Monthly Archives: September 2017

Late to the Harvest

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Many years ago, the small daughter of some friends surprised us all at Christmas by taking a single bite from the hidden side of each perfect apple her parents’ had hung on the tree. Just a single bite that didn’t show from the front, but which quickly withered each apple.

I thought of those secretly claimed bites while picking the few remaining apples from our garden tree.

Photo: PKR

It’s been a little more than a month since I slipped while on a mountain hike, and one of the most difficult challenges of spending a few weeks with two broken wrists has been staying away from garden work. I’ve been watching the apple tree from my window, watching the apples ripen and drop, feeling awful about not doing anything about it.

Our apple tree was planted at least fifty years ago, and most years, it faithfully produces far more than we can use. I’ve been inviting people over to gather what they can, but then a major storm blew through, a few hundred apples hit the lawn. Fortunately, I also haven’t been able to mow the lawn in weeks, so the landing was soft. Yesterday, I finally felt able to clear the lawn of fallen fruit, and to pick what was left from the tree.

There were apples in every state of being, from fresh and flawless to dried studies of their former selves – this doesn’t bother me. Even without broken wrists, I tend to leave fallen fruit out rather than gather it every day, just because so many birds, insects and small mammals can feast on what we can’t use anyway. It’s a consolation to watch the various ravens, sparrows, thrushes, starlings and songbirds stop by for a reliable meal.

Apples salvaged – around 7 kgs (15 lbs.) Apples on the ground: At least 30 kgs (66 lbs) Photo: PKR

But what surprised me was that almost every apple still on the tree, especially the fine, fat, smooth ones, had been pecked at from behind. Just a little, just enough to render the apples someone else’s property instead of mine.

We don’t do much to earn these apples – we prune the tree back every couple of years, and if the summer is really hot and dry, that tree is the only one I water. And every year, it repays our benign neglect with a bounty, not just of fruit but of beauty, as a roost for countless birds, and a haven of shade. My guess is that in their own way, the birds do more for this tree than I do.

It seems only fair to leave the juiciest pecked apples from the tree on the lawn for the culprits to finish off.

Wall Magic

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We awoke this morning to a view of the sun setting through a graceful swirl clouds taking place on our bedroom wall.

A perfect vision of what was going on outside, but the bedroom shutters were still closed and the room was dark except for this bright globe, the size of a breakfast egg, making its progression from wall to door frame.

The sky on the wall. Any blurriness is the fault of the phone camera, as the image on the wall was sharp and crisp.
Photo: PKR

A round-ish chink in the stone window frame was the culprit, of course. It forms a pinhole lens between the frame and the shutter, and when the light hits it from the right angle, as it did this morning, we get an inverse view of the horizon cast against our wall like a dream vision.

The natural camera obscura phenomenon has been known and discussed for millennia and there’s some good evidence that we owe some of the world’s finest paintings to it. A good article on the effect here, and on Vermeer’s likely use of it here.

We’ve just repaired and repainted all the wooden shutters, and filled in some of the cracks in the stone window casements. In such an old stone house, there are always bits and corners to be mended. However, a flaw that invites the upside down sky to visit is one we will continue to embrace.

Here’s a short video of what it looked like as the clouds moved across the miniature sun.

A Murder, A Charm, A Gulp

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A Murder

It must be confusing for wild animals when humans constantly grow so much tasty food, only to try and keep it all to themselves. I see it in my own garden when the various fruits become ripe. All the birds I’ve fed through the winter are suddenly competition for my harvest in summer and fall.

Magpie Lookout – Australian magpie
Artist: Lyn Ellison

I’m not fussed about sharing the cherries, plums, red currants, apples and grapes with the birds. There’s usually more than enough for all of us. But in Australia and elsewhere, vineyards can lose up to 80% of their valuable crop to starlings, rosellas, cockatoos, and thrushes every year.

Until now, common solutions to keeping birds away from the grapes included expensive netting to block the birds from getting at the goods (but which can also make spraying difficult), noisy gas cannons to shock them into flight (but which also sometimes cause fires), and reflective tape, hawk-shaped balloons and recordings of predator calls to frighten them.

But birds can get into and tangled in the netting, and as for noise and shiny or floating objects, as soon as the birds realize they won’t get hurt, they just ignore both.

I’m reminded of a hike I took in Sheffield, England a few years ago, when I saw another bird control solution in the crop fields: Individual crows, dead and hung upside down at regular intervals from wooden posts as literal scarecrows. I don’t know how effective it was on other birds, but the sight definitely kept me out of those tilled properties.

Magpies
Artist: CF Tunnicliffe

A Charm

Maybe with something almost as ominous in mind, researchers at Charles Sturt University in Australia undertook a study at six vineyards in Victoria to see whether aggressive birds could be used to frighten grape-thieving birds from the vineyards.

In this case, the idea was to build observation perches for predatory birds like falcons, who would hunt vineyard thieves, and serve as a warning against hungry flocks.

For whatever reason, the falcons were not seduced by the five-meter high invitations to rest. But another kind of bird was: The mythical magpie. To be precise, the Australian magpie. I should note here that these magpies are not corvids, unlike Eurasian magpies, which are. There’s a great article here for a breakdown on the difference, and why Australian magpies are called magpies.

Be that as it may, over centuries and continents, magpies have been the subject of legends, both good and bad. They’re thieves and harbingers of death; they’re a sign of bad luck if seen alone, but of good luck if seen in groups; in many Asian countries the bird is associated with happiness, while in Native American lore, it’s a symbol of friendship and fearlessness.

For better and for worse, humans have a long-standing relationship with these birds.

Magpies
Photo: TheMagpieWhisperer

It was magpies, rather than falcons, that took an unexpected liking to the high perches in the Australian study, probably because (as the researchers state) the perches provided excellent observation points for the lizards that magpies hunt.

I also read of the winery in South Australia that enthusiastically welcomes the territoriality of magpies in keeping other birds at bay. Their voracity for insects means that they pick out pests from the trunks of the vines, each vineyard row monitored by its own magpie.

 

A Gulp

Some of our favorite science stories are born as the results of research that sets out to find one solution and then finds another.

Researchers who had been looking to attract falcons to vineyards found that vineyards with magpie perches had a noticeable reduction in crop loss to smaller birds. In the study area, this was a reduction from 9% of the crop in vineyards areas lacking magpie perches to only 4% in the areas under the shadow of the tall wooden constructions.

Magpies might not be direct predators of smaller adult birds, but they do eat eggs and chicks of other birds, so that might be one factor as well as their simple threatening presence on the perches.

 

Australian magpies
Artist: Lyn Ellison

Researchers speculate that the falcons might prefer more natural looking branches to the straight perches, so a further study will test those.

Meanwhile, I am wondering what kind of impact these large birds might have overall on populations of smaller birds, insects and lizards in vineyard regions. Do the smaller birds move elsewhere? Do lizards keep down insect populations that might flourish in their absence if the magpies leave?

Viewing vineyards as agro-ecosystems rather than mechanistic crop factories changes the equations in the most interesting ways, this time offering a further strand in our long history with magpies.

There are almost as many terms for a flock of magpies as there are myths about this clever, communicative bird, and doubtless many more eco-interactions than names.

Something to ponder over my next glass of Australian wine.

*A murder, a charm and a gulp are just a few of the collective nouns we use for magpies. Murder is also the collective noun for crows, corvids like the Eurasian magpie.