Oxhill News

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South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

October 2005


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Nature Watch

October: eighth month of the Roman calendar.  In Gaelic An Damhair – the month of deer rutting. 

October hath always one and twenty fine days.  If the October moon comes without frost, expect no frost till the full moon of November.

I have noticed this summer and autumn a greater than normal abundance of magpies.  I say noticed, but in fact that should be “heard” for one is usually alerted by their shrill chattering.  The word “pied” originally denoted a mixture of colours, but over the centuries it has narrowed its meaning to mean simply black and white (as in Pied wagtail).  The first syllable of Magpie (so I read) is a diminutive form of Margaret.  The magpie has a very loud chattering voice and in the late eighteenth century Mag or Meg was used for somebody who chattered a great deal and in fact some local names for the magpie include Chatternag, Chatterpie, and Chattermag.  The magpie is a member of the crow family and is very aggressive and omnivorous.  It has been heavily persecuted in the past, but its numbers have trebled in the last forty years and consequently in some areas its numbers have reached pest status.  Many people theorise that the fall in the songbird population is due to the magpie, but I doubt this.  Although it steals eggs and even small fledglings, I believe that modern farming methods, pesticides, climate change and cats do far more damage to songbirds than magpies.  In common with other crows and second only to ravens, the magpie is associated with Pagan and devilish symbolism. It is said to be the only bird that refused to go into the Ark with Noah and all the other animals and preferred instead to perch on top of the roof of the Ark and swear and chatter as the world drowned!

In many rural areas it used to be the custom that if you saw a magpie you took off your hat, spat in the direction of the bird, and said “devil, devil I defy you”.  In other areas, crossing oneself is thought to mitigate the evil effects of a magpie crossing your path – “I cross the magpie, The magpie crosses me, Bad luck to the magpie, Good luck to me”.

As autumn and winter sets in, most of us start to clear and tidy our gardens, but please provide some cover for hibernating wildlife, not just hedgehogs, but insects, mice, butterflies etc.  Small piles of bricks or stones, stacks of logs, even piles of twigs or small sawn branches covered in dead leave provide good warm sheltered places for hibernation.  Recently we cut two trees down in our garden but have left the stumps standing three to four feet high.  In these I am going to drill various sized holes.  The wider and deeper holes will be filled with fat for the birds (especially spotted woodpeckers), smaller holes are to be left unfilled for insects to shelter or breed in.  The holes will be horizontal so no water gathers in them.

During the winter months, and indeed all year round, many of us will be putting feed out for the wild birds, but make sure you buy only from a reputable source as many seeds and nuts may contain dangerous (to birds) pesticides, fungus or bacteria.  Try Ernest Charles in Devon, Freephone 0800 731 6770 or www.ernest-charles.com.  They sell all types of mixes in bags from 3kg to 50 kg, at very reasonably prices.

As I walked back into the village the other morning I counted approximately 80 swallows gathering on the telegraph lines preparing to migrate.  They seem to have done well this year and this is a good number.  Folklore had it that they hibernated at the bottom of ponds or lakes: “in the northern waters, fishermen oftentimes by chance draw up their nets an abundance of swallows, hanging together like a conglomerated mass.  In the beginning of Autumn they assemble themselves together among the reeds of ponds, where allowing themselves to sink into the water, they join bill to bill, wing to wing, and foot to foot” – Olaus Magnus History of the Northern Nations,1550.

An early plea:  can we please have only one bonfire night this year.  We have over 50 dogs (not to mention cats) living in the village, and many of these get very frightened and stressed on Bonfire Night, which recently seems to stretch over a fortnight.  So how about only one this year – it is on a Saturday.

Grenville Moore

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Last modified: September 29, 2005