I am happy that a pair of moorhens have come to regard the dew pond as their home, but they are incredibly shy. They are probably the true heirs to the garden, spending more time there than anyone else. When I arrive in the morning they are already having an early morning dip in the pond. When I leave on an evening they are still paddling around in the shallows.
A couple of months ago they started to cobble together a makeshift nest from bits of reed and plants collected from around the banks. One of the hens would sit in the nest carefully weaving, whilst the other collected pieces to bring back and present to the ‘foreman’ of works. Some pieces were instantly rejected as unsuitable for their ideal home, but the tangle of twigs and sticks gradually began to take shape, despite its precarious perch on top of a lily pad.
It wasn’t long before they began to sit on the nest incubating a brood of eggs in the hope of starting a family. One day, at the beginning of June, they appeared. Five tiny balls of fluff, with long, clumsy legs, tumbling around on the lily pad and never straying far from their parents.
Over the months we have lost a few. First the smallest, the runt of the litter disappeared. Then one more, and finally another. It is part of the inevitable cycle of life, and I didn’t expect them all to make it but stayed hopeful. Now there are just two chicks, one per parent, and they keep a close monitor on each one, effectively dividing the labour.
I have never given them any cause for concern, but they are still scared witless of me. Whenever I approach the pond they timidly hurry away to the furthest point or scuttle off into the undergrowth. I’m not sure why I scare them so much. Is it my size, and lumbering gait that strikes fear into their hearts? Have they had a bad experience with humans previously and are now wary enough to keep us at a suitable distance.
Their scepticism seems to have passed on to the ducks. They now take flight whenever I am near only to return once I have attained a safe distance from the pond. It is not just at the pond either. The birds in the garden seem to have a sixth sense. As soon as I round the corner, passing from one part of the garden to another, I see a flurry of tail feathers. The gathering of birds that had taken place before my arrival hastily disperses. When I arrive on a morning it is not the fox I see, but it’s tail as it slinks off between the gap in the hedge. The rabbit, which is conspicuous by the damage it wreaks on my veg plot, will never hang around to see who’s veg it is eating.
This response is probably a mix of instinct and learned response. They naturally fear anything larger than themselves with the potential to cause them harm. Much like the unnatural fear we feel on a dark night when we hear an unfamiliar noise and our heart starts to race. This innate fear is what has kept us safe from unknown predators for millennia. Then there is the learned fear, passed from parent to child over generations. They are taught from a young age that this entity has the potential to cause harm, whether it is intended or not. We should give them a wide berth, or at least stay far enough away to be safe from them.
The interactions occurring where human and wildlife habitats intersect can be sometimes beneficial and sometimes detrimental to humans and animals. The stress caused to animals who live where they might have regular interactions with humans has been shown to lower their rate of feeding and reproductive success. Wild animal attacks are rare in the UK, but do happen in some parts of the world.
Even more commonly our paths will cross for mutual benefit. Most of the animals we come across in our everyday lives will be domesticated and depend on humans for some of their care. Others have opportunistically managed to find a way to exploit the habitats we create. The proliferation of robins in suburban areas is partly due to the intensely diverse habitats created by back gardens, and the fox is just one example of an animal that has become more prevalent in urban areas than rural, thriving on our waste.
Even with decades of benevolent treatment, I doubt that the moorhens will ever come to see me as any less of a threat. I for one, am glad though. Perhaps their wariness will be the very factor that ensures they can enjoy a long life and will have many more broods on the pond.