Two beautiful jays appear to be spending a lot more time in my garden along with the tits, blackbirds, woodpigeons and robins. Having moved from a house with no outdoor space it's a daily affirmation of life for me to witness their comings and goings and I feel truly privileged.
My mother-in-law is slightly less impressed, but then she's always had a garden to marvel at the birds and other wildlife that share these precious green spaces with us. What you've never missed becomes commonplace and with the free gardening tips and advice I'm gleaning from our Homes for Wildlife campaign, I hope to encourage more wildlife into this tiny patch of London I'm caring for. There's a contradiction here though. If my children grow-up surrounded by wildlife, will they be blasé about it in future and less likely to care for it? With any luck they will share my enthusiasm for wildlife and revel in the enjoyment it brings. You can't help but smile at a waddling toad, admire fat bumblebees feeding at flowers or wonder at the speed and agility with which the blue tits zoom onto the caged feeder for some sunflower seeds.
The jays live in an old oak tree across the rail lines from my garden. As members of the crow family, they do take nestlings from other bird's nests. They're just better at hiding when they do this than magpies so they don't get the same bad press as their black and white cousins. Jays are also widely thought to be crucial in the spread of oak trees. They collect and bury acorns in autumn for consumption in the cold winter months. I've found several acorns pressed in to the soil whilst weeding my flowerbeds. It could be the work of the squirrels but I like to think it's the jays.
Earlier, I mentioned robins too. David Lindo, better known as The Urban Birder and for presenting on BBC TV's The One Show, is urging Londoners to put out food for these iconic winter birds. The idea is that by putting out food now, you'll increase the chance of a visit from a robin on Christmas day. Robins were voted our National Bird in 1966. They have relatively large eyes, which allow them to see in dim light, which is why you'll see and hear them early in the morning and late in to the evening. There's less competition from other small birds for food at these times and someone must have told them that the early bird always catch the worm....
Another colourful visitor I've encountered this week is Nita Shah [pictured] of the Bombay Natural History Society. We work together on a campaign to save Asia's vultures. These incredible (but ugly) birds are dying out at a rate faster than that recorded for the long-lost Dodo. We are slowly poisoning them by using a painkiller called Diclofenac. This drug is widely used by people but we also use it for animals such as cattle. When the vultures eat the dead cattle, they also eat the Diclofenac. While it's harmless to humans and most animals, it kills vultures.
Nita is visiting the RSPB and touring some of our projects to see if she can glean ideas to take back to India to help save the vultures. We've convinced the Indian and Pakistani governments to ban Diclofenac but it is a cheap and effective drug, so many people still use it. We've found one alternative, called Meloxicam, but getting rid of the old drug is proving difficult. We're funding breeding programmes with captive vultures in the hope that we can keep the species going until such a time that we can release them back in to the wild once Diclofenac's gone. It's a major undertaking but we can't stand by and simply watch a species vanish.
It's difficult to sing the praises of an ugly bird that eats dead animals. It's not like asking people to save the panda or some other charismatic creature. However, Nita is a forceful lady, difficult to ignore and determined to save Asia’s vultures. With her on their side, I believe these birds will still be around to see in the next decade. Imagine a UK without robins, that's the future across Asia if you swap the bird for a vulture. Only once the commonplace has gone, do we miss it.