Tuesday, 24 June 2014


The bullfinches that visit our garden fascinate me because of the obvious closeness of the pair bond. It is in fact very unusual indeed for only one bird of the pair to appear, even in the height of the nesting season. The bright and colourful male is a bolder bird than his partner, although both can be fairly timid and wary as they come to the feeders. Earlier in the year I noted that the female only used to fat-ball feeder, which the male never visited. The pair I'm now seeing regularly may of course not be the same pair as then, but assuming they are the same birds, the female now generally takes sunflower kernels, as does the male. The other day I noted that the male had obviously finished feeding, but took a prominent perch on the top of the feeding station, later moving onto a slightly higher branch nearby, keeping watch until his mate had finished. Once she had indicated she was ready to leave, they flew promptly away together.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Bird Table Update

The birds are very busy at our feeders just now, with many young birds to be seen. At present we are just feeding sunflower kernels, and there are families of blue and great tits there most of the time, plus one or two coal tits, all of these also seen prospecting through the adjacent bushes and trees for insect life. Yesterday a pair of bullfinches were taking cherries from a tree very close to where I was sitting having my breakfast out on our patio - not eating whole berries (though these berries are really quite small), but pecking at them to remove the softer and juicier flesh; today I've seen juveniles at the feeders. Young blackbirds are frequently there, pursuing their parents and demanding to be fed. From time to time the parents relent and feed the youngsters. A family of greenfinches, parents and five or six young birds, were feeding on elm seeds.

Our feeders in the front garden are empty at the moment, and will need a thorough cleaning before being refilled. This has meant that house sparrows, generally only found in our front garden, are making their way to the feeding station at the back, to mingle there with chaffinches and goldfinches. I am still seeing occasional siskins, too, and there are always nuthatches around.  From time to time single long-tailed tits visit, so I presume they are nesting somewhere within reach. The two feeders presently in use at the back are supposedly both squirrel-proof, but the squirrels generally seem to be able to find a way, usually by tipping the feeder over so that seed is spilled out. I don't mind feeding them, really, but I do mind the fact that while they are there the smaller birds do not come close. The wood pigeons and feral pigeons that come to the feeders have little fear of squirrels, and will from time to time drive them away. Yesterday morning there was obviously a major argument within the local squirrel population, with lots of yapping and snarling, though all taking place behind a thick curtain of bushes, so, apart from the occasional glimpse of a twitching tail, nothing to see.

Birds singing include song thrush, garden warbler (I think) and of course the chiffchaff. Swifts and a few house martins can be seen overhead, and families of jackdaws and carrion crows have been noisily present close by. The fine weather is set to continue for a couple more days, then the onward forecast looks rather more wet.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Sunday Talk

. . . based on the previous post

The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies,
she bringeth good tidings, she telleth no lies,
she sucketh white flowers for to keep her voice clear,
and when I hear the cuckoo I know the summer draweth near.

It had been a few years since I last heard the cuckoo call, and then a few weeks ago I was standing on platform 1 of Whitlock’s End station, on the Warwickshire / Worcestershire border on a fine sunny evening, waiting for a train into Birmingham to attend a performance of the Verdi Requiem, when I clearly heard the cuckoo calling. It’s such an evocative sound, the music of which meant almost as much as the quite wonderful singing I was to hear later on in the Symphony Hall.

The other day I heard the cuckoo calling again.  A different bird, though it’s interesting that habitually we do generally speak of the cuckoo, as though there were only one of them. This cuckoo was calling from somewhere on the flood plain of the River Vyrnwy, between Four Crosses and Llanymynech, and he’d been calling for the greater part of four hours by the time I left, by which time I could almost have cheerfully throttled the bird, thus demonstrating that even the most beautiful music can become tiring if repeated for too long. I later learned that this bird in fact went on calling till nearly ten in the evening, which was quite a feat of endurance, I think.

I happened to mention the Whitlock’s End cuckoo on my Facebook page, and got quite a few “likes” from friends for whom the cuckoo’s song is as special as it is to me. But on the other hand, a friend who I think would describe himself as an atheist commented that for him the cuckoo was a conclusive proof of the non-existence of God.

Clearly I couldn’t let that go unchallenged, so I asked him why. “It’s the lifestyle of the cuckoo,” he replied. “It’s revolting!  Every cuckoo you hear calling is only there because it destroyed a nestful of baby dunnocks or reed warblers or meadow pipits, and now its offspring are going to do the very same thing. How could a God who created the world and looked upon it and saw that it was good have created something so horrible?”

Well, creation isn’t just fluffy things and sweet songs, and I suppose one of the issues in life for the believer is how we cope with the seamy side of things, the nasty stuff, of which cuckoos are just one example and, frankly, by no means the worst. Genesis very simply argues that everything was fine until the Fall, but once Adam and Eve had disobeyed God the whole of creation was thrown out of kilter and that’s how the bad stuff got in. I might not want to see it in quite those terms, and in any case what about the serpent who starts that whole story off, and who was one of God’s creatures?

Or perhaps I can just close my eyes to the seamy stuff and pretend that all of creation is all lovely, like the lions and zebras and giraffes in my little grand-daughter’s picture book, who all seem to get on together just fine. In reality lions eat zebras, given half a chance; when scenes of that happening turn up in David Attenborough’s films, my mother switches off. “I’d rather not watch that sort of thing,” she says.

But it happens. That’s how it works. And of course, of itself it’s all morally neutral. Lions don’t have a choice between being carnivores and perhaps (like me) going vegetarian. They are what they are. Nor are baby cuckoos being evil when they throw the eggs or the young chicks of the host bird out of the nest, so as to usurp their place. They don’t have any choice, but to act on instinct.

I tried to explain this to my friend, who came back with the example of the fox that killed all his sister’s chickens, when surely it only needed one, so the rest it presumably killed just for fun. But no, that too is all to do with instinct. Normally the fox would kill what it needed to kill, say one out of a flock, and by that time the rest would have scattered and found safe places to be, and the “kill” instinct would have gone. But chickens trapped in a coop that the fox has somehow entered can’t get away, and they’re flying about in terror, and the “kill” instinct doesn’t get switched off, but constantly restarted.

Even so, those who would want to argue the existence of a loving creator God from a perspective of “isn’t nature wonderful” can find themselves coming a bit unstuck when brought face to face with the “red in tooth and claw” side of things. The Christian writer Bill Vanstone many years ago tackled this dilemma in one of his books, and he compared the action of God in creation to the work of an artist painting a picture. At the outset, the artist will already have an image in his mind, or what it is he wants to express, of what the picture will be. And yet the finished picture is dependant not only on that image in the mind of its creator, but on the materials he chooses to use: water colours, oils, acrylic; paper, canvas or board. Creation is a co-operative venture - the mind of God engaging with the materials he has chosen to use.

It’s not an exact image, but it helps me to understand. In fact, the beauty of nature is no proof of God, and the perceived cruelties of nature are no disproof. And God wouldn’t have it any other way. He has made a world in which we are free - uniquely among his creatures we are free to choose, to make moral and ethical decisions, and to consider what we do or do not believe.

He has not made a world in which his signature is so obvious that we can’t help but believe, for such a world would have no room for love. Love demands freedom, and cannot exist without it. I could make, or at least I could imagine someone making an automaton, a robot, that could serve my every need, and say “I love you” whenever I needed it to. But it wouldn’t actually love me, for love is something you choose to do.

My friend and I never really concluded our conversation about the cuckoo. Maybe next time we meet we shall. His thesis is that I foolishly let my head get turned by the song, while ignoring the reality of the cuckoo’s life cycle and (I suppose) life style, which should lead me in quite an opposite direction. Against that, I’d want to argue that both the song of the cuckoo and the lifestyle of the cuckoo actually nudge me in the direction of belief; and they do so not because of what they are in themselves, but because of how I perceive them and respond to them.

I find myself encouraged to believe in God not because bird song is beautiful and flowers are pretty, but because of my ability to perceive them in that way. Bird song does a job: a cuckoo calls to warn off other males and to attract females, not to brighten my day or encourage me to think of summer. Flowers do a job: their colours and scents are there to attract pollinators and so produce the fruit and seed that will perpetuate the species. And yet we are able to delight in both of them, and great composers have been inspired by bird song, and great artists have been inspired by flowers. It is the fact that I can perceive beauty that encourages me to believe in God.

The call of the cuckoo lifts my heart despite my fears for the dunnocks and other small birds whose nests it may predate. I like the cuckoo’s call despite the seamier aspects of its lifestyle - but I am by no means blind to them.

And as I’ve already said, what a cuckoo does it does by instinct. It doesn’t choose to be nasty to other small birds.  It hasn’t made a moral decision right or wrong because it has no notion of right or wrong. Nor has it any way of choosing. That, incidentally, is why the endless round of animal sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem could never atone for the sins of the people. The sheep and goats and pigeons slaughtered there were without sin, but only because they could not sin, there was no possibility of sin in their lives. Jesus is the one true, pure and sufficient sacrifice because he could have sinned but chose not to sin (and of course he is the one true and perfect High Priest for exactly the same reason). Only in him are our sins forgiven, and what he does he does once, and he does for all.

But to return to the lifestyle of the cuckoo, and the instinct that leads the cuckoo to do as he or she does. I am not encouraged to disbelieve in God by the bad behaviour of the cuckoo, but quite the reverse: I am encourage to believe in God by the fact that I can perceive what the cuckoo does as cruel and unfair and unjust. For I discover in myself an awareness of right and wrong, of good and bad, and an ability to sympathise with those who get dealt a bad hand in life.

So I have an awareness of beauty that encourages in me the desire to create; and I have an awareness of good and bad that encourages in me the desire to reach out and to care. Isn’t this, don’t you think, what is meant when we are told we are “made in the image of God”? I am delighted by beauty; I am angered by injustice and by needless pain; and as I reflect on these two remarkable things I find myself moved into faith. And as I stumble along that road I find my poor and feeble attempts at love to be met by a persistent sense of the way in which I am loved, and by the inclusiveness of that love, the love shown to the world, revealed among us, in Jesus.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


A cuckoo was calling insistently throughout this afternoon at Domgay, Llanymynech, where I was gardening and getting attacked by some rather nasty buzzy flies that wanted to eat me.  Hated the flies, loved the cuckoo - to begin with, anyway.  There did come a point at which I began to long for him to shut up!

It is some years since I last heard a cuckoo call in this area, though I've heard them elsewhere of course - most recently on platform 1 of Whitlock's End station, Shirley, while waiting for a train into Birmingham. So of course it was a delight to hear one today, and reassuring - there are still cuckoos around in this part of the world, despite the sharp fall in overall numbers of this iconic summer visitor.

We delight in the cuckoo's call, and he features in many a folk song, but of course cuckoos have a rather nasty life style. Laying eggs in other birds' nests allows the cuckoo to raise a much larger 'brood', potentially at least, than it might if it had to build a nest of its own; and it also allows the parent birds to leave for Africa much earlier than other summer migrants: "June, she'll change her tune / July, she will fly", as the song puts it. The cuckoo call may be a lovely sound to us, but it isn't to reed warblers, dunnocks and meadow pipits, three species commonly parasitised.

A friend told me the cuckoo is for him a powerful argument against God. How could a benign creator make something so horrible and so destructive of others? Leaving aside the simple fact that there are plenty of examples in nature that might seem to us worse and more evil than the cuckoo, I would still want to argue that in the cuckoo I find displayed some of the reason why I do believe in God, maybe at times rather against the odds.

First, I believe in God because I marvel at our human ability to perceive beauty in the cuckoo's call. Birdsong and bright flowers are not intrinsically beautiful - or at any rate they are not placed on earth in order to be beautiful to us; they are there to do a job. But we find them beautiful, and are inspired by them to compose great music, or to paint great pictures. I am amazed, not at beauty itself but at my ability, and yours, to perceive it.

Second, I believe in God because I recognise the unfairness and cruelty of the cuckoo's behaviour. The cuckoo doesn't - it just gets on with doing what cuckoos instinctively do. How does the cuckoo chick know it must eject the other eggs and chicks from the nest and take sole charge? And how does it know to fly south to warmer climes, long after its parents, whom it has never known, have left? I'm at a loss to understand instinct and how it works. But I know that for me to steal and cheat and supplant as the cuckoo does would be wrong, and, even though I recognise the cuckoo bears no guilt because it does not do what it does out of choice, I still find its behaviour revolting. I am amazed that I know what is right, and what is wrong.

None of this is a proof for God. And, for that matter, I do accept that not everyone has the same ability to perceive beauty, and history (not to mention my newspaper this morning) is littered with examples of human cruelty and brutality whose perpetrators seek to justify and even applaud. None the less, the cuckoo's call leads me not away from faith, but toward it.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Song Thrush

I can hear him, though I do not see him:
the song thrush is invisible, even on his high perch,
now the trees are so well clothed,
but his repeated notes stir the air and make it tremble
on this still and drowsy June afternoon, not far
from where I am kneeling, fork in hand, ready
to attack the weeds.  And his sweet and plaintive music
touches a long-forgotten chord in me, so the memories remain half-hidden
of some other garden, and some other day.
But what I do recall is how I delighted
in the shards of snail shell I discovered
on the pebble path around my childhood patch of ground.
We children each had our own little garden -
I planted feverfew and raspberries in mine, and some peas
(which hardly grew, as I recall), and a houseleek
culled from the flat roof of Granny’s outhouse;
it was a delight and wonder, this growing of things,
but far more, that a song thrush should choose these stones I planted
as an anvil on which to break his snails.
The particular and special stone he used, a little larger than the others,
I brought back from Llanfairfechan, I think.  How good
that he thought it special too.
We always had song thrushes in those days; today,
like the starlings and sparrows that used to compete for our scraps,
the speckled thrushes have mostly disappeared,
or so it seems.
So I am glad to hear this one still singing,
and that he should sing my childhood’s song.


My 'Nature Notes' column for the coming month :-

I opened my bedroom curtains the other day to find myself almost eye-to-eye with a jay that was perched on the roof of one of my garden sheds. To my surprise, it didn’t take flight immediately but stared back at me for a while before moving on. Jays are very handsome birds, with a mainly pinkish-buff body, a distinctive blue wing patch, and flashes of white on the wings and tail that are clearly seen when the bird takes flight. It has a bit of a crest, too, which is streaked black and buff, and something of a black moustache marking either side of its beak.

The woodland to the back of us is ideal territory for a jay, particularly as it contains a number of oak trees. Jays are omnivorous feeders and therefore share some of the unpopularity of the magpie; they are not above stealing the eggs and nestlings of other birds, and they will also take earthworms, insects and small mammals, but their main food is the product of trees, with acorns top of their list. This bird is in fact sometimes called the ‘acorn jay’, and jays habitually bury acorns as food for winter. ‘How do they remember where they put them?’ you might ask, and the short answer is that they don’t, or not always, anyway - so their burying of acorns is very helpful to the tree, helping to ensure new seedlings can grow some distance away from the parent tree.

The jay’s Latin name of Garrulus glandarius reminds us that this is a bird more often heard than seen (though see my note below). It is indeed garrulous, and will greet intruders onto its patch with a harsh and raucous call that is quite distinctive. If seen in flight, the white markings on tail and wings are distinctive, but so too is the flight itself, undertaken in a slow and somewhat cumbersome style, with rather laboured beats of its rounded wings.

Like that of the magpie, though to a lesser extent, the jay population has been increasing, and, though generally regarded as a wary bird, in my experience this is far less the case than it used to be. Visiting my daughter recently on the Warwickshire / Worcestershire border I had close encounters with two or three jays as I walked along the country lane near her home, and they didn’t seem particularly shy at all. Certainly you can get much closer to jays these days than in the past. (That visit was also notable for a very close encounter with a grass snake, which slithered by, on a pleasant sunny morning, just a couple of feet away from where I was standing looking over a gate. More on grass snakes another time, perhaps.)

Jays build untidy nests of twigs, lined with hair, in trees, and lay between five and seven eggs. The young birds spend about three weeks in the nest before fledging. Jays are residents of the UK and do not generally move very far from home. They can be found through most of the country, but are absent from the far north. Some continental birds, often lighter in colour, may arrive in winter.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The National Botanic Garden

Last weekend Ann and I visited the National Botanic Garden of Wales for the first time, but not, I hope, the last.  This is a wonderful resource, and if here and there it looked a bit shabby around the edges, it was a most enjoyable visit and there was lots to do and see.  The photo above was taken in a corner of the walled garden, and manages (despite a rather cloudy sky) to look quite exotic.  This is still a very new set of gardens, and in its short life I believe it's come close to collapse twice already.  I hope it continues to get the support it deserves, from both the funding authorities and the paying public.  I'd hate to see it go ever!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014


It has been my experience so far
that however high and hard the wall
there is always a gate. There may perhaps
be no obvious path, and it could be the handle is rusted
and hard to turn; but in the end there is always a gate,
a way to somewhere better, to a setting right of things
when all shall be well, and all manner of things
shall be well.  If you have not yet found the gate
then it is not yet the end.  Wait, and search,
hope and pray.

Sunday, 1 June 2014


A short verse written for a funeral I'm presiding at :-

As you stand on the shore, 
and you gaze out to sea,
though you see me no more,
remember me.
Love be your guiding light,
as you take the road on;
though no more in your sight,
I have not gone.
As the stories are told,
and the memories stay,
far more precious than gold
is love’s bright way.