‘April is the cruellest month’ wrote T.S.Elliot for the opening line of his poem ‘The Waste Land’, but he wasn’t the most cheerful poet in the world. Much more apt are Robert Browning’s first lines ‘Oh to be in England / Now that April’s there’, in ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’. Elliot found the regeneration of life rather depressing but Browning celebrated the rise of spring when birds are singing and new leaves are bursting.
April is a wonderful month for spring flowers and one of the most beautiful must be the Snake’s head fritillary. This lovely flower grows in Europe and Asia but there have always been arguments as to whether or not this is a true British native or a garden escapee; as it used to grow in profusion in damp riverside meadows, let’s count it as one of our own. It is quite rare to find Snake’s head fritillaries growing in the wild, now, as those meadows were ploughed up during the Second World War to grow food crops but there are still a few places in the country where they can be seen. The chequered, purple flower – there is, as well, a creamy-white variety – is also known as the chess flower and because the drooping head reminded people of the bell carried by a leper to warn that an infectious person was about to pass by, it was called the leper lily or the Lazarus bell.
When I was a child I knew a boy who had a pet crow called Lazarus. It was so named because his father had picked it up from the road, seemingly dead, but it recovered consciousness and the family nursed it back to health; they decided to keep it because it had a damaged wing and couldn’t fly. It was very tame and sat on the boy’s shoulder and I was deeply envious.
Crows are not everyone’s favourite birds and now that the nesting season is well underway many people will be worried to see them in their gardens because they take the eggs and nestlings of other birds.
There are eight species of crows in Britain but Ravens, Hooded crows and Choughs are not found in our county. The other five are seen in Norfolk; they are the Carrion crow, Magpie, Jay, Jackdaw and Rook.
Carrion crows are large, black birds with stout beaks. They live in many types of habitats – towns, heathland, coastal areas and farmland and wherever they can find food. Their diet is varied; they will feed on seeds, fruit, scraps discarded by humans, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles and yes, they are nest robbers. They also, as the name suggests, eat carrion and can often be seen feeding on road kill. They are fairly solitary birds moving about alone or in pairs and sometimes there is a third which will be a young one from the last clutch.
The Magpie is a handsome bird with his black, white and blue plumage which has an iridescent green and purple sheen. This crow also has an omnivorous diet, eating fruit, seeds, insects and carrion and predates on other birds’ nests.
The Jay is the most colourful of our crows with a pinky-beige body and blue flashes on the wings. The rump is white, sometimes giving the impression that the tail is detached from the body when the bird is flying. Although we see them in our gardens they are originally woodland birds, particularly those containing oak trees. Jays love acorns and will bury them in the autumn to feed on during the winter months. They also eat nuts, seeds and insects and will take eggs and nestlings.
The Jackdaw is also guilty of nest robbing and like its cousins has a varied diet. Seeds, fruit, scraps, insects and carrion are all part of this small crow’s food. It is a black bird with a silvery-grey head and distinctive grey-blue eyes. Jackdaws are very sociable birds and will nest and roost communally. Nesting sites are in tall trees or, in a town, chimneys and high buildings such as church towers.
Rooks are similar in size to Carrion crows but have longer, more slender beaks with bare skin at the base and around the nostrils; this is not present in juvenile birds which may be confused with Carrion crows. Rooks tend to inhabit crop fields and pasture land, often in the company of Jackdaws, where they feed on earthworms, beetles and their larvae, leather jackets and other invertebrates; they also eat grain. Do they raid other birds’ nests? Studies have shown that this is very occasional, usually when there is a shortage of other food. Although eggshells have been found in the gizzards of nestlings, this could be a chance find by the parents of a discarded shell which was fed to the chicks as a source of grit. So, on the whole, they don’t seem to be as guilty as the other members of their family. However, there have been reports by poultry farmers of them, along with Carrion crows, stealing eggs; this is probably opportunistic behaviour on the part of the Rook but they do cause damage to crops. Rooks are also highly sociable and roost and nest in colonies. The nesting sites, called rookeries, are in the tops of tall trees and are often composed of many nests.
Crows are highly intelligent birds and have learnt to use sticks and stones as tools, can be taught to carry out complicated tasks and recognise individual people. In a captive situation they certainly know who feeds them. I once reared two baby Carrion crows that were brought into the surgery. They were kept in a large cage in an open stable and whenever I crossed the yard they would get very excited, squawking and flapping their wings. The problem with intelligent birds that have been reared by people, is that they become attached to their keeper whom they regard as a parent; this is known as imprinting. Even when my crows had learned to fly they were very reluctant to go and stayed around for quite a while. They would find stones and give them to each other, then secrete them in nooks and crannies in walls and fences; this may have represented the beginnings of caching behaviour.
There is a lot of superstition attached to crows, usually ominous and connected with death, and you must raise your hat to a Magpie and enquire about his wife. This indicates that there is another one around, therefore it is not ‘one for sorrow’ but ‘two for joy’ as the old rhyme says.
Most dragonflies and damselflies are not seen until later on in the year but the Large Red damselfly is the exception. Usually the first to emerge it often appears at the end of this month. It is a common breeding species in Britain although it has declined in eastern areas because of intense cultivation. Like all dragonflies and damselflies, the larval form lives in water feeding initially on single celled organisms then, as it matures, moving on to small crustaceans and the larvae of midges and mayflies. The male usually emerges before the female and rests on waterside plants waiting for a mate and seeing off rival males. They also can often be seen in quite large numbers in sunny patches along hedgerows and woodland edges where they will be feeding on small insects snatched from the vegetation. In turn they will be preyed on by birds which relish these April arrivals. Things to take part in this month:
- Wild flower ramble – Bretts Wood.
- Easter egg venture trails – Hickling & Ranworth Broads, Holme Dunes, Weeting Heath and
- Facinating fossils – West Runton beach.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2017. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org