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The Wenches

  • Mary Jo Putney

  • Patricia Rice

  • Susan Fraser King

  • Anne Gracie

  • Nicola Cornick

  • Andrea Penrose

  • Christina Courtenay

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  • Jo Beverley
    Word Wench 2006-2016

  • Edith Layton
    Word Wench 2006-2009

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June 2023

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  • Years published: 164

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« All that glitters ... | Main | The Grand Tour »


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I find the navigation abilities of birds really fascinating. Watching starlings swarming in the sky, forming swirling patterns without collision or dispersion is stunning and I think still the subject of mathematical research. Likewise soaring birds of prey spotting a mouse from great heights; migrating birds tracking the earth's magnetic field and returning each year to the same spot; or bats using sonar principles with great skill; all leave me with a feeling of wonder!

However my favorite bird is the robin who perches on my fork while I'm gardening. I interpret the occasional chirp as advice on the best position to find juicy worms. LOL


This is a lovely post. I was sitting reading it at breakfast whilst watching a dozen or so goldfinches on the bird feeders on our patio. I live on the very southern edge of London, maybe 12 miles out from the centre, so these were Christina’s goldfinches and not the totally different American bird. What we don’t get (I wish we did and I’m jealous of some of you) is Red Kites and Ravens – plenty of other corvids, magpies, carrion crows, noisy flocks of jackdaws, jays venturing out from the woods and the very occasional rook, but a raven would be a surprise and a delight. As would any raptor that chose to turn up, but the kestrels stay hovering over the downs and, bar a couple of one-time visits years ago, nothing bigger, despite the plentiful supple of feral pigeons they could eat, to say nothing of the fat wood pigeons. So basically, just the normal back garden birds one sees when the open countryside is nearby, but it is still a thrill to see woodpeckers on the feeders, but less so when a noisy flock of parakeets turns up to peck at the apples on the tree and chase everything else off the feeders.

One thing that struck me again – and I was reminded of this by Nicola - was the lack of imagination shown by emigrant Brits when it came to naming birds. Or maybe it was a bit of homesickness? So, we have Australian Magpies, which are not even corvids, American Robins and Goldfinches which are nothing like the European originals and who knows what else? Whenever an American or Australian writes about birds I find myself googling to see if I actually know what they are talking about, which at least helps explain when a writer refers to robins as migratory. It also provides opportunities for writers of regency romances to indulge in harmless anachronisms. I recall one – rather good - novella, can’t remember the title or author though, where the heroine was pleased with her decorations in “robin’s egg blue”: the harmless anachronism came from the colour name not existing until about 50 years later, it’s noticeability from the fact that no-one in Britain would have though of robin’s eggs as being blue.

I was also struck by Nicola’s saying she didn’t see birds when she lived in the city. Thinking back to my childhood in the 1950s – when I lived 5 miles from the centre of London – I realise that this was true for me as well, though there were very many small birds close by. The dawn chorus was extremely loud and would wake me every morning as the sun rose, but it was hard to see any of the birds who were singing. As I was kept awake in the evening by the – long gone – sound of wagons being shunted in the goods yard of the local station, I didn’t get too much sleep in summer.

Anne Gracie

Yes, watching a huge flock of birds swirl and swoop, turning on an instant and never a collision is amazing, I agree. As are all the other examples you mention. I think the research must be fascinating.

And I love the sound of your little robin that sits on your garden fork — just exactly like the robin I read about in the Secret Garden when I was a child. They're fascinating creatures.

Anne Gracie

Thanks for sharing those lovely recollections, Mike. And I agree with you about the lack of imagination shown by English settlers to places like North America and Australia in naming birds. I remember seeing an English magpie and did a double take as it was nothing like I'd expected — I had to google it to check that it really was a magpie. We also have robins that are not the English ones. I would not have known that about robin's egg blue — are you saying that English robins don't have blue eggs?

As for Nicola not seeing many birds in the city in the past, rainbow lorikeets and tawny frogmouths have only relatively recently moved into my neighbourhood, following a campaign of planting native vegetation in the city. I love the dawn chorus.


Indeed, I do mean that the European robin does not have blue eggs. I found this online description, which is pretty accurate: “The eggs are a cream, buff or white speckled or blotched with reddish-brown colour”. I have to admit that the American version is much prettier, and makes a nice paint colour if you want your home to be restful rather than dramatic.

And Quantum is so right about the boldness of Robin’s in the UK, they seem to be the small bird with the least fear of humans. At the moment though I doubt that they are having much luck following gardeners – my back garden is so hard that I need a pickaxe rather than a fork to dig anything – but for ground feeders they seem remarkably willing to go on the suspended bird feeders, unlike say the dunnocks which stick firmly to ground level (where the goldfinches approach to eating sunflower hearts leaves plenty of debris for ground feeders).

Anne Gracie

Thanks for that, Mike. I hope your garden gets easier to dig and that robins come to keep you company.

Jeanne Behnke

Well, I think I was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds at a young age. You never look at birds on the wire in the same way ever again. So no, I'm not a bird lover. Of course, birds with fairies on their backs in artwork... Yeah, that's great!

Anne Gracie

Jeanne, Hitchcock has a lot to answer for, doesn't he? He had a real knack for delving into our imaginations and creating fears. And so generations of people are unsettled by lines of birds on a wire — or a playground. Or a nondescript motel . . . Or a shower curtain . . .

Mary M.

Here at the outer edges of suburban Phoenix, it's quail, with their little red plumes (one per quail) dancing on their heads as they dash along like tiny business people with somewhere they need to be.

What's most fun, though is seeing the hordes of baby quail, sometimes 15-20 of them, streaming after their moms and then running along like little keystone cops when mom stops for a bit. We see them in the spring, tiny as hens' eggs, then gradually getting bigger and (alas) more scarce as predators pick them off. I assume enough make it to adulthood, though, as there are always quail outside my window in spring and summer. Life is good.

For something different, take a look at https://www.npr.org/2011/04/03/130955801/roosts. It's the NPR Three-Minute Fiction winner from November 2011, and it's about birds. The challenge was not to write about birds, but to start a ~600 word story with "Some people swore that the house was haunted," and end with the line, "Nothing was ever the same again after that." I remember being enchanted by the winner's imaginative take on the assignment, enough to go back and find it for you all.


Oh that short story was lovely (also scary somehow). And like all good stories it makes you wish for more. What happened afterwards, did they ever find out about the birds, who are the protagonists and how did their life change ... I wish there was a whole book. Is there? Do you know?

Deb Tait

My favourite birds are black cockatoos. They have a mournful cry and swoop across the sky often in threes. There is something about them that always brings a lump to my throat. King parrots, crimson rosellas, the very naughty sulphur crested cockatoos. Love them all. I once saw a flock of gang gang parrots feeding on a flowering tree in the Blue Mountains many moons ago but haven’t seen them for a long time. They are endangered now. Like Anne said, Australian Magpies have a fabulous warble. They are also extremely intelligent.


Michigan, my Michigan...I am so privileged to have a ringside seat to bald eagles, hawks, owls and osprey who hunt the land across the road from our house. We sit on the front porch in the evening and watch them and their flights are amazing. I never knew until we moved here that hawks actually hover over their prey until they have a good line of sight before they swoop down. We have Sandhill Cranes, the pterodactyls of the bird world who wander across our back acreage several times a week. They're beautiful birds and I love seeing them. I have pictures of the wild turkeys in a stand off with the Canada Geese out back as well. I feed the hummers, the bluebirds nest in the boxes 20 feet from the back door, I have almost every Michigan bird visitor you could think of and it's wonderful.

Mary Jo! Your woodpecker. I had to laugh. At our previous house, we had a woodpecker who took a shine to our metal chimney for our woodstove and around 5:30am every morning, would start working on it. And I mean working on it. He'd hit that thing so hard, the whole house shook! We tried everything including getting someone to go up and tie some streamers on it to try and scare him away. Nothing. And it wasn't like he could see himself, the pipe was matte black. For a month and a half every spring for about four years he did this. Drove us and the dogs especially, nuts! Dumb bird.

Alice Mathewson

How lovely to talk about birdwatching. We feed the birds outside the kitchen window so it is great entertainment either while eating or doing the washing up. And the arguments over who has seen what can be entertaining too! Thank you

Anita Faye Shelburne

Love our American goldfinches (so different in appearance from the goldfinch pictured above) and their lilting song as they swoop along in flight. Similarly, the chimney shifts for the chittering call they make while flying; to me, it sounds like giggles in the sky!

Nancy Mayer

I like seeing birds but do not know much about them and have never gone bird watching. Though I live in a very urban setting , I can sometimes see cardinals. We used to have a woodpecker that made holes in the side of my house and caused me to have to restain the cedar shingles every other year. That was annoying but I didn't want to hurt the birds. I used to work in a 28 story building in Atlanta. For a while Falcons would come sit on a railing around the roof. Atlanta's football team is named for them. They are rarely sen now that new buildings have been built next door,

Annette N

In another life, Mr Wonderful and I showed dogs. For one show, we drove from Missouri to Nebraska over Thanksgiving weekend every year for several years. Every year, on a Sunday morning on the way home, at the same spot on a highway going south, a huge flock of geese would be flying south. They obviously had booked a good flight pattern and they did not vary from that plan.
I have lived with birds. And I loved them very much. I had a yellow nape parrot and an umbrella cockatoo. They were lovely with me and Mr Wonderful sold both of them because they were not as friendly with him. Now you see why I call him Mr Wonderful.

There are tons of doves here in Austin. In my neighborhood there are blue jays, cardinals, red tailed hawks, owls to name just a few. For a short time, there was a pair of buzzards who were here. They would stand on a tall light pole and simply look around.
When my son was very young, he and a friend once laid out in a pasture for a long time waiting for a buzzard to come and land. Then they were going to catch it and bring it home. Thank heavens, the buzzards were smarter than two 5 year old boys.
Because of the drought I have two water sources for my local birds. One blue jay complains if I do not have the level of water where he wants it.
Thanks for the post. The pictures are wonderful and I loved hearing the songs.
Y'all take care.


What a wonderful post — and lovely to hear about so many birds I’ve never seen! I’ve been googling madly as I read this!

Our third trip to England was a house swap with the family of my husband’s best friend. The earliest part of the house dated from the 15th century, and I loved it upon site. One of the best features was the leaded pane windows that went almost to the ground, and which were framed by morning glories. On our second morning, I was sipping tea next to an open window when half a dozen birds I had only ever seen in story books began sipping from the flowers. They were blue tits, and to this day I remember the absolute astonishment and joy I felt it seeing them “in real life“!


Mary - I only learned recently that the quail you have in AZ are different from those on the US East Coast. A friend in Tucson sent me a video of the mom and babies living in a planter on her patio. The coloring is different and ours do not have that glorious little top knot! It looks like a 50s rock and roll star’s hairdo!


I love hearing about the birds everyone sees in different parts of the world. The Australian birds especially seem so exotic to me. I am not an avid birder, but I do have a guide book and a pair or binoculars although most of my bird watching is done in my backyard. The most fun to watch are the ruby-throated hummingbirds. We wait for their return every spring. So feisty! We've had some flickers, which have lovely markings, they're in the woodpecker family, and our NJ state bird, the goldfinch. Near any body of water, we often see osprey nests. I saw one diving for fish, which is amazing to watch.


That was a game we used to play as kids too! Lay out in a field until we saw turkey vultures circling above us. Oh, yes, we were easily amused in those days before video games and smart phones!

Jeanne Behnke

LOL - exactly!

Vicki L

He was pounding out a message...THIS territory is taken. I'm the biggest baddest one in the area.. We have woodpeckers that do that in the spring as well.

Vicki L

To start off with, I'm in the Southeast, just north west of Atlanta. Luckily I live in the suburbs so have lots of good habitat. Every day I try to spend 15 mins just watching the birds (and doing an eBird list as my citizen science contribution).

One thing I really like about watching the birds ishow they make you aware of all nature and make you be present in the moment.

I'm lucky that my house has woods behind and my neighbors across the street have more grass than trees. I see a lot more species that way.

When we first moved here 34 years ago we did have quail show up for a few years. Eventually they built a subdivision behind us and no more quail. Very few sparrows, etc.

A gorgeous little bird is an indigo bunting. I used to have those April to October but alas the subdivision put an end to that.

My favorites change as the seasons change. Yesterday when I went for a walk at a park near me I lucked into seeing 2 Hooded Warblers still in breeding plumage.

Love seeing Gray Catbirds - they are such elegant sleek birds. We also have lots of ruby-throated hummingbirds fighting over the feeders.

Killdeer babies look like little puffballs on legs.

Sandhill Cranes are one of my most favorite birds. They migrate right over my house and I'm well trained...when I hear their fascinating call I dash out of the house and search the skies for them.

I've been lucky enough to watch several thousand fly over my house in a 2 hour period. It was a truly awesome experience to watch wave after wave of them coming down the street overhead and fly over me.

Anne Gracie

"quail, with their little red plumes (one per quail) dancing on their heads as they dash along like tiny business people with somewhere they need to be."

Gorgeous description, Mary, and I loved the image of the baby Keystone cop chicks. I looked up Arizona quail and saw that little plume on their heads, too.

Thanks for that link to the story, too — I have saved the link to read it later when I've done my work for the day.

Binnie Syril Braunstein

I don't have many encounters with birds, although they do fascinate me. My most recent encounter occurred when I heard knocking on the window near where I usually sit. I asked who was there - but no one answered. The persistent knoicking continued. Call me a coward - but I called 911, as I feared someone was trying to break in. As I was waiting for the police, I walked into the kitchen - and heard more knocking. Since the kitchen is at a much higher level, a person would need a ladder to be able to tap on the window. Being extremely brave, I looked out the window - and saw the woodpecker pecking away. I immediately called back the police emergency number and told the person on the phone that my "burglar" was a woodpecker. And a good time was had by all...and I was feeeling pretty silly. Peck, peck, peck...

Anne Gracie

Katja, that's the joy — and the frustration (for me) of short stories — they always leave you wanting more.

Anne Gracie

Thanks for this, Deb. I don't think I've heard the cry of a black cockatoo — I've always assumed it would similar to white cockies. Some birds do have an amazingly mournful cry, don't they? And some sound so joyful to our ears.

Anne Gracie

Theo, I love the images you painted of all the birds you see. Sounds lovely. You're lucky to have so many different birds to watch.
I remember as a child in the country seeing hawks and other birds of prey hovering high up and then diving down, so that I feared they would crash into the ground. And then my fears would change as they rose up with some hapless creature in their talons and all my worries and sympathy would be with their prey.

I laughed at your woodpecker story. For a couple of seasons I had a bird -- forgotten what sort -- come and attack the window of my guest room. His reflection offended him, I guess. I tried putting a picture of a cat in the window and then an eagle mobile — tried all sort of things, but for several years in mating season he'd be back, furiously fighting himself. And then one day, for no apparent reason it stopped. And foolishly, I missed him g>

Anne Gracie

Yes, it's a constantly changing entertainment, isn't it, Alice.

Anne Gracie

Anita, I've been thinking about Mike's comment about how people (settlers, colonists etc) named birds after the ones they left behind in their origin country. I don't supposed they bothered asking the indigenous inhabitants for their name for the birds, and it was easier to call them by a familiar name for a familiar-enough bird.

Speaking of giggles in the sky — a description that I love, by the way — rainbow lorikeets have quite a different call when they're swooping around overhead -- a fluting sort of giggle.


Not sure about the territory, but it made my 3000K square foot house feel like there was 50 jackhammers pounding on the foundation all the way around. Never before or since have I gone through that.

Anne Gracie

Thanks, Nancy — I love how some birds can make a home even in the heart of the city. A pair of peregrine falcons nest every year on the ledge of a high-rise building in the heart of Melbourne — the very centre of the city. They've been doing it every year since 1991, and each breeding season there is a live camera feed on them that stays live while the eggs are laid, the chicks are hatched and they finally fly off. It's breathtaking at time, watching the chicks wobbling about inches from an appalling drop. https://367collins.mirvac.com/workplace/building-overview/falcons-at-367-collins


I missed my woodpecker too, believe it or not. The year he didn't come back, I worried for several days and then figured maybe the seasons finally caught up with him.

We do see a lot of predator/prey here and while the predators are ballet in the air, I also feel for the prey. Tonight though, it's Hummer wars. One of them is perched about 20 feet from me in a little ornamental cherry tree next to our front porch guarding the Hummer feeder from all comers. If another one gets too close, he flies out from the tree and goes after them, chasing them off, then goes back to his little perch. He's even chasing the raspberry birds off. (House sparrows. They look like someone grabbed their feet and dipped them in raspberry sauce) Little stinker!

Anne Gracie

I've only seen geese flying in formation a few times, but it's a wonderful sight, isn't it?
I am so sorry you lost your parrot and cockatoo. We had a sulphur crested cockatoo for some years when I was a kid and man, that bird had personality in spades. Nobody can convince me that cockies don't have a sense of humor. One day I'll write about him.
I'm chuckling at your son's attempt to catch a buzzard. They'd have got a real fright if their tactic had worked.
I also put water out for the birds when it's warm and dry.

Anne Gracie

Oh, Constance, what a wonderful house to stay in — I have a friend who does house swaps and it opens up such interesting opportunities.
I'm envious of your blue tit experience. So many birds in so many books that I've yet to see.

Laura Lee Hall

We have a piliated woodpecker who visits our backyard each Spring for a few days. We have a lovely variety of birds in our property but this year we put up a hummingbird feeder outside a large picture window. They come and go all day and are fascinating to watch.

Anne Gracie

I suppose all birds are exotic if you're from somewhere else. I remember my first sight of hummingbirds at Mary Jo's house, after hearing of them since I was a small child — it was magical.

I haven't seen osprey diving for fish, but I used to watch comorants when I was a kid, diving down and plunging into the water and coming up a fe moments later with a gleaming silver fish in their beaks.

Anne Gracie

Wow, Vicki, what an ever-changing seasonal variety you have — most of which I'm off to google in a moment. And the spectacle of thousands of cranes flying over must indeed be awesome.

I love how you said being so close to nature makes you be present in the moment. So true.

Anne Gracie

Great story, Binnie Syril — cheeky woodpecker. But as Theo said above, they can sound really loud. I'm glad the police were nice about it.

Anne Gracie

Laura, a former neighbor has a home-made nectar feeder that attracts lots of rainbow lorikeets, in fact I'm convinced she's responsible for increasing the numbers of them in that neighborhood.

I'm planning to make one, too, now that I have a tree with low enough branches to hang one from. My old tree was too tall to reach any branches. You might want to make one too, for your humming birds:

Christina Courtenay

I love it when the robins come and "help" me when I'm gardening - they sit and wait patiently until I've turned the soil over, so sweet! Little opportunists :-)

I'm in central London visiting at the moment and there are lots of pigeons, blackbirds and crows, as well as a few sparrows, so not totally devoid of birds!

Mary M.

Sorry, Katja, I don't know of any follow-on. It was just one of those out-of-the-blue experiences when I was driving and listening to NPR on the car radio. And yes, I found it haunting. Guess that's why I've remembered it all those years. Three Minute Fiction turned up some remarkable stories.

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