The robin is a particular favourite among bird lovers; and enjoys a popularity with man unrivalled by any other species. It is a year-round bird, and a constant gardening companion. Over the centuries legends have built up about bad luck incurred by anyone harming a robin. A Christian link has also been attached to the legend because the robin’s red breast was supposedly stained by blood after the bird had been pricked by Christ’s crown of thorns.

The adult birds get together in pairs in January, and after a short courtship, a bond is built up between the two so that they accept each other. Then starts the work of nest-building and egg laying as the weather gets fine. The nest is usually very well concealed and hard to find, often in a tree well covered in ivy. The clutch of white eggs with pale reddish freckling is laid, and when complete generally consists of five or six eggs. After two weeks the eggs hatch out and then the chicks start to dominate the parents lives with their enormous appetites. Not so much unlike our human behaviour, as they eventually leave the nest weighing more than their parents. One naturist reported that two particularly attentive parents built their nest in a cart which went on a two hundred mile round-trip just after the young hatched, and the parents undaunted, accompanied their offspring, feeding them along the way.

Once the young are fledged, the adults usually build a new nest in the same territory and, unless disturbance by a cat, flooding of the nest in bad weather, or thoughtless hedge cutting will raise another brood later in Summer. It is reckoned that a single pair of robins breeding successfully twice a year, and their offspring doing the same, would become nearly ten million pairs in ten years. Of course, this does not happen as the majority of them die. They fall prey to cats, owls, cars, plate glass windows, and harsh winters.

The robin is a cheeky little fellow and, when one is digging a garden will come within a couple of feet of the digger to pick up exposed worms. The only other wild bird I know will risk coming that close to a human being is the jackdaw, when suddenly discovering that some adult or child had failed to keep their arm upright enough after buying a 99 in some ice cream shop, and allowed it to plop to the footpath or street. When the jackdaw gets the first couple of beakfulls of the 99 instead of the unfortunate purchaser, he will stand his ground despite the close proximity of humans, and fair play to him.

Despite mans continued pollution of our environment let us hope that the robin will be with us to the last day and, in the meantime we hope to see him visit our gardens on a regular basis, and adorn our Christmas cards and Christmas trees for Christmas and the Millennium celebrations.

Yours in Nature

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Famed in song, and story, and featured regularly on radio, and television, surely our most successful mammal, and probably the most familiar deserves a mention in the world of wildlife.

You may wonder why I say our, but the reality is that if you do not have one in your house now, you did at some stage, or you will in the future, and that goes for everybody whether you live in a very humble abode, or a castle. Not to worry, they are harmless and do not carry the same threat of disease as their larger relations.

While the house mouse is an unwelcome visitor, and is a very successful squatter, it takes a lot of effort on the part of the householder, landlord or tenant to evict him. Although not a native, it was introduced by man, and has adapted well to a cosmopolitan existence. Of course, we have all helped in this respect, as on the whole we are wasteful creatures, with untidy feeding habits, usually leaving plenty of food lying around for the mouse to find. Our homes offer hiding, and nesting places, and a warm environment for breeding. In ideal conditions the female produce ten to fourteen litters of five to ten young each year, and even rabbits who have the name for this type of activity even on overtime could not match this. This high rate of reproduction guarantees their success, and their continued existence.

While it is, the most timid of creatures, it is amazing the effect it can have on a certain species. It has to be sum In has to be seen to be believed how the most formidable virago, with enough temper to kick-start a jumbo can be reduced to a quivering jelly at the mere appearance of a mouse. In a discussion on women’s ear of mice I have heard it suggested that all men should have a pet mouse about the house for reasons best left to the imagination than stated here.

Mice are a valuable source of food for cats, dogs, foxes, hawks, owls, mink, weasels, pine martens. etc. and of course are used widely in laboratories. I recently watched a cat that had captured a mouse, and subjected, it to what could only be described as torture. At one stage the mouse during a lull in the proceedings put his nose up to the cat’s nose while twitching its whiskers, whether by way of pleading innocence, or for mercy. The plea did not work as a sudden left and a right plus a sudden bite performed the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Of course, you can have one as a pet without a licence, but don’t tell the cat. Oh’ and by the way when you are enjoying your Christmas fare leave something for our friend.

Yours in nature

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The hedgehog is a familiar inhabitant of our town parks, gardens, cemeteries, railway banks and waste ground. Suburban gardens, in particular, provide the hedgehog with an ideal summer and winter home under compost heaps, behind hedges, and tucked away in odd comers. Its small size and nocturnal movements make it inconspicuous, so much so that people have these spiny creatures in their gardens without even realising it. They find plenty of food, such as worms, slugs and beetles in gardens. They will also eat bread left out for birds and milk left out for cats.

Gardeners may be doing themselves and the hedgehogs a serious disservice by using artificial means of getting rid of pests, rather than relying on the natural resources of the hedgehog to do the job. The use of various pesticides results in the slow poisoning of invertebrates, which are then eaten by hedgehogs. They in turn accumulate small doses of poison which build up in the fat deposits laid down during the autumn in readiness for hibernation. As the animals eke out their fat reserves over the winter, the poison is released, and many hedgehogs must surely suffer as a result.

Yours in Nature

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Barn owls are probably responsible for more ghost stories than Bram Stoker. A strange white form flitting over the old graveyard, the bone chilling scream from the old castle ruin which shatters the silence of the night.

The barn owl is a perfect nocturnal predator with excellent vision, and extraordinarily acute hearing, which enables it to locate prey rustling in the undergrowth. These senses, combined with soundless flight and deadly talons make it a very efficient hunter. It usually hunts by quartering the ground at a height of two to five metres and regularly patrols its feeding areas. Often it carries its prey to a nearby post where it is swallowed whole. Although mostly active at dusk and night, it can sometimes be seen in daylight, when food is scarce during winter or when hungry youngsters are present in the nest. Adults normally pair for life, and remain within their territory of one or two square miles throughout the year.

The barn owl is a medium sized owl without ear tufts, entirely white underneath, golden brown with grey or black speckles above. Small black eyes are set in a large white facial disc. It appears ghostlike at night with moth-like buoyant flight. It has a wing span of approx. 35 ins. and the average weight of males about 11 ozs., females are a little heavier.

It has a variety of calls. The “song” is a loud drawn-out hissing scream often uttered in flight. Before emerging from its daytime roost, the male frequently gives a series of subdued screeches and, if a female is present, screeching duets are regular. A habit regularly practised by another two-legged species who also hunt by night, except that the screeches, and duets, are more likely to be shared before going to roost, rather than when leaving it.

Sites for nesting include buildings or old trees, vocationally cliffs and caves. Agricultural buildings are most important, both used and disused, as are castles, mills, churches and ruins. It is estimated that there are between 600 and 900 pairs in Ireland where field mice and brown rats are the most important prey. Bank voles are taken where available (south-west Ireland but spreading), birds, frogs and bats also. A single barn owl will consume six small prey items every 24 hours. Its decline is directly linked to changes in agricultural practices. Intensive farming provides fewer areas of rough grass and fewer field margins for hunting owls, while the removal of farm buildings, stone barns and dead trees deprives the owl of nesting sites. Many are killed every year through shooting and consuming prey contaminated with rodenticides. Farmers are asked to help by interfering as little as possible with existing nest mites, and encouraging owls to take up residence in new farm buildings by providing nest boxes (tea-chest size with a 6 in by 6 in hole).

I was lucky enough to see a barn owl myself one night last winter while standing in the Square in Athenry at 2.15am and, while our interest in nature continues, I’m sure the future of the screeching duets of both species is assured.

Yours in nature.

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The Pine Martin, a shy nocturnal animal, is rarely seen in its natural habitat. It lives mainly in wooded areas and remote rocky areas like the Burren in Co. Clare away from people. It is a good climber and will climb trees after small mammals and birds which it eats as well as frogs, berries, insects and has been known to raid fowl houses as well as attack the odd lamb. It nests usually in a hole in a tree and in lofts of old vacant buildings. The gestation period may be prolonged because of a delay, for reasons best known to the Pine Marten. before the implantation of the fertilised egg in the wall of the uterus. The litter contains one to five young. The animal has a dark brown coat with an undivided yellowish throat patch. Its head and body length is 42 – 52 cm. with a 22 – 27cm. long tail and it’s weight is 1 – 2 kg.

While some people, though never having seen the animal, always refer to it as a Marten Cat, it is in fact a member of the weasel or stoat family as is quite apparent when one sees a picture of the animal, or sees one that has been stuffed. I have also had serious arguments with a number of people who would swear that the Pine Marten has a nail on the end of its tail. I can assure them this is not so, as I am in possession of a fairly good specimen that was unfortunately killed in the Lough Cutra area of Galway (not by me) some twenty years ago, and its tail did not have a nail. I also found one dead by the road at Coole Park about April 1985, which I gave to a person anxious to have one stuffed, but unfortunately the taxidermist deemed it unsuitable due to mange.

The latest sighting of a Pine Marten in the Athenry area as far as I am aware was in the Greethill area by a number of men from the South Galway area out at night hunting foxes, when the animal got caught with the spotlight on him. I discussed the incident with one of the men concerned, who is familiar with the animal, and he had no doubt as to the type of animal they encountered. I am sure where there was one there are more, perhaps a small colony. I also hear rumours of the animal making its presence felt in the Castle Ellen I Knockbrack area. Perhaps somebody in the area may be in a position to verify this.

While the animal is well established in the Lough Cutra and Coole Park areas in South Galway, I cannot confirm this for Athenry at present; but with a bit of luck some of us may in the future see this rare animal around the fields of Athenry.

Yours in Nature

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