THE tiny square of pebble-covered ground outside our front door is a little humble to be classed as a front garden.
But a bird bath and feeding station have transformed it into a source of constant activity over the past three years.
Our smattering of largely unremarkable plants may be of only passing interest to wildlife, though our neighbour’s small pond is close enough to provide refuge for the occasional toad and the hibiscus hedge provides welcome cover for the dunnocks later in the year.
Around the country, millions of us have been relying on our feathered friends for company during the darkest days of the pandemic. And as a nation it seems we are now spending up to £300m feeding the birds in our garden each year.
Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that seeing and hearing birds in the garden has a direct link to lowering levels of stress, anxiety and depression – and that people who spend less time outside are more likely to feel depressed in their lifetime.
Most of us probably don’t need any convincing that having trees, shrubs and birds close by makes a difference to how we feel – and the daily antics of our garden visitors are a source of delight to millions of us too, increasing our levels of happy hormones.
Against a backdrop of unprecedented biodiversity loss, researchers have increasingly recognised the range of benefits provided to humankind by nature – and that became even more evident as people struggled to cope with lockdown pressures.
Research by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has shown our growing love affair with feeding the birds has significantly altered the composition of our garden bird communities over the past 40 years, helping the populations of some species grow and increasing the variety of birds visiting feeders.
In the 1970s, feeders were dominated by house sparrows and starlings. Today, a much broader range is commonly seen taking advantage of the growing variety of supplementary foods on offer, with population growth across some 30 species, particularly those like goldfinches and woodpigeons.
The former were in long-term decline but with the introduction of sunflower hearts and nyjer seed to bird feeders, the numbers have been steadily increasing.
There are dangers too, of course, not least the possibility of disease transmission at feeders, but those following BTO tips to avoid such worries have delighted in the huge range of species appearing in our gardens – up from around 18 in 1987 to some 130 today.
Looking back over 2020 in our own small patch, there have been around two dozen different bird species dropping in to visit.
Much of the time it’s the squirrels, pigeons, tits and robin providing the daily entertainment, and what delightful and uplifting visitors they are.
As well as the blackbirds, there are plump thrushes and occasional magpies too. Living close to water means that ducks are daily visitors, with the occasional moorhen, pheasant or partridge showing up for breakfast.
Long-tailed tits are among the regulars, darting about in the bushes along with the other tits and dunnocks so that the undergrowth sometimes seems alive with movement.
Rarer visitors have included woodpeckers, jays, starlings and even a ring-necked parakeet, currently in the firing line for a government cull because they have been spreading around the country so quickly.
Recent favourites have included goldfinches and a nuthatch, the distinctive black eye strip making him look like a cheeky bandit.
There was even a tawny owl audacious enought to turn up on the roof on the very night we had been unsuccessfully scouring the local woods for hooting owls – a delicious irony.
Living beside a small nature reserve means that we don’t have to travel far to encounter a wider range of birds – an egret, heron, mandarin duck or kingfisher along the river, perhaps – and Kevin the red kite has been a long-standing resident of the Cedar of Lebanon that towers above the houses here.
But we are the lucky ones. An RSPB study a few years ago suggested that only one in five children are connected to nature and wildlife. Successive surveys by different bodies keep confirming what we might already guess – that youngsters spend about half as much time outdoors as their parents did, and twice as much time looking at screens than playing outside.
Perhaps lockdown will change that a little. It may be a pretty chilly January day but there are couples and families out in the woods walking everywhere. Yes, the novelty may wear off, but these cold family days out might just be sowing the seeds for a new generation to show more interest in the natural world around them…and that could only be a good thing, not only for everyone’s mental health, but for future of our troubled planet too.
Back at the feeders, there’s a final flurry of activity from the robin, tits and dunnocks which the cat pretends not to notice, assuming an air of benign innocence.
Lockdown may have stopped us going out and seeing all the people we would love to spend time with, but it’s surprising how much pleasure these small creatures have brought us during these most difficult days – and hopefully their winter food gathering has been a little easier too.