Country diary: free accommodation for feathered folk

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Buxton, Derbyshire: Feathers are amazing, as Alfred Wallace said, but sometimes it’s good to give the owners a helping hand

The naturalist Alfred Wallace called feathers “the masterpiece of nature”. An illustration of their astonishing benefits is the ability of emperor penguins to withstand blizzard temperatures during the Antarctic winter (when the males incubate their solitary egg) of -60C. Possibly even more impressive is a feat of golden-crowned kinglets, a warbler-like mite that can survive Alaskan nights of -30C, when the differential between their core body and the ambient temperature is as much as 78C. A kinglet weighs 5gm (compared with an emperor penguin’s 30kg).

Feathers are amazing, but sometimes it’s good to give the owners a helping hand. As I look out at the snowy expanse over Lightwood at 4pm every day, I am aware how all roosting birds are effectively forced to fast in these sub-zero conditions for 16 hours until dawn. Suitable weather-proofed niches – tree hollows and dense thickets – are at a premium, so last autumn a friend and I put up a box apiece for kestrels and barn owls. Every night at present I scan the trees hoping some local raptor has taken advantage of our free accommodation.

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