Whether you live in town or country, you may hear eerie screams on frosty January nights. These are not made by wandering, winter ghosts, but foxes in love. This is mating time for them and they make a lot of noise about it. Foxes are adaptable animals and now live in great numbers in towns, even central London. They are accused of many crimes, raiding dustbins, killing chickens, cats and other pets, damaging lawns, stealing objects left outside and fouling gardens. How guilty are they? A fox can jump in an open bin and will certainly tear apart a plastic bag, but studies have found that the main culprits here are dogs, cats, gulls and even, in rural areas, the occasional badger. Wheelie bins have virtually solved this problem. Killing cats? Cats are well armed with sharp claws and in any encounter the fox usually comes off worse; the few that are killed are kittens. For the main part they tend to ignore each other.
When on holiday in Weymouth we put out food for visiting badgers and this was shared by foxes and cats – all eating together! I have the video to prove it. Yes, of course they would take a fat pet rabbit or guinea pig, if they could get it, so it’s up to owners to secure outside pets with strong fastenings and welded mesh; chicken wire is easily chewed through. Chickens? Yes – if they can get in a chicken run they will cause havoc and the excitement they feel by this amazing bounty can only be imagined. This is not a situation they would ever come across in the wild, so they go mad!
Foxes are omnivorous animals and will eat virtually anything, including earthworms and insect larvae. This is what they are after when they dig holes in your lawn and if you fertilise your vegetable and flower beds with blood and bone meal, they think there is tasty meat buried there and, of course, will try to find it. They are curious about things left outside, toys, gardening gloves and even washing. They will play with these things and often urinate on them – very smelly! They sometimes take them home for cubs to play with; strange things have been found in fox earths. If your garden is part of a fox’s territory it will mark with urine and faeces to tell others to stay away – not pleasant, I know. Faeces are often placed on a raised place, a stone or mole hill, for example, to create a better advertisement. I once saw some on an abandoned cigarette packet. Even litter sometimes has its uses.
So, members of the jury, guilty or not guilty? As far as we go, I think we can say a bit of both, but as far as the fox goes – well, he’s only being a fox, doing what foxes do.
Tawny Owls are also announcing their territories at this time of year, in readiness for breeding in the spring – the ‘ke-wick’ is the female and the ‘hooo-hoo-hooo’ the responding male.
If you have not already cleaned out your nest boxes, it is best to get this done now before the birds start looking for somewhere to build. Remove old nesting material and any eggs that failed to hatch, and clean out crevices that may harbour parasites; some will over-winter in the boxes, waiting for new occupants. Please don’t use insecticides as, obviously, this will harm the birds. If you are putting up new boxes, they should be facing between north and east to avoid strong sun and winds, and tilted slightly forward so that rain will hit the roof rather than drive in through the entrance hole. Fix them with something that will not damage the trees; an elasticated strap is ideal as this will stretch as the tree grows. If you want to encourage robins and wrens, these boxes should be sited low down, below 2 metres, and well hidden in vegetation. However, your robin may completely ignore your hard work and decide to nest in the shed or garage!
Birds aren’t the only animals that are good at building. Many insects construct the most amazing homes, especially those that live socially. Wasps and hornets actually make paper to create their nests by chewing up wood which they often get from fences, gates and garden furniture. These insects are very defensive, so it is not wise to approach the nests when they are active but they are abandoned in the winter and this is a good time to have a look at these pieces of art.
Supermarket car parks, surprisingly, are often good places to observe bird behaviour at this time of year. If there are berry bearing shrubs, they may attract flocks of Waxwings which arrive in Britain from their northern breeding grounds. These pretty birds will strip a bush clean in a very short time, eating an enormous amount. Pied Wagtails, usually solitary during the day, will take advantage of the higher temperatures created by our lights and buildings and, in the evening, fly in to roost communally in trees around car parks.
The RSPB reserve at Snettisham, on The Wash, is a wonderful place for winter bird watching. Huge flocks of waders feed on the mudflats and thousands of Pink-footed Geese fly in at dusk to roost for the night. Many birds of prey are attracted by the activity and you may see Merlins, Peregrines, Hen and Marsh Harriers, as well as Barn and Short-eared Owls. Bewick’s and Whooper Swans are there in great numbers, as well as the more familiar Mute Swan. Both the Whooper and the Bewick’s have yellow and black bills, the yellow forming a ‘V’ shape on either side on the Whooper, and small rounded shapes on the Bewick’s. Their voices are different, the Whooper honks and the smaller Bewick’s makes a rather dog-like sound.
The Mute Swan is our largest, with a pinky-orange beak that has a black knob at the base, which is more pronounced in the male. Although its name suggests that it is silent, it does grunt and wheeze and will hiss if it feels threatened. Swans feature a great deal in art and mythology, one example being the ballet ‘Swan Lake,’ in which Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, who makes life difficult by spending quite a lot of her time being a swan, thanks to an evil sorcerer. The other famous story is ‘Leda and the Swan’ where the Greek God Zeus turns himself into a swan and seduces Leda. I would not imagine this would have been a very comfortable experience for her, especially as she subsequently laid two rather large eggs!
Some things to do this month include:
• Winter walk – Potter Heigham.
• Stroll in the dark – Cley marshes.
• Humble homes – Hickling Broad (for children).
• Guided walk – Holkham Nature Reserve.
See www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or call 01603 625540.
© Sheila Sims 2014