Cliffs and valleys formed over time

2008-03-27 00:00

It was a day that showed no promise other than the daily routine of inevitable housework and some pruning, planting and pinching back. Then that day was magically brightened by a flash of green among the leonotis. The Malachite Sunbird had arrived.

The first intimation of a sunbird in our garden is the familiar ch, ch, ch as it flits among the flowers. Further investigation usually reveals the Black Sunbird, whose preference is for the fuschias and salvias. I have always maintained that birds do not discriminate between native and exotic, but I have to concede that — so far — it has taken the flowering of the leonotis in early autumn to bring the Malachite.

And he doesn’t show any inclination to venture nearer the house to sample the fairy fuschia. Or is that because the Black Sunbird has established his territory hereabouts? Or because the seemingly somnolent cat dozes all day on the patio — and who knows what he is up to when we aren’t about?

Nothing, not leonotis nor pokers nor galtonia nor any other flower in our garden will entice any other sunbirds. My husband blames all those neighbouring farm gardens equipped with fancy artificial bird feeders. Even solely indigenous gardeners have no reservations about supplementing natural sources of nectar, which surely confirms my contention that birds don’t seem to be all that pickey. Birds seem to go where the living — i.e. the feeding —is easy (always excepting the Malachite in our garden). In any case, and I know I get boring about it, a purely indigenous garden in our biome would have long periods with nothing to tempt a sunbird. But bring in a feeder and it seems they flock to the party. Our neighbour even had a gate-crashing Gurney’s Sugarbird, intimidating the rest unmercifully, driving them away and ruining the party.

For a gardener, as well as the birds, there is plenty to keep bordedom and the blues away. Heaven knows, the news is nasty enough to make one disconsolate and fearful, and gardeners are not Pollyannas; but somehow a garden can give just the right mix of comfort and hope, preceded usually by a challenge: in our garden you can set off in any direction and find an urgent job just begging for attention. Take for instance that clematis (named Fireworks) that might have been given up for dead, but was rescued willy-nilly and moved, and has now thrust up a brave tiny green spur, looking for light. And the Greensleeves rose that surely was dead and about to be chucked, when it displayed the same gutsy tenacity, and produced a brand new basal shoot. Small things, but comforting.

We bought ourselves a sunbird feeder for Christmas. A garish orange. Plastic. The ultimate in kitsch. But if it brings the sunbirds, that’s okay. There’s just the little matter of installing it well away from the sleepy cat. But it’s autumn already and the job’s still not done. And now there’s the moot question; is it a good thing or a bad, to con the sunbirds into staying in this cold, cold garden through winter?

And while we ponder that crucial question we think about the lovely Lilium formosanum being grubbed out on the motorway verges near Pietermaritzburg and how the sunbirds must have loved them (and yes, I do know that they would be facilitating pollination and lots of seeds). Bully for you Jean Mitchell for exposing this folly so succinctly in your letter to the paper. No amount of pedantic explanations about the threat of alien species can alter the fact that casual labour is being allocated soft targets, whether they are cedars in Donnybrook, street trees in Howick or solitary, statuesque gum trees along scenic motorways. It seems it’s just too much effort for those in authority to attack the real trouble spots. This is becoming an environmental issue too sensitive to be handled by bureaucrats blind to natural beauty and unable to think out of the box.

It’s enough to give you the blues all over again.

• Phyl Palframan is a retired farmer’s wife, living on the home farm, a mother, grandmother,

gardener and freelance journalist.

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