests so that the female can select her favourite! This feat is undertaken by one of our smallest and most charismatic species, the wren. One particular individual was known to build 40 nests over four years, just to please his property loving partner. The long-tailed tit builds an exquisite dome structure of moss and wool, bound with spiders webs. This is covered in thousands of lichen flakes to camouflage it, and lined with, on average, 1500 feathers! And anyone who has seen (probably accompanied by the dulcet tones of Sir David) the theatres built by bower birds can have no doubt that the males of these species have gained qualifications in design, construction and fastidiousness. (Though these are not strictly nests so much as palaces of temptation! The female actually constructs a nest elsewhere and raises the young alone).

So the next time you consider a move, or look in despair at falling (or indeed rising) house prices, spare a thought for those who must find a suitable plot, build their house from scratch, rear a family and move out only to start over again. They may not need to worry about a mortgage, but having your children eaten may be a more pressing concern!

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