Ménage à Trois (or even quatre)?

April 21, 2011 § 5 Comments

The dunnock is a small, brown bird that creeps about on the ground, foraging for insects and creepy-crawlies. Its plumage is drab and puritanical, and its movements, are — for the most part — those of a preoccupied old lady, shuffling down to the shops for a loaf of bread and a pint of milk.

The dunnock: "humble, homely and sober"

Its apparent modesty and decency prompted the Victorian ornithologist, the Reverend Frederick Orpen Morris, to preach to his congregation that they would do well to emulate the dunnock: “Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.”

F.O. Morris: worthy, but wrong

Morris was born in Ireland, near Cork, the son of a British admiral and his wife, Rebecca Orpen, who was the daughter of the vicar of Kelvargan, in Co Kerry. After attending Oxford and taking Holy Orders, Morris was posted to various parishes in Yorkshire. He was a serious amateur ornithologist and entomologist, publishing many essays and pamphlets, and editing and revising several books. Despite his great output and dedication, it is the quotation above that is most often wheeled out by writers today. And with some glee.

The dunnock is, in fact, anything but unobtrusive and retiring, and its habits are hardly humble or homely. The dunnock is — oh, Reverend Morris, if only you had known! — mad for sex. Arrangements where a female is mated with two males are not unusual. Or sometimes (less frequently) a male has two females. Or sometimes there is even a spot of avian swinging, where two pairs mix and match.

"Oh, look who is over there!"

I’m put in mind of this because for the past couple of weeks there has been a great amount of dunnock activity in our garden. And very little of it includes shuffling about on the ground looking for food. Instead, there are three birds dipping and diving, fluttering (and, I presume) flirting. The sexes look the same in this species, so it’s not easy to tell males and females apart. But, judging from the way that one bird (the beta male?) frequently skulks just out of sight, I suspect that we have the more usual dunnock ménage à trois of one female and two males.

Beta bides his time

According to N.B. Davies in Dunnock Behaviour and Social Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1992) females “made life difficult for an alpha male by actively attempting to escape his close attentions and by encouraging the beta male to mate!” And later he describes that “On several occasions I saw females hiding away with the beta male under a hedge or bush. When the alpha male came by searching for them, they crouched down and remained motionless until he had passed by.”

Why would the female dunnock want to mate with more than one male? Well, it seems that it’s for the survival of her brood. When a female is raising her chicks, a male will help to feed them only if he has copulated with her earlier. So, it makes sense for her to have two regular partners, even if it means scooting off into the bushes with Beta while Alpha is looking the other way.

"Hello, Reverend Morris!"

As for the males’ motives: obviously they want to mate with as many females as possible in order to ensure the survival of their genes. Their mating approach is unusual, to say the least. I’ll let N.B. Davies put it into words: “The act of copulation itself is extraordinary, with a male pecking the female’s cloaca carefully for a minute or so before he mates.” The reason? So that she ejects the sperm of her previous mate. In the dunnock world there is a veritable orgy of copulating, as male birds compete for paternity. Nature, therefore, has given Reverend Morris’s “quiet and retiring” dunnocks particularly large testes: they weigh 64 per cent more than those of most birds of their size, and have sperm reserves about 1,000 times greater.

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Those Damn Dawn Birds

April 6, 2011 § 11 Comments

I love the birds, I really do. But this morning they woke me up with their break-of-day hollerings. They woke me up yesterday too. And they are probably going to wake me up every single dawn for the next month or two.

This morning, I recorded 30 seconds of their uproar: which you can hear here:

It sounds considerably sweeter now than it did at 5.59am.

But when I think that this may have been one of the participants (born and reared in a tangle of honeysuckle):

Fledgling blackbird: dawn-noisemaker-in-waiting

And that this may have been another: “Oscar” (all our robins are called Oscar):

Robin-shaped alarm clock

I feel a bit better disposed towards them (until tomorrow, that is).

It’s a book!

March 24, 2011 § 15 Comments

My late father, J.F. Powers, was a writer of note in the United States.  His first novel, Morte D’Urban, won the National Book Award in 1963. There was some pretty heavyweight competition. His output was small and choice: two novels and three books of short stories. His last book took 22 years to write. I hate to think of the excuses he fed to his agent and publishers, or the guilt that he must have felt after a long day at the office deciding whether to plump for a colon or a dash.

Well, I’ve just written a book too. It took me a little over two years — a mere sprint compared to my father’s marathon. I took all the photos, except for six that my husband Jonathan Hession shot, and one (of my late mother) that my sister Katherine provided.

The book, The Living Garden, is published by Frances Lincoln — my dream publishers. When I started writing about gardening sixteen years ago, I used to look at the beautiful books produced by this independent London house, and imagine my name on the cover and spine of something published by them. So, I was delighted (and more than a little terrified) when I was actually asked by them to submit an idea for a book.

And, a month or two ago, when I finally got my hands on a single, precious advance copy, I put it on the shelf between Beth Chatto’s and Helen Dillon’s books (two of my favourite garden writers), just to see what it looked like. It looked delightful. But I took it down fairly quickly, as it seemed an impertinence to let it linger next to these two great gardening women. (It never even occurred to me to put it next to my father’s books. That would have been far too bumptious.)

If you feel like buying the book, there are links on this page to Amazon (but do try your local bookshop first).

You can read the introduction by clicking on the thumbnails here.

And finally if you want to meet me, I’ll be doing some book signings:

Newbridge Silverware, Newbridge, Co Kildare: 3pm, Friday April 1st.

Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin 2: 2pm, Saturday April 16th 2011

Launch of the West Cork Garden Trail, Glebe Gardens, Baltimore, West Cork: 11 am, June 11th 2011

Shooting the Breeze

February 4, 2011 § 11 Comments

One of the most exciting things in the garden, especially at this time of the year, is snowdrops. But, because there is already enough snowdroppery in the cyber-ether and in the gardening pages, I’m not going to talk about them here.

Instead, I’d like to borrow your attention for just a minute or two, and talk about something else thrilling: the wind. We’re having a rather rousing gale right now. A gale is calibrated at 8 on the Beaufort Scale: winds are 62–74 kilometres per hour and at sea the waves can be 5.5 to 7.5 metres tall. If you’re like me, and are still struggling with the metric system, let me translate that into imperial language for everybody’s comfort: 39–46 miles per hour and 18–25 feet high.

Here is a wobbly sliver of Dublin Bay as seen from our balcony. The steeple is on the Mariner’s Church, which I love, because you can see the sky through its ornate perforations. (Sorry for the buffeting wind noises in this and the other videos. My motion picture skills are minimal, which is why these are all short and sweet.)

Back in the garden, the breeze is doing interesting things to the plants. I’d show you an overall picture, but pride prevents me, as the place was devastated by the snow, and there are far too many bare sticks and blank patches of soil. Instead, let me give you a few seconds of a New Zealand grass, Chionochloa rigida, or the narrow-leaf snow tussock, swishing its tresses in the wind. Incidentally, this plant, which is normally a kind of dim-green colour, went a fetching strawberry blonde after the big snow.

And here we have a few seconds of a bamboo (Phyllostachys vivax ‘Aureocaulis’) doing some fancy dipping and diving:

And finally, I know I said I wouldn’t talk about them, but I didn’t promise not to show them to you: here is a little bunch of snowdrops. They’re Galanthus elwesii, but what cultivar, subspecies or form, I don’t know. The green markings on the inner perianth segments are almost an “x” instead of the usual upturned “u”. If anyone can help me identify them, I’d be grateful. The temperature today, incidentally, is 14 degrees Centigrade (57 F), so the snowdrop flowers are wide open for business. But it’s far too windy for bees to be about, so there will be no customers.

Flaky Films

December 20, 2010 § 5 Comments

I awarded myself a snow day today. There was too much outdoor work to be done: feeding birds, shovelling and sweeping snow, talking about snow, photographing snow and filming snow.

In our mild corner of Ireland, we hardly ever see snow (or at least we didn’t until about eleven months ago), so it’s all terribly exciting. And white. Today, although it was nearly the shortest day of the year, it was the brightest day in weeks, thanks to the light reflecting from the snowy blanket.

Nothing really happens in the following two wobbly and amateur films, but the foghorns are nice, and the second one is quite restful, offering 45 mesmeric seconds of falling flakes.

This is what the snow looked like from our balcony this morning:

And this is from the kitchen window a few minutes later:

Snovember

November 30, 2010 § 6 Comments

This year, at about four in the morning on November 27th, winter arrived with about as much drama as you can imagine. We had sudden head-cracking thunder and lightning, followed by mung-bean-sized pellets of compacted snow that hurtled down the chimney, pinged off the grate and rolled onto the bedroom floor.

The pellets, I’ve learned recently, are called “graupel”, and they occur when supercooled droplets of water condense on a snowflake. The idea of anything condensing on a snowflake seems odd, but there you have it, that’s graupel for you.

Melting graupel, nestling in Agave

In the morning, the garden was covered in an inch of snow — both the conventional variety, and our new acquaintance, graupel. The next night we had two more inches of white stuff. It has been bone-chillingly cold for days, and there is no sign of the conditions out there changing back to the comparatively balmy maritime weather that we normally experience in this clement corner of Ireland.

Still, although I’m colder than I’ve been in months, I’m very pleased to have learned a new word, and to have had a chance to take some snowy pictures.

Phlomis russeliana: pretty, meringue-topped skeletons

Snap du Jour

Rare migrants brave the Irish snow

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