Of time, tides and turns
Of waxing and waning lyrical…
In the space between the CD cabinet and the gardening certificate stands a moon clock which, single handedly, counts out the 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 2.8 seconds of each lunar month.
Although theoretically purchased for me, it’s one of those gifts which you know the giver needed more than the recipient. I like to know the phase of the moon at a glance, yes, but there are times when it’s vital for Tom to know the phase of my mood at a glance. Ensuring fresh supplies of doughnuts and putting corks on the tips of all the sharp knives in the house takes planning after all…
A link between the moon and the tides of mankind has long been perceived; indeed Pliny, writing in AD 77, called the moon ‘the star of our life‘. Sometimes exposure to any moonlight was considered perilous; many traditions cautioned against sleeping in moonlight for fear of blindness, madness or idiocy whilst Roman physicians believed that moonlight heightened the saturation of the air, causing seizures in the brain.
The adjective ‘lunatic’ – from the Latin ‘lunaticus’ or ‘moonstruck’ first entered the English language around 1300, meaning ‘affected by periodical insanity dependant on the changes of the moon’. It took eighty more years for it to start being used as a noun but once it was, it stuck; it wasn’t until the Mental Treatment Act of 1930 that British statute replaced the term ‘lunatic’, with ‘person of unsound mind’ and we continue to watch the progress of the tabloid press with interest…
More often than not it was the full moon that was credited with having the most malign influence. Writing in the late 1400s, William Langland records that ‘lunatic lollers’ become more or less mad according to the phase of the moon and around a century later Paracelsus warns of its powers to ‘tear reason out of man’s head’. A more precise definition within British Law defined a lunatic as someone who was lucid in the fortnight before the full moon but prone to odd behaviour during the subsequent fourteen days.
The Catholic Church waded into the debate in Mediaeval times, telling people not to be so silly and superstitious… of course it wasn’t the influence of the moon on people which caused insanity… it was the influence of the moon on devils…
‘For certain men who are called Lunatics are molested by devils more at one time than at another; and the devils would not so behave, but would rather molest them at all times, unless they themselves were deeply affected by certain phases of the Moon,‘ explains the Malleus Mallificarium.
Belief in the effect of the moon on the mind persisted though and as recently as 1940 a soldier being tried for murder at the Winchester Assizes pleaded ‘moon madness’ as a defence.
But of course believing that the moon – or aliens, or a secret signal being beamed at you from the spiral arm of some far distant galaxy come to that – affects your behaviour does not, in itself, establish causality. In fact it makes little intuitive sense that the phase of the moon should exert any influence on us whatsoever. Consider our artificially lit homes and neon-polluted nights. A single 100w bulb is 600 times brighter then the full moon and whether shining in its fullness or utterly un-illuminated, the moon is still there, after all, clutched to the earth’s mass by the gravity of the situation…
‘Ah but…’, I hear you say, ‘the phases of the moon also coincide with the strength of its pull, its ‘full’ or ‘dark’ force aided and augmented both by its alignment with the sun and the turn of the earth… Our bodies are, after all, largely made up of water… of course it will have an effect on us…’ But we must also remember that the forces that create the tides are exerted over the vast surface area of the oceans. Smaller bodies of water cut off from the seas – lakes, reservoirs, swimming pools, Jacuzzis – even though 100 per cent H2O, show no evidence of being ‘pulled’ by the moon…
I was interested to discover actually how little of our bodies is water. I had a 80-90% figure floating around in my head, but it turns out that men are roughly 60% water (often more on a Saturday night) and women only 55%. Babies on the other hand – of either sex – are around 78% water; a figure that will doubtless come as no surprise to parents. It’s also, incidentally, been calculated that the difference it would make to our bodyweight if the moon were to disappear altogether would be around that of a gnat alighting on our shoulder. Mars bars and Milky Ways have a considerably greater effect then…
Studies have found correlations between certain natural phenomena and moon phases of course, but these are often ‘understandable’ connections. For example it’s quite graspable that the fullness – or darkness – of the moon would be the ‘best’ times for animals to do certain things; when seeing – or being unseen – is advantageous. The full moon acting as a signal for creatures to amass and breed is also easy to comprehend – but very different to claiming that it makes them breed, or migrate, or forage… That levels of radon gas – responsible for around 2,000 deaths in the UK each year due to its accumulation in our homes – can rise by up to 46% at the extremes of the moon’s phases is explainable by its effects on the earth’s crust and water-table levels…
Some scientific investigations have also claimed to find links between the moon and human behaviour – e.g. between moon phases and rates of admission to psychiatric hospitals – but the results have, on the whole, proven impossible to replicate and lose their significance in meta-analysis.
Any discernable differences in admission patterns could of course also be due to the beliefs and expectations of the staff responsible for assessing the ‘unwell’ rather than the behaviour of those admitted; ‘ooh, it’s full moon… we’d better lock this one up just in case…’ Do people really commit more crimes at full moon, or is it just easier to spot them doing so?
But for every one sceptic pointing at the figures, you’ll also find dozens of people working in frontline emergency, medical and psychiatric services who will swear that the moon does have an effect. The sceptics would answer of course that people who hold this belief are more likely to notice and remember incidents which coincide with full moon… which in turn will re-enforce their belief…
I have my own theory to offer; that the sleep deprivation associated with a) a series of lighter nights and b) being berated by crabby women for a week or two each month is enough to push anyone already teetering firmly over the edge…
Of tides in the affairs of men…
Anyway, today the clock tells me that the moon is ‘waxing gibbous’ – growing and more than half visible – but that by the time I post this, it will probably be a waning gibbous… as I hope none of my readers will be as a consequence of my prolixity. For gibbous comes from the Latin ‘gibbosus’ or ‘hunchbacked’. Those of you who do spend too much time bent over your screen here though may find the section on bells and the ringing thereof in my June blog of interest…
The naming words of the moon’s turns and the bulging tides it drags in its wake cast a lulling pull of their own for me – waxing, waning, ebb and flow, gibbous, crescent, flux, neap, surge… they’re words that draw me in with their mystery and antiquity; words to be savoured. You can imagine them being uttered in hushed tones attached to a fragment of folk wisdom; ‘it is very dangerous,’ cautions Bede ‘to bleed when the light of the moon and the pull of the tide is increasing…’
Many traditions concerning the moon and the sea wash in and out of each other’s inlets, echoing superstitions and sentiments; for example the common belief in coastal communities that people die only when the tide was ebbing is mirrored by others which looked to the moon as the marker of man’s day. In Shropshire it was believed that people would not die when the moon was rising whilst other superstitions held that an ailing man would last until the moon had passed its full.
To be born with the growing moon was considered lucky, to be born with the waning moon unlucky and to be born at the dark of the moon worst of all; ‘no moon, no man’, was the saying. Similarly a birth when the tide was going out was considered an ill-omen both for the newborn and the mother.
Nor should weaning be started on the wane – ‘a child put off the breast on the wane of the moon will continue to decay whilst the moon continues to wane’ was a belief recorded in Angus in 1808. Hazlitt claims older resonance here, pointing to ‘rath’ meaning both ‘circle’ and ‘fortunate’ in Gaelic. ‘The wane, when the circle is diminishing, and consequently unlucky they call mi-rath. Of one who is unfortunate they say at a mi-rath air’, he records.
Ireland and Wales meanwhile shared a belief that the outgoing tide could carry sickness and particularly whooping cough away; at one time it was common practice to take an ailing child to the water’s edge and allow the ebbing tide to take the cough away with it. One particularly unpleasant variation involved making the child vomit through the consumption of sea water; I can almost hear the conviction with which they would subsequently insist that they were feeling ‘much better now, thank you mother…’
Although my family lived on the coast, the folk remedy for whooping cough in my mother’s childhood involved being taken to the local gasworks to inhale the fumes there. At first I suspected a corruption of the older tradition, given that the gasworks was only a stone’s throw from the sea, but some Googling has confirmed that a trip to the gasworks was a common whooping cough cure throughout Britain in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Kill or cure at times; whilst surfing I also came across a sad little snippet from the New York Times dated September 25th 1909. It records:
‘There is a widespread belief that fumes given off in the process of gas making are beneficial for whooping cough, and Mrs Mathias of Lawrenny, Pembrokeshire, took her son, aged 4 years, who is suffering from the disease to the Neyland Gas Works to inhale gas. A spark from a passing locomotive is believed to have ignited the gas in the condensing house and an explosion followed. The mother was so badly burned that she died in a few minutes, and the boy is not expected to recover.’
Back at my blogging the old moon slips away and I realise that ‘waning gibbous’ is now rather over-ambitious for posting; my brain feels slow and my word count seems to have got dragged into the undertow.
Of hiraeth, heleniums and hemerocallis
I suspect that my inertia’s more to do with the turn of the sun than the moon though. Well over a month has now passed since it reached its high point and the nights – I whisper – are drawing in. Something in me ‘senses’ the change far earlier though and as the longest day slips past, my energy and mood dive in unison. Pre-solstice everything seems possible; post solstice is the beginning of the end.
The Welsh name for July – ‘Gorfennaf’ – hints that I’m not alone in my post-midsummer gloom either, for it means, literally, ‘end of summer’. Monty Don too writes of the period immediately after the solstice as a particularly low time for him. Perhaps it’s a gardener thing – or at least something felt most by those who usually spend a deal of their time outdoors?
It’s been compounded for me this year of course by the continuing absence of my robin. I shrink from writing ‘death’ and tell myself tall tales about his having lost a territorial battle and moved on, but in my heart and in my head I grieve for his passing. I’ve been strict with myself ever since he first crossed the divide to land on my palm; rigorously refusing to name him and reminding myself that one day he would fail to appear. But of course robins have a name already – and nothing could have prepared me for the silence he’s left.
And so I repeat the platitude that he had a ‘good, long life’. The average lifespan for robins is, after all, less than a year and I know that he was at least seven years old. We first became acquainted soon after my mother’s death in the late summer of 2001; his chirruping company was the spur I needed to dig at one of the few times in my life when the garden yielded little but sorrow.
Reading her diary for 1997 recently though, I found several entries about an unusually fearless juvenile robin which was frequenting the garden and cannot help but wonder…. If it was the same one, that would make him 11 – three years older than the ‘oldest recorded British robin’ but still a couple of years younger than the German record holder. I find myself wondering if elderly robins go pink?
I also find myself wishing that I had not come to take his ‘ever there-ness’ so much for granted. So ubiquitous was he that instead of savouring every minute of his close company, I reached the stage where I’d sometimes – albeit fleetingly – ignore his demands to complete some task before delving for the can of worms. He had his ways of making his presence felt though…
Thankfully the gloom is not mirrored in my garden. Interest there reaches its zenith in mid July when the lilies swell, sneezewort kindles and green-skirted clumps of Hemerocallis trumpet from the borders, their warm notes spilling onto a white tide of over-blown feverfew.
There’s a glorious hand-over week or two early in the month when a few blousy irises, billows of pale blue geranium and royal side-spikes of delphiniums remain to cool the high summer hues, but much as I love the gentler shades of spring, I like my garden best wild awake.
In a good summer I’m topped up on serotonin by now and am happy to seek shade; to pause and draw breath, sit back and sip the flowers. In summers like the last two we’ve allegedly had, I lose heart, survey the damage done to flora and fauna by weeks of rain and midsummer gales and long for a patch of sunshine to mend the hole where happiness leaks out.
Of Sirius, scorching and serpents…
I check the origin of ‘Dog Days’ – the period between early July and mid August – and growl at the irony, for they are meant to be the hottest days of summer ,when both man and beast are driven to madness by the incessant -oh wouldn’t it be lovely – warmth. They’re called the Dog Days though not for the mad canines and welsh women who yearn to go out in them; their name comes from Sirius, the Dog Star.
In ancient Egypt, Sirius was observed to rise just over the horizon at dawn this time of year – its ‘heliacal rising’ as in ‘with the sun’. For the people of the Nile, its early morning wink was welcomed and marked, for it tipped them off that the annual flooding vital to the fertility of the Delta was nigh.
The Greeks also looked to the stars – including ‘Seirios’ as they knew it (literally ‘scorching’ or ‘searing’) – to mark the passing of time precisely, for the beginning and end of lunar calendar months could vary considerably over a number of years. They took a dimmer view of its presence though.
Homer warns of ‘That star which comes on in the autumn and whose conspicuous brightness far outshines the stars that are numbered in the night’s darkness… yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals.’
Alcaeus meanwhile records that when ‘Seirios, is come around, the season is harsh, everything is thirsty under heat, the grasshopper pours his song from the branches… the artichoke flowers; now are women most wanton, but men are feeble; Seirios parches their heads and knees’ .
Hesiod also uses Sirius as a marker in his ‘Works and Days’ – an agrarian teaching text which could have doubled as a script for an early Greek version of ‘The Archers’ – ‘But when Oarion and Seirios are come into mid-heaven, and rosy-fingered Eos (Dawn) sees Arktouros [i.e. in September], then cut off all the grape-clusters…’ he counsels. Next week, Clarrie spins the golden fleece, the Ministry vet vaccinates the Gorgons and Brian sets up an artificial insemination programme for Minotaurs…
The Greeks and the Romans both believed that Sirius actually added its heat to that of the sun during the dog days; ‘Twas the season when the vault of heaven bends its most scorching heat upon the earth, and Sirius the Dog-star smitten by Hyperion’s full might pitilessly burns the panting fields.’ wrote Statius in first century Rome.
And the view of the period from early July to mid August being accursed persisted; ‘In these Dog Days it is forbidden… to be let Blood or take Physic. Yea, it is good to abstain all this time from Women. For why, all that time reigneth a Star that is called Canicula Canis… broiling and burning as Fire’ warns the Husbandman’s Practice in 1729. ‘All this time the Heat of the Sun is so fervent and violent that Men’s bodies at Midnight sweat as at Midday: and if they be hurt, they be more sick than at any other time…. In these days all venomous serpents creep, fly and gender, so that many are annoyed thereby…’
I have in fact been delighted by a venomous serpent recently; my first ever close up and personal encounter with a live adder (unless you count maths undergraduates, that is…)
Of whinberries, wars and snakes in the grass…
I was gathering Whinberries – also known as Blaeberries, Whortleberries, Bilberries, Huckleberries or Whimberries, depending on where you live. We also know them as whineberries in our household, from the noise that those not of a hunter/ gatherer persuasion make when a whinberry picking expedition is suggested. For whinberrying is probably the ultimate measure of fruit-picking patience within these isles; the shrubs on which they grow hug the ground, the berries nestle amongst the leaves and are TINY. You pick other fruit; you earn whinberries.
I have berrying juice in my veins though. My father would pick contentedly for hours and I’d match him minute-for-minute, smiling, satisfied, submerging day-to-day cares in the meditation of gathering. His technique was better than mine but he had bigger hands and had also had many years of practice.
Growing up in Germany between the wars he experienced gnawing poverty; gathering from the wild was an everyday matter of survival. I got the feeling though that whinberrying was an ‘event’ rather than dragging routine for his family. The Heidelbeeren – as they knew them – grew in the pine forests near his Rhinepfalz home – on land usually off limits to the poor and closely guarded by foresters. Once a year though (oh why didn’t I ask him when – and why then?) the forest would be ‘opened’ and villagers allowed in at dawn to gather the navy jewels. All the children helped in the early morning harvest but the pickings weren’t for their eating; the following day my grandmother would carry a metal pail of berries on her head to the market in Trier, where they could be exchanged for precious cash.
My grandfather couldn’t pick; his hands were wrecked by frostbite contracted when he fell into a partially frozen river. He’d been dragging a dug-out tree-stump home for fuel under cover of darkness when he slipped on the icy bank.
My father only knew him ‘til the age of 12, when, in 1933, true to his Communist beliefs, he voted openly against the Hitler government and as a result was forced to flee his home for fear of interment – and worse – at Dachau. He left my grandmother with five sons, no income, and no choice, given the politics of small village life, but to thrust her offspring into the Hitler Youth. I often wonder whether I am proud or ashamed of him. Probably both.
By the time he was able to return in 1945, his two older sons had died of the cold fighting for the cause he so despised on the Russian Front and his middle son – my father – had been shot and taken prisoner by American soldiers, not far from death himself at the time.
Perhaps it’s little wonder then that my father’s ‘old stories’ were all either of his younger childhood or of his Prisoner of War days; picking cotton in Mississippi and litter on beaches in Florida, working in a Heinz factory where the secret ingredient of each batch of ketchup was a judicious spit of the supervisor’s chewing tobacco and finally labouring on farms in West Wales. They were, I suspect, by far the greenest fields he had ever known.
Anyway, back in the pastures of today – well rough scrubland anyway – the adder curled unhurriedly just inches from my footstep before slipping, soundless, into longer grass. It was surprisingly big; I can’t estimate its length as it travelled coiled, but it had a thickness to it which I certainly didn’t expect. Its striking, black-on-tan markings which most reference books interpret as zigzags I perceived as diamonds. However should you come across a snake which doesn’t have classic adder markings, don’t assume it isn’t one. Some adders are unusually pale with very feint markings whilst others can be plain dark grey or black. A cunning plan indeed…
Had it been Kaa from the Jungle Book, I couldn’t have been more fascinated – hypnotized indeed – by its brief presence; indeed for once it didn’t even occur to me to point my every-ready camera. Sincere thanks then to photographer Simon Harrap of Norfolk Nature for his permission to use the image below – you can follow the link at the end of this ramble for more of Simon’s stunning images of both fauna and flora.
I’ve learned, since, that European adder bites are rarely fatal in humans, but the after-shiver of the snake and be-sandaled state of my feet combined to persuade me that perhaps we had, after all, collected sufficient whinberries for one day. Should you ever find yourself bitten though, please don’t let my ‘very rarely fatal’ put you off getting medical help. Official advice is to do so immediately whilst ‘immobilising’ the bitten part and keeping it below heart level – although I suspect that that doesn’t mean standing on your head should a viper nibble your earlobe… Nor should anyone be allowed to indulge in amateur dramatics such as applying tourniquets, trying to suck or cut the poison out or cauterising the bite. It will hurt quite enough by itself, thank you.
I smiled when reading Stefan Buczaki’s ‘adder’ entry in ‘Fauna Britannica’ – he lists a bewildering number of folk cures, including the fat from another adder which had recently been deep fried, pieces of live pigeon and a ‘bag of heads’ – a bag containing the heads of an adder, a toad and a newt which sounds to have come straight from The Scottish Play. He also observes that there are so many ‘cures’ probably because anything tried almost always ‘worked’, greatly enhancing the reputation of the local wise woman or man…
Whilst reflecting on my encounter I was also intrigued to learn that the name ‘adder’, has actually had something subtracted from it – for the word was, once, ‘nadder’ or, in Old English ‘nædder’. The same root can also be found in the current Welsh (naidr), Irish and Scots Gaelic (nathair) and Cornish (nader) words for ‘serpent’ or ‘snake’. Sometime during the 14th century, courtesy of ease of speech, ‘a nadder’ became ‘an adder’, around the same time that ‘an ewt’ became ‘a newt’. Young newts however never gained the ‘n’ and remain ‘efts’ to this day…
Of welshcakes and S&M
Anyway, I used the whinberries snatched from the wild in spite of near-certain indifference from the snake to make whinberry welshcakes.
For the uninitiated, welshcakes are flat, flour-based cakes cooked on a ‘planc’, ‘maen’ or griddle which are basic to the upbringing of almost everyone west of Offa’s Dyke. Traditionally they’re made incorporating dried fruit – currants and/ or sultanas and even sometimes candied peel and mixed spice… Ooh, there’s fancy for you… I, however, have taken to making them with fresh whinberries around Lammastide each year.
This has its advantages. The preparation of the mixture for welshcakes is not particularly time-consuming but the cooking of them is – especially as it seems to be compulsory to only ever make them in quantities of four dozen or more. They have to be watched over, nursed six at a time, deftly ‘flipped’ mid cooking and then precariously transferred from planc to wire cooling tray, inevitably leaving the cook hot, cross and with semi-scorched fingers.
A couple of times a year then, when whinberries are in season, I’ll enjoy the novelty of their making and the oh-so-evocative smell of their cooking. But by the end of the second batch, I’ll be quite glad that seasonality will soon give me a valid excuse not to produce them once a week, as was standard practice in most welsh homes until not so long ago.
The other practice standard to welsh homes was the pinching of welshcakes. They’re nice enough cold, but hot they’re different creatures altogether; sweeter, softer and – the ultimate seasoning – illicit. Of course for the person cooking the welshcakes, having them disappear almost as fast as they can be made is initially a compliment but, as time goes on, becomes more and more dispiriting to say the least. I suspect there was, then, a fine line of ‘accepted’ thievery in most household beyond which the wrath of mam would be incurred. In fact had Max Moseley been Welsh, he may well have found contentment being tied up with apron strings and given a damned good talking to…
Apron, incidentally, is another one of those word which has now lost its initial ‘n’… Why didn’t the viper viper hands? Because the nadder ‘ad ‘er napron of course…
I notice that Delia Smith – who I’m sure has a cult following of her very own amongst the ‘whip to a light froth’ brigade – proscribes butter or honey with welshcakes but these are English aberrations. Proper welshcakes are eaten naked. She also goes completely wrong by asserting that ‘it’s important to cook them completely through’… Oh, no, Delia, the real secret lies in taking them off just before they’re cooked through, leaving a thin but delectable band of slightly moister mixture in the middle. I’m sure Nigella would…
For 24 welshcakes then, you need
1lb self raising flour (and a bit more for rolling or pressing out)
2 eggs, soundly beaten
milk if needed
¼ pint fresh whinberries (or dried fruit, out of season)
A planc, maen, griddle or thick, flat bottomed frying pan.
Rub the butter into the flour and mix in the sugar.
Get your whinberries out and curse as you remember that whinberries need picking twice; the first time to get them off their bushes and the second time to pick out all the tiny leaves which will inevitably end up clinging to the berries in your collecting receptacle. It’s easiest done by pouring them out onto a big flat plate or tray which will give you a good view of a thin layer of berries. Rocking it from side to side helps to uncover hidden foliage – but don’t rock too vigorously as picking whinberries for a third time, from the floor, is no fun whatsoever.
Put your cooking implement of choice on to warm thoroughly – a medium heat is what you need. Do NOT oil it though unless it’s brand new or recently scrubbed – sufficient fat will cook out of the welshcakes to make them ‘non-stick’.
Tip the fruit into your dry mixture and from here on in try to touch it as little as you possibly can. Some berries will inevitably burst but the finished product looks rather nicer if the initial dough isn’t completely pink from juice. I use a knife to ‘cut’ the eggs into the mixture, just squidging it together with my hands at the last minute – you may need a splash of milk too although the welsh measure would be a ‘lwtched’, which relates, I think, more closely to a ‘slurp’ or a ‘slosh’ than a splash.
If making it with dried fruit you can roll the dough out – to around a third of an inch. To minimise berry bursting I press it into a flat with my hands instead, avoiding as many of the whinberries as I can.
Cut out your welshcakes with a fluted cutter and cook them a few at a time, remembering to leave yourself some space on the planc to flip them half way through. I use the same broad-bladed knife that I suspect has been used by three generations in this household, but there’s nothing to stop you cheating with a small fish-slice or spatula. They take roughly three to four minutes a side and when ready to turn will become slightly convex – gibbous even – on their upper face. If your first batch break try again – for some reason the first six are always the trickiest. You will have no trouble disposing of any that look less than perfect.
Dried fruit welshcakes will keep up to a week in a tin, whinberry ones need eating within a couple of days due to the fresh fruit. Oh, what utter hardship…
Of feathers, fellowships and farewells…
Gentle readers! The moon by now is almost at its dark and yet I ramble on… I have an excuse though. For a fortnight now the sky has been intermittently painted blue and I’ve taken every chance to catch the sun and hold it. I sit, then, under an old apple tree, my forearms jaundiced by nothing but lily pollen and feel it warm my face, my heart, my spirit. My word-rate has dropped to an absolute crawl for I’m watching something magical in the branches above me… a handful of long-tailed tits performing unparalleled gymnastics as they pick insects from the undersides of leaves. Their fragile form and elongated tail feathers whisper of the cobwebs with which they bind moss together to make a nest…
I’ve only once before seen even a single long tailed tit in the garden; today I have six. It is though, apparently, more common to see half a dozen birds than a solitary one, for they spend most of the year in tightly-knit social groups, travelling, eating and sleeping as if connected by invisible elastic. Indeed should one get even temporarily left behind you’ll hear the separation anxiety in its call until re-united.
This time of year these groups are made up of an adult pair, their this-year’s offspring and any ‘aunts or uncles’ on the male parent bird’s side. These other adults will have ‘earned’ their place in the group by helping to feed their brother’s young. In spring the groups break up into pairs and begin nest building. If for some reason one couple’s attempt at breeding fails, they will split up and each return to a brother’s territory where they join in the mammoth task of collecting invertebrates for their sibling’s brood. Up to eight ‘helpers’ have been recorded at a single nest site.
Doing so is not altruism. Yes the chance of the brother’s brood surviving is increased, but so are the chances of the adult birds making it safely through to try to breed another spring. Long tailed tits are absolutely tiny and so particularly susceptible to the cold. By winning themselves a place in the social group they get to sleep snuggled up with their family through the long winter nights. They are, actually, the only British birds which habitually huddle at night. Wrens will do so when forced to by extreme cold but long tailed tits actually choose the communal wrap of 12-tog living feather and down all year round.
Over the course of the winter the ‘daughters’ of the family will transfer to different social groups and be replaced by females from other families so that by next spring a mixed gene pool already exists in the social group.
Their nests – formidable domed structures of moss and cobwebs pebble-dashed with lichen for camouflage – take weeks of building. It’s the final phase of construction though which really demonstrates this amazing little lollipop of a bird’s second feat of turning misfortune into success…
For each nest must be lined with up to 2,000 feathers. And whereas finding 2000 feathers this time of year when birds are moulting might not be difficult, finding them in the spring when all species are near perfection plumage-wise is a very tall order. Long tailed tits then – these fluttering bundles of sweetness and light – seek out the corpses of less fortunate birds, pluck them and re-cycle…
So, heads under wings, beaks under blankets, it’s definitely time to bring my waxing to a close before the moon starts doing so again. Just a mention though that as it rises at its full on the 16th August, it will appear, from Britain, to have a chunk missing… The folklore of eclipses, then, probably, next time…
http://www.norfolknature.co.uk/ More of Simon Harrap’s lovely photographs
http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/adder_lore.htm Lots of adder folklore from Devon
http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/173/12/1498 More about the various studies on the moon and mental health
http://www.astrosociety.org/education/publications/tnl/33/33.html What if the moon didn’t exist?