Birds in a Barbed Bush



1st November 2021 08:12 | 3ºC, hazy blue sky, negligible breeze, dry | Newton Abbot, Devon.

Two robins and a blackbird are in the mahonia bush just outside my front door. I can see them clearly from my armchair, consequently writing this is taking a lot longer than it should: every time I become aware of movement in my peripheral vision I stop to observe. I can’t help it. They are fascinating for all sorts of reasons, but top of my thoughts is why they are drawn to the very prickly mahonia? It would be rather like me seeking comfort in a dressing gown made of barbed wire.

I have quite severely cut back this mahonia in the past. At one time, when I had a Smart 2-seater, I was able to park on the ground in front of the garage. Even such a small car as this would not fit into the garage itself. Well, that is not strictly true. It would fit in the garage but I could not open the door wide enough to get out. Technically it fitted but practically it didn’t.

Parked on the drive right next to the mahonia I could not for the life of me determine the source of the scratches that seemed to multiply overnight. Every night. In desperation I hypothesised that Devon pixies were to blame, and was considering seeking the assistance of the local wizard. Eventually I discovered, or rather it dawned on me in a blinding flash of inspired thinking, that it was something more prosaic. I was saddened for a moment; I rather liked the pixie hypothesis. But it turned out to be the mahonia!

Upon this realisation I decided it was war. War was declared on a Saturday morning so I donned my battle dress – sad old jeans, knee pads and some very stout gardening gloves. I polished my weapon which, before you get any weird ideas, was a slightly rusty pair of moderately sharp shears.

I wheeled the garden waste bin to the front of the bungalow and had the foresight to scoop a good stiff brush out of one of the sheds and place that against the bin. I was ready for action. The mahonia just sat there. Well, it doesn’t ‘sit’ as such but you know what I mean. It was firmly planted on the ground refusing to budge.

I started to feel sorry for it. I knew what I was about to do but the mahonia, so far as I could tell, had no idea at all. Either that or it just could not be bothered; perhaps not seeing me as a threat. I let rip with the shears, hacking away at small fronds to start with. As I gained confidence – and met no resistance – I bravely tackled larger chunks. This mahonia was getting a good old fashioned short back and sides.

And then it happened. Enough debris had gathered for me to start scooping it up and thrusting it into the bin. That is when the mahonia finally fought back, and it was pretty painful. At first it was more shock than pain: the realisation that even my super-quality extra-stout and fairly expensive garden gloves would not fully protect me from the numerous barbs on the end of every leaf of every frond.

I respected the mahonia after that, or perhaps feared it – I’m not quite sure which. At first I did not want to go on and tried to think of some other way of gathering up the fronds and getting them into the bin. But nothing came to mind, so hands it was. I would very gingerly and very slowly and very carefully pick up each bit I had chopped off and very delicately place it into the bin.

And this is when the second major setback occurred. Only a small number of fronds would fit into the bin – unless I pressed them down. But how would I do that? A million barbs were staring at me out of the dark, taunting me to give it a go if I dare. But once again I plucked up the courage to squash the fronds down, with help from a dustpan and brush I ingeniously remembered was languishing at the back of the shed. Actually, forget the brush, that was no use at all for this particular operation. It was the dustpan; lime green and solid and just the right size – a weapon I had no idea I would need at the commencement of this battle.

By now I was fairly sure I could almost hear the mahonia laughing at me and my rather pathetic efforts to defrock it. But I succeeded in the end, and my Smart car remained scratch free for a full year.

Anyway, the reason I tell this story is the birds that live – or at least frequently take refuge in – said mahonia bush. They are wonderful creatures and I love to see them, but why a mahonia bush? Are they not intimidated as I was by all those barbs? They are such delicate creatures but seem quite unfazed by the bush and its barbs.

And then it dawned on me. The birds are quite a bit more intelligent than me, at least with regard to building a relationship with a mahonia. They seem to get on very well and there is clearly a mutual benefit. Which is more than I can say for me. I have so much to learn from nature.

Whilst photographing the mahonia this morning I noticed these nearby. They look as if they are carved out of a very good quality Devon butter. Anyone know what they are?

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