Favourites and familiars

This post was inspired by something that happened a few months ago. I’ve sometimes found run-over hedgehogs on the road near my house, and I usually bury them. I can’t bear the thought of a hog just lying there like a piece of rubbish. So one morning when I saw a brownish shape in the road, I assumed another hog had been hit by a car, but as I walked towards it I realised it was actually a rat. I felt relieved, but then questioned my reaction. I felt guilty for being glad it wasn’t a hedgehog, but that didn’t seem fair. The rat was also once living, after all, and it didn’t deserve to be left there either, so I picked it up and buried it.

This got me thinking about why some creatures are more popular than others. Rats are despised by many people, but is there anyone who doesn’t like hedgehogs? Why is that? Perhaps it’s because people generally think hedgehogs pose no risk to humans, whereas rats are connected with the bubonic plague (probably incorrectly, according to this article). Or do hedgehogs just look cuter, as they’re rounded and seem to waddle along, whereas rats can move fast and have that long tail? What about the eyes? Big eyes usually trigger cute-alerts in humans, but if you look at the pictures above, is there any difference?

I think maybe it’s the fact that hedgehogs are just not as easy to see, being not only nocturnal but also endangered. So when you see one, you feel honoured. When my neighbour’s daughter spotted one in the alley next to my garden in August 2020, that was the first one I’d seen since I can’t remember when. Realising they were around, I got a hedgehog hole put in my fence and started putting food out. I also made little log piles for insects to shelter in, to provide the hogs with a natural source of food. Over two years after seeing that first one, I’m used to them now, and I love hearing them crunching biscuits or ‘chuffing’ when they’re mating. But to some extent the novelty of having a wild animal visiting the garden has worn off – or at least, that particular wild animal. Enter the fox!

Foxes fascinate me, probably because I rarely see them. I still remember how exciting it was when I realised there was one in my front garden early one winter morning, when it was still dark. Our cat Sidney obviously heard it and was scrabbling to get onto the window sill, so I opened the curtains a tiny bit to see what was there. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw movement and then, after a while, the fox. Very exciting! I wasn’t quite running around like Sidney was, but I couldn’t believe it. Another time I discovered a hole had been dug partly under a slab in my front garden, and assumed a fox had been trying to get at a rat or a mouse. I’ve since bought a trailcam so often catch them on that, but it’s unusual to get a daylight picture like this one. It’s something of a myth that they’re nocturnal, according to Adele Brand, but in built up areas with a lot of traffic, I suppose they find it safer to come out after dark. When I worked at Itchen Valley Country Park I had several daytime sightings.

Sometimes I see this, a fox and a hedgehog together. I assumed foxes didn’t attack hedgehogs because of all those spines. In early October though, I had an upsetting few days when I kept finding young hedgehogs in the alley that looked like they’d been killed by a bite to the neck. I found four in three days and wondered if an inexperienced, desperate fox had tried to eat them. I was a bit torn then about how I felt about foxes, and I wondered if it was a mistake to attract hedgehogs to my garden. I still don’t know who or what was killing the hogs, but thankfully I didn’t find any more.

When it comes to birds, I also have my favourites. I love starlings – for their murmurmations, their looks, their character and their ability to mimic. Some of my local starlings do pretty good impressions of our cat and our squeaky front gate. They’re raucous and noisy – often I hear what I think must be 6 or 7 birds, and look up to see just one, going through its repertoire of whistles and pops. They are also precious, as their numbers are in critical decline, making them a red-listed bird. So I feed them, but as the days get shorter and the sunrise gets later, they take longer to arrive from their roost, meaning I have to wait – if I don’t, the magpies get all the food. But what’s wrong with magpies? Don’t they have to eat too? Well yes they do, but they seem rowdy, even though they hang out in small ‘gangs’ compared to starlings. To me, they just look suspicious, like they’re plotting something. They’re kind of shifty – I haven’t got a photo because they’re off as soon as you look at them. And then there’s their harsh call. They do have beautiful iridescent tail feathers, but that’s about it on the good points as far as I can see. They seem to be everywhere, but then they are green-listed, so not in decline at the moment. The starlings need the food more than they do, I reckon.

Pigeons. How do we feel about them? Or, more specifically, feral pigeons as opposed to wood pigeons. Feral pigeons are the ones depicted above on a bench in Southampton city centre by Kev Munday, what the artist calls a ‘lighthearted take on Southampton’s feathered friends’. ‘Feral’ itself has negative connotations, which doesn’t help their reputation (think of people describing ‘feral kids’ to mean running wild, being uncivilised, not like the Victorian ideal of children). The RSPB calls them ‘Rock doves/feral pigeons‘ but I’m not sure how many people would think of them as rock doves. Some people call them ‘flying rats’, but let’s not get back to rats again! Another inspiration for this post was David Lindo’s recent column on feral pigeons in my RSPB magazine, in which he ran through their plus points – they’re intelligent, ‘incredible flyers’ and attractive. On that last one, notice the striking purple-green sheen around their neck, captured well by Kev Munday in his painting. Not all of them are that colour of course – locally I’ve seen some that are more brown and white. David Lindo also points out something I didn’t know – feral pigeons are nowhere near as numerous as it seems. There are thought to be only 550,000 pairs, compared with 6 million pairs of wood pigeons. They may be familiar, and thought of as a nuisance by some, but their numbers are dropping. Apparently they can recognise the faces of people who feed them, so I think I’ll return the favour and pay closer attention to them. It’ll be interesting to see how many individuals visit my garden – I’ll probably realise there are nowhere near as many as I thought.

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