Oxhill News

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South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

September 2005


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Nature Watch

The month of harvest, hops and apples.

The month for gathering and storing, which brings me to this curious incident.  While recently attending to my father-in-law’s grave, which is still “settling” I was surprised to find, neatly covered over with grass and pushed into a small scrape, a duck egg.  Anne Marshall had recently reported to me that she had been losing quite a lot of eggs from one of her laying ducks, so I knew where it had come from and I knew the culprit – the fox.  Foxes are very partial to eggs and will often take them when they find a ready supply.  They will store the surplus creating “larders” for times when food may not be so plentiful.  Some years ago when we kept chickens I once found a store of some 14 eggs buried beneath a plum tree and not one was broken.

Around the same time I had a large pen at the top of the garden with nine French partridge in, and one morning when I went to feed them I found a fox had dug its way under the wire and there were the scant remains of what I judges to be two of the partridge, but no sign of the others.  Then I noticed a slight mound in the grass and when I carefully pulled the turf back I saw that it was a partridge neatly arranged and buried in a scrape.  Further inspection revealed the other six birds buried in exactly the same way and all in good condition, so I decided to pluck a couple to see how they were killed.  It was apparent that the fox had quickly dispatched each bird by a rapid nip and flick to the back of the neck, leaving a small bruise.  Having had a good meal of two, the other seven were carefully buried for future consumption.  I often wonder how long they would have remained there – on reflection perhaps I should have left them, waited and watched!

In the warm evenings Jane and I have sat in the garden watching a flock of swifts flying and screaming in ever heightening pattern until we could hardly see them, but could still hear them.  To countrymen the swift was once known as the “Devil bird” or “Devil’s screecher” because of its habit of flying screaming round houses, and if seen round churches it was believed the birds were the lost souls, bemoaning their missed opportunities for redemption.  The name swift, like the adjective, comes from the Old English swifan, meaning moving fast.

The swift is not related to the swallow or house martin despite their superficially similar appearance.  Swifts belong to their own family Apodidae and their closest relatives are the tropical humming birds.  Apodidae actually means “no feet” and while the swift does have feet, they are very short and weak and if they do accidentally land on the ground they become helpless and can easily be caught, but on the wing they are masters of stunning flight.  They feed on the wing, mate on the wing (they appear to mate for life) and even sleep on the wing – probably cat-napping on currents of rising air between short spells of flapping to gain height.  Swifts visit us for a very short time, arriving in May and leaving towards the end of August.  As you read this, those swifts we saw over Oxhill will be well on their way back to Africa.  Here are a few lines from Ted Hughes’ poem Devil Screamers:

            And here they are, here they are again
            Erupting across yard stones
            Shrapnel-scatter terror.  Frog-gapers
            Speedway gogglers, international mobsters

            A bolas of three of four wire screams
            Jockeying across each other
            On their switchback wheel of death
            They swat past, hard fletched,
            Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
            And are gone again.

Grenville Moore

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Last modified: September 05, 2005