Wednesday, 30 July 2014

There's been a murder

I've always defended the magpie, jay and their corvid brethren. Yes, they steal and yes, they munch on the odd baby bird or two, but their plumage is magnificent and as a nation of avid meat-eaters (which very few of us catch and kill ourselves), who are we to pass judgement on the corvid's roll in the avian food chain.

Having said all that, I shall now proceed to pass judgement on certain aspects of their behaviour....

Sharing the premises with a recently fledged family of six magpies and one of four jays is like living next door to a family of juvenile delinquents. First, there's the noise, that clack, clack, clacking laughing call. The one benefit of this racket is that it gives away of the location of the latest act of mischief:

- the woodshed, where they harangued the swallow family on a daily basis right up until the day the four chicks fledged (I've run the length of the top field on more than one occasion trying to get to the shed before the magpies get to the nest);

- the fruit patch, where they compete with the jays to see who can grab the most redcurrants in one snatch through the net (so much so that the weight of all those corvids proved to the the last straw for the rotting wooden post holding up the netting);

- the sheep field, where they take it in turns to hop on and off the back of a sheep like kids on a playground roundabout;

and worst of all

- under the horse chestnut trees, where poor old Charlie was attacked mid-toilet. Did they mistake his hunched black and white form for an over-sized enemy magpie? The poor cat hasn't run so fast since the onset of arthritis in his back legs. When I finally caught up with him he was at the top of the stairs in the house, wide eyed and panting like a dog, with a messy back end and a chunk of fur (complete with a small patch of skin) missing from his side. 

When these asbo magpies are not assaulting ageing cats, they're snacking on the chickens' layers pellets (which might account for the high number of family members), stealing WHOLE fat balls from the bird feeder (serves me right for snapping off and losing  the lid) or dodging between snuffling snouts to snaffle pig nuts from the trough. Funnily enough, every member of the family is big and glossy! 

I have yet to catch anyone in the act, but I'm pretty sure it's a magpie with a talent for thievery and a nosey beak who plucks the white seed label from the end of the rows of seedlings in the veg plot, gives each label a good pecking, then tosses it aside. Right now I can't tell my purple sprouting from my tat soi or my leaf beet from my beetroot. Brazen, totally brazen!

Dave stands at the bedroom window, air rifle in hand, pretending to take pot shots as a magpie swoops from left to right heading for the chicken run. But that's all it is, pretending. Like the moles who pepper the lawn with mud mountains, the squirrels who strip bark from the sycamore and the housemartins who drop poop on the path, we put up with these little nuisances because life wouldn't be the same without them.

Here's an interesting fact - the collective noun for the magpie is not a murder. I assumed that perhaps the same collective noun would apply for all the corvids. Hence the blog title. Silly me. It seems a number of birds merit a collective noun all of their own. For the magpie it's a "conventicle", which my online dictionary tells me means "secret or unlawful religious meeting, typically of nonconformists". That pleases me immensely. However, I find the concept of "a herd of wrens" rather perplexing.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Mad as a Box of Bees

"There's quite a few bees in the wood shed", said Dave one morning.

It's not unusual for this to happen. Every year a keen foraging bee will sniff out my stack of super boxes (the bit of the hive where the bees store their honey and where I steal it from) and invite a few of her sisters along for a robbing party. If there's so much as a drop of honey clinging to the frames in the super boxes the bees will find it. However, on this occasion as soon as I got within six feet of the wood shed I knew that this was no robbing party, but an illegal rave. A peak under the lid at the top of the stack confirmed my suspicions that Dave's "quite a few bees" was a full on swarm!

Obviously, given my far from perfect track record as a beekeeper, my first thought was that my own colony, purchased for the princely (or should that be queenly?) sum of £150 just  two weeks earlier had done a bunk while my back was turned. Bees do that sort of thing. Just because they can. But no, for once I was in possession of someone else's bees instead of the other way round. The scout who found my stack of super boxes will surely be nominated for "Scout of the Year" at the annual colony awards, for not only did she find them a home, but a fully furnished show home with a well stocked pantry. At the latest they could only have moved in three days earlier, but the ever efficient worker bees must have been hard at it from the off, cleaning up the mess of the previous occupants, making the cells nice and shiny, getting their queen popping out eggs to order. Unfortunately for them, this show home was spoken for and I was the white suited busy body coming to evict them. Unfortunately for me, this was one of the hottest days of the summer yet and after two hours in a beekeeping suit I was as hot and bothered as the bees, and probably just a little bit stinkier. It was worth the effort though - now the colony has a new home in my apiary and I have a new colony in my apiary. Everyone's a winner. Except for the lost flying bees. You can move a colony, but you can't re-program the internal navigation system of the bees quite so easily. For the next few days Dave would report "bees in the wood shed again", "there are still bees in the wood shed", "how much longer will there be bees in my wood shed". Each evening, as the temperature fell, lost, hungry, docile flying bees would form a small cluster on the hive parts I'd deliberately left for them to sniff out. So each evening I carried said hive part to the apiary, whispered a few words of encouragement, carefully brushed the bees back into their hive, then pressed my ear to its side to listen for the sound of the homecoming party.

I love having bees again. I really must make more effort to stop accidentally killing them.