Companion Planting With Mrs B

We’re an unusual duo who share the same garden to plate principles, though I have to ignore her appalling table manners. She pokes and picks away at her food, leaving debris everywhere and gets hopping mad if I interrupt her dining. I’m learning to keep this behaviour from ruffling my feathers while graciously cleaning up after her.

My garden is a banquet, covered by a mulch table cloth and enjoyed by wildlife who have no care for aesthetics and keeping pea straw in its place. I’m having to accept imperfection and as recompense, these critters provide natural pest control.  

Mrs Blackbird is a regular companion while I pop vegetable seedlings in the soil and tend the other plants. I know she’s a female because in fact she’s brown. It’s the male of the species which has black feathers, a bright orange beak and a defined ring around the eye. Timid to begin with, she almost cartwheels with delight when I venture out into the garden. Her brown beak rootles beside me for grubs and tasty worms and she cocks her head cheekily to one side as I chat. (I’ve read that she also listens out for worms. Seriously – how much noise does a worm make? And how are scientists going to prove that one?) Her eyesight is acute – a most critical sense for evading predators and finding food. Birds have eyes that are larger in proportion to head size than humans and positioned further around the head which enables a much wider point of view. Light sensing receptors in the retina of a bird are densely packed which enables perception of motion and fine detail far superior to mine. 

Mrs Blackbird has one over me when it comes to hearing too. Though she could not appreciate the frequency range of Bohemian Rhapsody like I do, she has a  sophisticated ability to distinguish nuances of pitch, tone, and rhythm changes. Recognising different noises is essential to determine if a call is warning of a predator; advertising a territorial claim or offering to share food. 

My hunch that Mrs B recognises me personally has been validated by some research.

An article in Science Daily, June 22, 2012  mentions a paper from the University of Lincoln, UK: Birds can recognize People’s Faces and Know their Voices. Apparently Pigeons can recognise faces on photographs and Carrion Crows have the ability to differentiate between voices and calls of familiar and unfamiliar humans!

However when I mentioned a ‘tasty’ worm in an earlier paragraph, it’s likely an untruth. Birds are not wowed by the aroma of their fare because of an undeveloped sense of smell and taste.

I’m not sure I’d be able to smell the difference between a worm or a snail, myself …

… unless they’d been through the garlic patch.

There are always exceptions in nature and one is the New Zealand Kiwi, which has nostrils at the tip of a long downward-curving beak providing a highly developed sense of smell. So it seems Kiwis can differentiate between the more than 200 species of earthworms present in our soils!

Mr and Mrs B reside in the Pittosporum tree across the road. They’re a faithful couple and insular, not tempted to flirt with a flock; and will live for about four years. She builds the nest between August and February – a well constructed woven bowl of grass, small twigs, moss and dead leaves with a possible thin lining of mud. He defends their territory – about 0.2 ha – displaying a ‘bow and run’ stance if threatened. And it’s their harmonious song that wakes me in the morning.

Child rearing chores are apportioned evenly. Incubation of a clutch of  3- 4 greenish/blue eggs is shared for about two weeks until the stork delivers their young … oops I mean, before they hatch. The blind and naked nestlings grow feathers in 12 – 13 days and fledge at 13 – 15 days. Both mum and dad fossick around for food for the babies but it is only ever Mrs B who joins me. I guess Mr B goes for a different food type, maybe flying insects.

Initially concerned that Mrs B would hoover through all the worms in my delicious home made compost, I have come to realise that the worm population of healthy soil is so extensive that there are plenty to go round. And it’s not just worms she eats.

And as I do my daily garden walkabout I no longer count and curse the mysterious holes plugged in the edges of my garden beds. Instead I’m quietly thankful that each hole records one less beetle grub that would have invisibly and insidiously chewed the roots of my perennials.

I took the image above at a botanic gardens, so it is not of my Mrs B.  (Somehow cameras and companionable planting and grubby hands don't mix). I suspect the image is actually a juvenile blackbird.

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