Birds of Meldreth and their Eggs
I shared this hobby mainly with Roger Hart and Michael Burgess. We had a keen interest in birds and could identify most that were likely to be seen in Meldreth. We also brought up and tamed young sparrowhawks and jackdaws but our main interest, as with many boys, was egg collecting. We each had our own collection and mine was kept in a large drawer lined with cotton wool. (I had only a small drawer for all my clothes!) I had 46 eggs collected over a period of five years and they were my pride and joy. Unlike the others, my collection was strictly from nests found in Meldreth. My memories of birds of Meldreth in the 1940’s & 50’s and where some of the eggs in my collection were found may be of interest.
A special bird to me was the house martin. They built their nests in the eaves of my house at Station Hill and some were above my open bedroom window, a few feet from where I slept. It would be mid April that I would wake and hear the twittering of the first martins to arrive back from their winter migration. They would soon start to build their mud nests and lay their eggs. I counted the number of nests each year and in 1946 there were forty nests. Their eggs were often found on the ground and those eggs gave me the interest and incentive to start collecting. There was an upsetting incident in 1948; our station house was to be painted and the painters knocked down all of the nests, despite my father’s objections. Within a week though, the martins were building again over the fresh paint and reared their young in time for their migration.
The country noise of the rooks could also be heard very loudly as there was a rookery in the elm trees across the Station Road by the Atlas line. The trees were cut down when the Nissen huts were built and the rooks moved to the four tall walnut trees in Hubert Ellis‘s field where Elin Way is now. One of the most daring things I’ve ever seen was Denis Waldock climbing one of the trees to get me a rook’s egg. He carried it down in his mouth. When houses were built there and the trees cut down, the rooks had to move again, this time to the line of very tall black poplar trees that boarded the south side of Flambards. These were the most magnificent trees in Meldreth but for some reason they were also cut down. I don’t know if there is a rookery in the village now?
The nightingale was heard most summers, singing continuously all through the night. I did, after much searching, find a nest in thick undergrowth down the Atlas line and took one egg for my collection. I went back a couple of weeks later to have a quick look and there was only one bird in the nest, a cuckoo. I doubt that you would hear a cuckoo or a nightingale in Meldreth now.
In summer the swift was probably the bird most seen and heard. They nested in thatched roofs of houses and barns and there were nest sites in the High Street, Station Road, Chiswick End and North End. Imagine the High Street, from the Woolpack to the school, with up to forty swifts continually swooping down and up into the low thatch feeding their young. Also one of the joys of a summer’s evening was to listen to and to watch the swifts as they flew none stop, screeching through the night sky. They seem to have deserted Meldreth now that all the thatched buildings are netted.
Swallows were not so common as the swifts and house martins but a few nested every year under the pile bridge. I remember that we borrowed a short ladder from the railway station and took it down the line to the pile bridge to reach a nest. I wonder if they nest there now.
The turtle dove is a summer visitor, and any lone thick hawthorn bush was likely to have one of their nests. My turtledove’s egg came from a nest in one of the hawthorn bushes in the field where Melwood is now. Their nest is made of just a few thin twigs and their eggs look a pale pink but when blown are pure white. I still have a blue mark on my knee where a thorn penetrated when climbing that bush to get the egg. I’m afraid the turtle dove is now very rare and last year, for the first time, I did not see or hear one.
The kingfisher was a bird of the River Mel. When walking the Mel path I would be looking for a flash of iridescent cobalt blue or listening for a high pitched penetrating whistle that the kingfisher would make as it sped along the river. It took me three years of searching to eventually find a nest. The nest is constructed at the end of a tunnel dug into the river bank about four feet above water level, and to me there were only three places along the Mel suitable for a nest site: at a bend of the river over the meads; a bank some way behind the church and the place where I eventually found a nest, just down river from Topcliffe Mill pond. I took one ‘special’ egg and told no one about the nest site. (Roger Hart and Michael Burgess already had an egg from ‘outside the village’ from a nest we found at Shepreth pits.)
Great tits usually nest in holes in trees but in Meldreth many nested in the hollow metal shafts of the railway station platform lamps. They occupied almost every lamp along the platform and the young could be heard as you walked along. My grandfather and grandmother lived close by in Allerton Terrace and put out bacon rind for them, but to my annoyance always called them blackcaps.
Pied wagtails also nested at the station but they preferred the coal yard. Most years there would be a nest in amongst the coal and one year in a sack full of coal which was there ready for delivery. I asked Mr. Harrup to leave the sack there, which he did until they hatched and flew. They did not seem to mind the workings going on around them.
Hedge sparrows nest in any thick hawthorn hedge and to search and find a nest was so rewarding, just to see those five or six deep bluish green eggs that contrasted with the rather drab nest. In comparison the chaffinch nested in a more open position, laid rather drab off-white speckled eggs but in the most beautifully made nest. Linnet’s nests were the most common and could be found in any open hedge away from the road.
Yellow hammers are not garden birds as they like open fields. They could be seen in the quiet and peaceful fields behind the church where I spent many hours after Sunday school searching for their nests. They nest on the ground and it’s one of the joys of the hobby to find and see, hidden in the coarse undergrowth, their small neat nest so cosy, so beautifully made and so vulnerable. I’m afraid their song, “a little bit of bread and no cheese” is rarely heard today.
Sedge warblers were not often seen but could be heard in the reeded area of the Mel as it runs along the field between the meads and the pile bridge. Their nest is made in the reeds and is a favourite of the cuckoo. The station horse was put in this field during the weekends and I would go with my father on a Sunday evening to bring him back to his stable. It was on one of these visits that I saw the most exotic bird that I had seen in Meldreth, a hoopoe.
Barn owls nested in the old barn in the south east corner of Topcliffe Mill field where I managed to steal an egg while being attacked by the owl. I felt so sad for the owl and guilty afterwards, but the owl probably made a better job bringing up three youngsters rather than four!
Jackdaws together with little owls and stock doves liked to nest in old hollow elm trees. In my time, elm trees surrounded many of the fields in Meldreth and any elm which was hollow would have a nest. Now that all the elms have gone, these birds must have difficulty finding a suitable nest site. Other trees don’t seem to become hollow like the elm.
Goldfinches nest in the flimsy extremities of a branch of a tree. My egg was from a nest on a sycamore tree branch at the end of the ‘third wood’ – the springs and source of Chiswick End waters. A lovely spot with clear spring water, trees overhanging, primroses on the bank and to me the most secretive spot in Meldreth.
The hooded crow, made famous locally as the Royston crow, was possibly more common than the carrion crow of which it was considered to be a sub species. I have seen them on the railway station and many times in the meads and assumed that they nested locally and specifically looked for their nests in the meads and in Melbourn. However the bird books say that they breed in the north and only migrate down to the south in the winter. I’m fairly sure that I have seen them in the summer but I think, in winter or summer, only as single birds. The carrion crows which do nest locally are almost always seen in pairs. So maybe the books are right. Has anyone seen a Royston crow recently?
Peewits: we called them peewits, not lapwings or green plovers. In the winter flocks of 500 or more could be seen and in the summer they nested on arable land and in grass fields. Their nests could be found in the fields at the end of Chiswick End and those fields east of the River Mel. Many birds nested early, in March or early April on arable land that was still to be cultivated and all the nests would be destroyed. The following year though there would still be massive flocks of them. Today I think many people would like to hear their “peewit” call and watch their acrobatic flying displays again.
I could go on; I had many more eggs! Bird’s eggs were special to me, and gave me so much pleasure. When visiting the Natural History Museum, which I did every year, the first place I would make for was not the blue whale or the dinosaur room, but the bird’s egg collection. I often had an egg to identify.
Where did my collection go? Well, my grandmother (Winter) always maintained that egg collecting was unlucky and this really concerned me! When very young I had a small collection kept in a cardboard box and when my mother was seriously ill in hospital my father threw them away. My mother recovered and lived until she was 93. Much later in life when my girlfriend and I had a row, I threw my prize collection away. We made up and married the following year. So it worked again!
My interest in birds continued. In 1952, John Sims and I started keeping pigeons and eventually racing them. We trained our pigeons using our bicycles to transport them one, two, five, ten, fifteen miles for liberation, then sent them by train for liberation at Huntingdon and Peterborough stations to get them ready for their first race from Newark. Race distances then increased each week up into Scotland and the Shetlands. It gave me a real thrill when they returned from the Scottish races knowing that they had flown all the way through the Scottish Highlands, the Lowlands, Northumberland, Yorkshire and down the country and found their home to my little village of Meldreth. Sometimes with a following wind they would average over 60 mph.
My pigeon ‘134’ flew from Perth on one occasion in 5 hours 10 minutes. Other times with a facing wind it would be less than 30 mph.
My pigeon ‘7816’ flew from Thurso on the north coast of Scotland (475 miles 274 yards) into a hard face wind and rain, flying for over 17 hours, to reach home just before dark. He was tired, wet and lost weight but he made it to Meldreth and won the club race, being the only pigeon to get home on the day. The following year he flew from Lerwick in the Shetlands (547 miles 1590 yards) getting home at midday on the second day. John also had success; his pigeon ‘2032’ won a number of races and when I took this pigeon for him to the club, for a race from Scotland, John came home on leave from the forces just to see the pigeon return from the race, rather than go to see Janet his girlfriend and wife to be. I had to promise not to tell her that he had been home to watch his pigeon come home rather than see her!!
I’m afraid the management, breeding, training and racing of pigeons became more a way of life than a hobby but it was the most interesting, fascinating and captivating hobby that it was possible to have and it gave that sheer elation that only a pigeon fancier can understand when that little bundle of feathers dropped onto the loft. But in both our cases I’m afraid we were given the ultimatum, “It’s either me or them”!
 It has been illegal to take the eggs of most wild birds since the Protection of Birds Act 1954 and it is illegal to possess or control any wild birds’ eggs taken since that time under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.