It’s not just humans who live in towns and cities. Even in the middle of the ‘concrete jungles’, wildlife lives alongside us.
What makes this habitat different?
You don’t need to go far – just look out of the window… or when you’re next out shopping or at the bus stop, take a minute to stand still and look skywards. Nature’s all around you!
Urban parks and gardens are great for wildlife – they’re our cities’ ‘green lungs’. Even cemeteries and churchyards, with their old trees and quiet corners, make great homes for wildlife.
There’s something to see year-round, and it’s literally up your street. Migrant birds can turn up anywhere, even in cities: those starlings on your bird feeder might have come from Russia, or the ducks on your local boating lake might be from Finland.
Local wildlife sightings
- April 2020 Seagull spotted flying around Prebend Street on a number of occasions (reported by Andrew T.)
- September 2019 Crow spotted by Neil in College Street. Possibly one of the black flying creatures spotted in June/July (and since) along Prebend Street.
- June/July 2019 Black creatures (birds or bats, any ideas?) have been spotted flying during daylight hours along Prebend Street about 10/15 feet off the ground. They fly very quickly! (reported by Andrew T.)
- 13 February 2019 Two foxes were seen in Prebend Gardens at 9.15pm, they were observed for five minutes before they left by the gate leading on to Andover Street (reported by Korin Grant)
- Christmas week 2018 A fox was spotted in Glebe Street (reported by Korin Grant)
Please report any wildlife sightings by email to South Highfields Neighbours (firstname.lastname@example.org) for inclusion in our urban wildlife diary.
Windows on the world
Posted 21 April 2020 by Neil, a Friend of Prebend Gardens
It was way back in 1911 when the now famous poem, Leisure, was first published. In it, William Henry Davies asked: “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?”
In these days of lockdown and isolation at home many of us have had rather more time to stand and stare than we’d perhaps care for – but the birdlife just outside our windows might provide some colourful relief.
Some big names are rallying behind this suggestion to enjoy birdwatching at home, including naturalist Chris Packham who can be followed on his Facebook page.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a website full of information, from identification guides to articles on migration and it even offers advice on how to attract birdlife into urban gardens.
A particularly feisty robin (Erithacus rubecula) has been delighting neighbours in my corner of South Highfields and was flying right in the face of anyone who came remotely near when its fledgling was taking an early flying lesson at the weekend.
Robins are often voted the nation’s favourite bird and have been a pictorial star of Christmas celebrations ever since greetings cards started to become popular in the 1860s. The birds can be very bold and will hover around the tiniest of back yards. Even someone planting up tubs can hold out the hope of unearthing a worm – and a robin might well be nearby, often singing a soft, soothing tune as it waits.
Blackbirds (Turdus merula) are another favourite – the male’s glossy black plumage makes his yellow/orange bill and eye ‘monocle’ appear particularly vivid, though the females have beautiful speckled throats and subtle eye stripes.
My copy of Raphael Nelson’s Birds of the Hedgerow, Field and Woodland, first published in 1943, describes the blackbird as “the sentinel of the hedgerow”.
“At the first sign of danger, he fills the air with his shrill scolding note to betray the approach of the intruder, be he fox or man,” the book goes on. “But the bird also has a singing voice of infinite purity which he uses to charm us with his fluty song.”
It’s just as well this song is so beautiful – it often starts before 5am, sung loud and clear from TV aerials or chimney stacks. I think it sounds particularly fine late in the evening and it certainly enchanted English poet Thomas Edward Brown (1830-1897). In his short poem Vespers he writes:
O blackbird, what a boy you are!
How you do go it!
Blowing your bugle to that one sweet star –
How you do blow it!
And does she hear you, blackbird boy, so far?
Or is it wasted breath?
‘Good Lord, she is so bright
The blackbird saith.
The acrobatic nature of blue tits (Parus caeruleus) is a familiar source of delight. These small, brightly-coloured blue and yellow livewires often swing upside down from twigs or bird feeding stations. I enjoy watching them searching for the greenfly on my climbing rose – I just wish they’d munch a little faster!
Great tits (Parus major), distinguished by the broad black stripe down their breast, look large by comparison, and don’t display quite the busy nature of their cousins. A book, simply called Interesting British Birds published by Blackie in 1956, describes their call as resembling “saw-sharpening” or the words “teacher, teacher”.
Fanciful interpretations of songs have also been applied to the gentle tones of the woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) often seen soaking up the early morning sun on aerials or chimney pots, where they radiate a peaceful rosy pink glow (though Scottish artist Donald Watson is far more eloquent – “rose-grey, like china in a cool room”).
Apparently, the woodpigeon’s five-note recital resembles the phrase “take two cows, Taffy” or, even more bizzarely, “my toe is bleeding”.
I’d be tempted to say that whoever thought those up had too much time on their hands or needed to get out more. The irony!
These are just five birds I have noticed outside my own windows – there are plenty more, including house sparrows, wrens, dunnocks and magpies. Looking into the sky I’ve seen carrion crows, black-headed gulls, the occasional heron, even a red kite.
For those venturing out, pied wagtails or grey wagtails sometimes bob about in the street, and goldfinches can sometimes be heard overhead. It’s not by accident that a flock of finches is called “a charm”.
Occasionally there might even be a surprise. A neighbour recently saw an egret in Spinney Hill Park and long-tailed tits in Charles Street; there’s a delightful pair of noisy green woodpeckers in Welford Road cemetery; and I once had a fieldfare visit my tiny backyard when the “Beast from the East” hit Britain.
Posted 14 February 2020 by Neil, a Friend of Prebend Gardens
Fancy beating the blues? It might be a good time to beat the strimmer, too, and enjoy the snowdrops and crocuses in Prebend Gardens at the moment.
The fragile-looking but defiantly tough crocuses are pushing their way through the earth in familiar purples, cheerful yellows and a dazzling white to make up a beautiful mosaic.
They are one of the few flowers to make me a little nostalgic. As a child, back in the early 1960s, they seemed magical to me and would often push their way through snow even though the flowers looked so frail. Appearances can be deceptive!
The yellow ones also seemed to attract the attention of blue tits -if the hyper-active little birds weren’t already busy pecking through the foil tops of milk left on the doorstep. I haven’t seen this activity for decades.
Snowdrops in Prebend Gardens are beginning to go past their best but there are still plenty of impressive drifts in nearby Welford Road cemetery, close to the University Road side entrance.
Snowdrops – galanthus
According to A Dictionary of English Folklore by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, published by Oxford, snowdrops have quite a connection to death.
They cite a reference from 1878 that says if snowdrops are picked and brought into the house they can bring bad luck or even death. It’s fine to grow them in bowls indoors, however, and in gardens!
It is thought this rather morbid link was made because a snowdrop ‘looks like a corpse in its shroud’. The vivid Victorian imagination at its best.
There are also a few primroses at Welford Road – and, again, this most innocent-looking flower has a fatal attraction according to the folklore dictionary. So take heed and never give anyone a single primrose or pick one to bring indoors.
Those rearing poultry were particularly cautious. From the mid-19th century until quite recently, children were warned never to bring fewer than 13 primroses into the house because this was the optimum number of chicks in a clutch – fewer primroses meant fewer eggs would hatch.
Again, the link was made due to appearances – primroses are yellow and so are chicks, thereby endorsing the ‘like affects like’ theory.
With that in mind, I’ll take a more life-affirming approach and have pure enjoyment seeing the flawless white snowdrops and warm thoughts when I notice the sunshine yellow of the primroses and crocuses. It’s hard to be deadly serious all the time!
A down to earth high-flyer
Posted 1 December 2019 by Neil, a Friend of Prebend Gardens
The magical appearance of a tiny wren threading its way through the tangle of winter jasmine and honeysuckle rambling across my back wall reminded me of the amazing folklore surrounding this characterful bird.
Despite its diminutive frame (it was featured on Britain’s smallest coin, the farthing, until 1960), wrens have astonishingly loud voices – so perhaps it should be less of a surprise to know it punched above its weight to become known as the King of All Birds.
For those who don’t know the story, it is well told in a collection of ‘trickster’ anecdotes called Trick of the Tale by John and Caitlin Matthews, who use a version from Ireland.
The tale begins: ‘Long ago, in the ages before men, the birds assembled to elect one of their number to be King of All Birds.’
Since everyone felt they could lay claim to the title, it was decided to follow the wise owl’s plan to see which bird could fly the highest and the winner would take the crown.
Poor pheasants and chickens fell to Earth soonest and even larks and swallows, which were used to soaring in the lofty heights, found they were not the highest flyers. Neither were the geese, despite the stamina they had built up flying thousands of miles across continents.
It seemed the eagle was alone in reaching the highest heights.
‘I shall be your king,’ he boomed, seeing no others above him.
‘Not so,’ said a little voice, ‘for I am above you.’
The plump and stubby-tailed little wren had hitched a ride, hidden on the eagle’s back, and then flew just a few feet above his exhausted host’s head. Victory!
It’s not such a good outcome at other times, however. It was believed a wren had given away the hiding place of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death circa 34 AD. For many years, it became a tradition to stone a wren the day after Christmas and parade its body around towns and villages.
In exchange for a contribution, a feather was given. When all the feathers were gone, a feast was had, the bird’s bones were buried and it was believed that strength was gained from the King of the Birds.
A version of Hunting the Wren can be found on folk musician John Kirkpatrick’s 1997 album Wassail!, though a gentler, more poignant original song called King of Birds can be found on Scottish singer Karine Polwart’s album Traces, from 2012.
The wren’s own song, as well as its speed and agility, was nicely caught in some lines from the poem Jenny Wren, written by William Henry Davies (1871-1940).
‘My pretty runner, you prefer
To be a thing to run unheard
Through leaves and grass, and not a bird!
‘Twas then she burst, to prove me wrong,
Into a sudden storm of song;
So very loud and earnest, I
Feared she would break her heart and die.’
Just to show real life can be as strange as tall tales, the male wren builds up to a dozen architecturally intricate nests from which his potential mate chooses one. These can be in shrubs, hedges or even the pocket of a jacket hanging in a quiet shed. The wren’s scientific name Troglodytes troglodytes comes from the Greek for ‘cave dweller’ and shows how adaptable these birds are in different parts of the world.
Our native wren is about 9cm and is described in one of my older bird books as being ‘rufous brown; a buff-white chin and throat merge into a breast and belly of a darker shade.’ Some books describe the wren as our smallest bird, though the firecrest and goldcrest take that particular crown – without cheating!
Posted 28 October 2019 by Neil, a Friend of Prebend Gardens
Has anyone seen our house sparrows? Here in Brookhouse Street/Avenue, Prebend Street and College Street/Avenue, we had been enjoying a thriving and growing colony of these boisterous and chipper little birds.
The once common house sparrow (Passer domesticus) has been in serious decline since the middle of the 1970s and many theories have been put forward in an attempt to explain why.
These have included traffic pollution, lack of food and colony collapse – an idea that groups of house sparrows need to be sufficiently large in number or they simply don’t survive.
Here in our small corner of South Highfields, however, house sparrows have been thriving – until two laurel trees in Brookhouse Avenue were cut down by Leicester City Council on Tuesday, 15 October.
The following day there was silence. The sparrows, which lined the guttering of nearby houses and filled the laurel trees with noisy activity, had gone.
A few sparrows appear to have come back, but where have the others gone? I hope they’ve moved to a new home close to other South Highfields neighbours because I’d hate to think they’ve perished. I’ve been for a walk round the area listening out and watching for them. There was plenty of sparrow activity near Hamilton Street but perhaps there always has been.
It is difficult to put a number on how many have gone AWOL. I’ve regularly had two dozen, but up to 30 at a time, in my small back yard, and there have been a dozen or so busy in the street at the same instance. I now see just five regulars.
Interestingly, house sparrows in Leicester were the focus of research at De Montfort University. This attracted the attention of the national Press.
Dr Kate Vincent’s thesis “Investigating the causes of the decline of the urban house sparrow population in Britain” was published in 2006 after research was carried out at nine sites across Leicester between 2001 and 2003.
A very simple summary of the research team’s findings suggest that it’s lack of food, particularly insects at chick-rearing time, which is the major cause of house sparrow decline.
In her summary, Dr Vincent writes: “Invertebrate abundance in suburban areas is probably determined, at least in part, by the availability of suitable habitat including native deciduous shrubbery, trees and grassland.”
Dr Vincent goes on to say: “Management techniques, which increase densities of key invertebrate prey during summer, have the potential to increase the annual productivity and possibly the breeding densities of house sparrows in urban-suburban landscapes.”
An article in the Independent newspaper in November, 2008, reported that house sparrow population had declined by 68 per cent since 1977, with urban areas showing the steepest fall in numbers. Again it pointed to research, including that of Dr Vincent, the RSPB and government wildlife agency Natural England, that chicks were starving to death in their nests or fledglings were so weak they did not survive for long.
In their book Tweet of the Day, Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss write that the noise of house sparrows has been a soundtrack to man’s existence for thousands of years.
“Its call may not be particularly melodic, or tuneful, but nonetheless evokes a particular sense of pleasure every time we hear it: the companionable chirp of the house sparrow.”
The city council said it had removed the laurels for safety reasons! The trees had been planted close to a brick wall and outgrown their position, undermining the wall and causing cracking.
A victory to crow about
Posted 30 September 2019 by Neil, a Friend of Prebend Gardens
The uplifting sight and sounds of swifts as they soar and scream through the blue, summer skies are now a fond memory – but it’s still worth taking a look up every now and then.
Last week, as I strolled into College Street from Seymour Street, I heard a strange sound from the sky, almost like a mewling kitten.
It would have been very surprising, indeed, to see a flying cat. It was still surprising to see a carrion crow seeing off a kestrel. The crow, with silent determination, was seeing the small but speedy bird of prey ‘off the premises’ and matched the kestrel’s swift swoops and sudden change of direction with remarkable precision and dexterity.
The kestrel, with its distinctive ‘kee-kee-kee’, kept trying to double back, but the crow saw off every advance until the unwelcome intruder finally flew towards London Road.
Although a common bird of prey, it was still a pleasure for me, if not the crow, to see one in South Highfields.
According to Raphael Nelson’s Birds of the Hedgerow, Field and Woodland from 1943, kestrels were also known as windhovers, which seems a good name when they are seen almost motionless in the air waiting for a strike, and in some parts of the country they are called a ‘mouse falcon’.
He says: “By nature, the kestrel is a bird of the woodlands but he will readily hunt in a suburban area broken by roads and houses. I have seen a pair of these hawks skim no more than a few feet above a passing omnibus when making for a nearby field.”
Perhaps a few people on the number 31 bus from Oadby saw the kestrel swoop low as it headed toward Welford Road Cemetery or Victoria Park.
I confess I felt proud of the crow not least because he might have saved a delightful house sparrow or two from becoming an afternoon snack.
When I lived in a top-floor flat in College Street, I used to enjoy watching crows go about their daily routine. They looked so organised flying purposefully and solidly in small groups.
I think they have a sense of humour, too. People used to leave food offerings close to the dead end between College Street and Saxby Street and often magpies would gather to have their fill of these easy pickings.
As the crows flew over, one of the flock would slightly drop from the others and tilt its wings toward the magpies, a little like an aggressive shoulder barge.
Even though the crows were high up, it put the magpies in an anxious hopping frenzy. The crow (if it was the same one!) did it every time it passed overhead causing the same unease far below. This ‘murder’ of crows must have cast a sinister shadow over the magpies.
Perhaps it had a grudge and not a sense of humour, though in Tweet of the Day, by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, they describe: “One of the strangest sightings involved crows hanging upside down from telegraph wires; perhaps just for the pleasure it gave them. Inscrutable creatures, crows.”
And I’m not alone in being a fan – Mark Cocker’s thoughtful, witty and well-researched book Crow Country, from 2008, is well worth a read.
A miniature flypast
Posted 23 Jul 2019 by Neil, a Friend of Prebend Gardens
A few weeks ago I was going to write a short piece about the latest wave of wild flowers to reveal their colourful faces in Prebend Gardens – then the park had a trim.
At least two lessons to learn there. First, I should have written something straight away; second, enjoy the plant life while it’s there!
I’ve been disappointed by the apparent decline in varieties of bee species and birdlife in the park, this year. Hope that returns when planned work has finished and the park and its wildlife have a chance to recover.
There has, however, still been quite a variety of other flying creatures, from the tiniest of hoverflies – supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers or Newcastle United depending on the colour of their stripes – to wasps.
Common banded hoverfly – Syrphus ribesii
The smallest wasps look quite industrious and harmless, though the bigger species, which seem to hang in the air surveying and focusing, still make me nervous until that menacing and relentless buzz is out of earshot. I have been stung twice in the past and it was no big deal, thankfully, but I’d rather not make it third time unlucky…
The real joys of my miniature safari have been the moths. I really need the help of an expert because I don’t know their names.
Three I have identified (I think!) with help from the internet include the small mint moth (Pyrausta aurata). Although it looks little more than a beige blur as it springs up and down in its distinctive flight, study it when it lands and it’s an exquisite little gem with yellow dots on its dark gingery wings. It goes about its business during the day.
Mint moth – Pyrausta aurata
Another colourful specimen is the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae), though when at rest with its wings folded back to form the shape of a miniature Toblerone, it looks almost velvety black. Accidentally disturb it from its daytime rest, and it flashes a glorious burst of red on its butterfly-shaped wings, which are a little more than 3cm across.
Cinnabar moth – Tyria jacobaeae
The final curiosity is a pale buff-coloured creature which comes to rest in a distinct T-shape. It’s about 2.5cm, though looks smaller due to its fragile appearance, and has the name Emmelina monodactyla (aka the plume moth).
Plume moth – Emmelina monodactyla
All three are delightful and a far cry from the papery and powdery little clothes moth horrors who munched their way through most of my jeans and jumpers the first night I moved into a flat in College Street!
I have a large glass jar reserved for capturing bees, wasps, butterflies and large spiders trapped indoors so that I can then release them back outside. Moths have to fend for themselves – they always seem to head straight for the ceiling and happily stay there out of reach.
A useful website is simply called UK Moths and it has a Beginners’ Top 20 of the commonest varieties. It can be found at:
Learn about hoverflies and other species at:
In to the Wild
Posted 12 Apr 2019 by Neil, a Friend of Prebend Gardens
Wild flowers have been brightening up Prebend Gardens this past few weeks – but turning to the internet to help identify some of these colourful little jewels, I find the term ‘wild’ is perhaps a little off the mark.
Liberated, untamed, dumped? Perhaps these are better words for plants such as the attractive creeping comfrey, which I discovered has been termed ‘a naturalised escape’ since 1900. It was, apparently, introduced to these shores in the late 18th century.
Another ‘neophyte’ (and these are new words to me – my good old-fashioned dictionary has been well thumbed in recent days!) is green alkanet, introduced into English gardens back in the 1720s. It has the brightest of small blue flowers and its root was once used to make varnish for violins.
Green Alkanet Pentaglottis sempervirens
Some plants considered endearing enough to brighten up the home turf quickly lost their charm when they ran riot in domestic gardens and were weeded out only to be abandoned in open spaces. They have since been happily making their presence felt, albeit with their modest and easily overlooked flowers, in our parks and wilder gardens.
Prebend Gardens has had plenty of colour recently – the vivid blue speedwell, white dead nettle and groundsel have been and gone, but the red dead nettle is going strong as are the cheerful daisies. Then there are plentiful dandelions, which are described as the ‘little sun of the grass’ in a magnificent illustrated book called The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris.
They call their creation ‘a spell book’ with some justification and in their short tribute to the dandelion they conjure up its older names such as dent-de-lion, lion’s tooth, windblow, evening glow, milkwitch or parachute before imagining new ones such as bane of lawn perfectionists or fallen star of the football pitch.
They conclude by saying ‘never would I call you only, merely, simply, ‘weed’.’
On bluebells the pair conclude ‘Enter the wood with care, my love, Lest you are pulled down by the hue, Lost in the depths, drowned in blue.’
Bluebells are appearing in Prebend Gardens just now – you have been warned!
Yellow primroses and white anemones, or wind flowers, add to the variety of colour – I’m sure these are more recent additions but they have naturalised beautifully.
Primrose Primula vulgaris
It’s made me wonder what an ‘English country garden’, or town garden for that matter, looked like many centuries ago before plant souvenirs were brought back during travels in war and peace.
A neighbour has mentioned an interesting garden at Prebendal Manor House at Nassington, near Peterborough. Here gardens have been recreated including features from the 13th to 15th centuries. They are open to the public but visits have to be arranged beforehand. These can be for parties of between four and 45 people and the website, below, says it is £8 a head.
I have also listed a couple of websites I used to read up about the Prebend Gardens flora.
Posted 18 Mar 2019 by Alison Cottam
A tiny garden pond in Highfields has been home to several generations of frogs over the many years. They are an interesting and useful addition to garden wildlife, being partial to garden pests such as small slugs and snails.
Over the winter the frogs have been hibernating at the bottom of the pond. Normally they re-emerge in March and the pond suddenly comes alive with pairs of mating frogs, the male riding on the back of the female, with his front legs clasped around her.
This year the first spawn appeared on February 28th, probably the effect of a mild winter and some warm days.
The tiny black dot at the centre of each egg elongates and becomes comma shaped as the tadpole starts to develop. The clear jelly around protects and helps to nourish it. The jelly disintegrates within a few days and the tadpoles begin to swim using their tails. They breathe under water, absorbing oxygen through gills on the side of the body. Their diet consists of algae, tiny plants that grow on water weed and the bottom of the pond. When there is plenty of food available, tadpoles grow rapidly.
Within a few weeks the tadpoles start to grow back legs. At this stage they are also developing lungs and can be seen gulping air from the surface of the water. Their diet changes and they start to eat other small creatures found in the pond such as aquatic worms and water fleas. Next to develop are the back legs. At this stage they are called froglets and they begin to spend time out of the pond amongst the plants on the margin. The remnants of the tail are absorbed into the body and by early summer the transformation from a black dot surrounded by jelly into a tiny and very cute version of an adult frog is complete.
The Swift (Apus apus)
Posted 21 Jan 2019 by Maggie Ash
From the end of April to the beginning of May I look to the skies for the first sight of a screeching swift. With a change in the wind direction, warmer weather and no rain I might see one over London Road or from my back yard in Churchill Street. This for me signals the beginning of summer. After a few days there will be more screeching and diving birds looking for a nest site. Years ago one was nesting in Churchill Street but last year the nearest nest was on St Albans Road.
Swifts look for gaps in eaves of houses for a place to build their nests, which are bound together with saliva. A lot of these nesting places have been lost in house renovations.
These birds never land on the ground, feeding, sleeping and mating on the wing.
The Swifts have come from Africa as far as the Congo and South Africa where they have spent our winter, and only stay here long enough to breed.
Swifts mate for life, starting to breed when they are four years old. Before that, usually at the age of one year, they will find their mate and nest, returning to the same site year after year.
The eggs as well as the young can survive for as long as four days if left whilst the parents forage as far away as Belgium.
The young fledge at six weeks, immediately flying and becoming independent. By early August you should see groups of them on the wing whilst preparing to return to Africa and then they have flown away to winter in the sun.
For more information about swifts (and birds in general):
The RSPB website has further details and asks for information about sightings and nesting sites.
BTO bird track
And if further interested:
Poems by Ted Hughes and Anne Stevenson
You can also report any sightings by email to South Highfields Neighbours for inclusion in our urban wildlife diary.
The Big Garden Birdwatch 2019
Posted 10 Jan 2019 by Admin
The Big Garden Birdwatch takes place at the end of January each year (26-28 January 2019). It takes place over three days, so if you’re busy over the weekend or perhaps the weather’s bad, you have the option of a third day!
To take part in this year’s Birdwatch sign-up today to request a FREE postal pack or take part online. Once you’ve signed up, you’ll also get FREE access to Big Garden Extra for exclusive articles, advice and celebrity interviews.
Read more at https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/everything-you-need-to-know-about-big-garden-birdwatch/#QITrAskizpXVtBW3.99