Crane Spotter – Time to make a better day

I’ve never been a Neighbours fan but as I tramped one muddy public footpath alongside a Cranleigh field last month a little bird flew overhead and reminded me of the Ozzie soap’s theme song:

Everybody needs good neighbours
Just a friendly wave each morning
Helps to make a better day.
Need to get to know each other
Next door is only a footstep away.’

Slimmer and slightly shorter than the House Sparrow, this fella gave its familiar two-syllable call: ‘chigg-itt’ as it went over my head. It’s a Linnet, innit!

This one was apparently alone and in need of its preferred company – which is plenty of other Linnets. Seeing a flock of these lively birds truly does make for a better day!

Female Linnet, Carduelis cannabina

Observe these flighty finches close up in the breeding season and the males feature a variable blaze of red on their breast and on the front of their grey heads. The back is chestnut while the females are better camouflaged with streaky brown/grey tones.

Shunning gardens, they are birds of the open countryside. Our fields, heaths and commons may look lifeless at times, and increasingly are. But then you can suddenly get a winter warmer and be blessed as scores of these seed eaters suddenly burst forth and rise up in a wave of cheery chatter and twittering.

Flocks of bigger birds have leaders out the front but the Linnets are such good neighbours they all have a go. All at once. It seems each is somehow simultaneously a leader and a follower. 

Twisting and turning in a co-ordinated group they remind me of a shoal of tropical fish performing amazing changes of direction in milliseconds yet never colliding. What a breakthrough it would be if our motor vehicles were programmed in the same way.

Ever restless, the Linnets will suddenly all stop chattering and dive down into cover without warning and for no apparent reason. 

Next second they can explode back up in the air again, often flying in wide circles. They don’t appear to know which way to go. Maybe that’s the trouble with having too many leaders. Make your mind up!

Flocks of hungry Linnets who are eager to help one another search out the food in winter give a marvellous performance. And in the late spring and through the summer they are just as neighbourly.

Frequently nesting unseen on the ground in dense vegetation, a pair will generously share their patch with plenty of other couples doing the same thing. 

A flock of Linnets, Carduelis cannabina

‘Next door is only a footstep away’ says the Neighbours’ theme tune and Linnets take that to heart. At one heathland site above our village there were an estimated 30 pairs breeding in one small area of heather like one big happy family.

I appeal to any dogs reading this to kindly inform their owners not to let them tramp over such likely nesting areas, which often house other breeding birds too.

Linnet numbers are sadly not what they were and they are now a red-listed species which means they are among our birds viewed by the Government and birding authorities to be of most conservation concern.

The widespread grasslands in our area and lack of set aside fields with suitable seeds are doing this species, and many others, no favours.

Last winter I regularly enjoyed seeing a flock of up to 120 Linnets in a suitable weedy field locally but this winter I have so far only seen eight there. The seedy snacks have been replaced with a different crop and even the field margins have lost much of their wildness.

The previous year a very attractive field of thistles, teasels and other Linnet-attracting plants was doing the job brilliantly. It was buzzing with birds.

When I returned for another look I was aghast. It was dead. The whole lot had been unnecessarily cut to ground level and the chopped up organic matter was left in piles around the perimeter and left to rot.

The Linnet definitely needs a helping hand from good neighbours. Let that be us. In the 19th century it used to be a cagebird. We need to continue assisting its freedom.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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