A solitary life underground

Male starlings are busy nestbuilding
Male starlings are busy nestbuilding

Written by Heather Elvidge

After months of gloom, what joy to see the sun. Bright days and growing things fill our hearts with hope.

What we’re hoping for is warmer days. Just the average for April — 10 or 12C — would do. Spring has been rather coy so far, but when temperatures stay above 6C (43F) for a few days the trees will break open their buds, and then there’ll be no stopping the green tide.

If the trees are holding back, molehills seem to be popping up everywhere. Moles are busy extending their networks of tunnels in the hope of coming across another mole.

It’s a solitary life below ground, where the only excitement comes when a worm or beetle falls into your tunnel. But in spring, moles throw caution to the wind. It’s the only time when they get together; after mating each one returns to its own system of tunnels.

It’s amazing that there are any moles left, considering how they were persecuted in the past. They were a pest, undermining crops and meadows with their tunnels. Every parish had its mole catcher, with his strychnine and mole traps.

All those dead moles didn’t go to waste. Hundreds of velvety pelts were sown together to make hardwearing trousers, waistcoats, and mittens for the mole catcher’s family. Until the 20th century, moleskin really was moles’ skin.

In spite of the ongoing war between man and small beast, moles were beneficial in folk medicine. A mole’s paw sewn in a bag and worn around the neck could relieve toothache; for rheumatism, a paw was kept in the pocket. A remedy for epilepsy was a dose of mole’s blood in white wine. Perhaps the NHS isn’t so bad after all.

Surprising starling

Garden birds are making plenty of noise now, and many of them are busy collecting nest material.

The male starling refurnishes his old nest site with grass and dry plant stems. He also picks aromatic leaves to deter parasites, and likes to add a few flower petals.

The scruffy nest will be in a natural or artificial cavity, such as under roof tiles. When it’s finished the male perches nearby to burble and whistle. While not very melodic he is a keen mimic, especially of phones and car alarms. If his mate approves of the nest she’ll collect feathers or moss to line it.

Starlings were always such common birds that’s it’s hard to believe their numbers are falling. Fewer chicks are surviving, probably through lack of food. Although adult starlings will eat almost anything, their young are fed solely on the grubs and insects found in grassland. Nowadays pastures, golf courses and lawns are sprayed to deter pests such as leatherjackets, which starlings like.

Today we’re delighted when wild birds come near us, as they sometimes do when we feed them regularly. But our forebears were generally wary. It was unlucky to have a wild bird follow you, and a dreadful omen if one pecked at the window or came into the house. And hair had to be disposed of carefully, or a bird might use it in its nest and give you a headache.