Ivy - a feast for all seasons

A woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) in ivy.

A woodpigeon (Columba palumbus) in ivy. Picture: Rupert Evershed - Credit: Rupert Evershed

Throughout the last few months of winter, the garden has been filled with the twittering music of redwings feeding on the apparently abundant crop of ivy berries this year.

The redwings, along with a multitude of other creatures, are the reason the ivy in our garden has been allowed almost free reign – so much so that it covers not just some of our big trees but a whole shed roof too! 

‘Untidy’ it may be, but ivy is the plant that keeps on giving and provides for wildlife throughout the year, often when there’s not much else on offer. The ivy ensures almost constant year-round activity in the garden and currently hosts a full complement of seasonal thrushes – redwings, blackbirds, song thrushes, mistle thrushes and occasionally the odd fieldfare. 

Come spring and already the tangled shelter of the ivy foliage will provide safe and dry nesting sites for blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and blackcaps. Last year I watched some blackbirds raise two broods in the ivy on our shed roof and now the robin is busy carrying moss into another ivy den, no doubt to line this year’s nest. 

Move on through summer to autumn and the ivy, always crawling with insects – a readymade larder for young beaks – will hum with a multitude of nectar-hungry wasps and bees.

Holly blue and red admiral butterflies love our ivy in the later summer, and I like to think that the ivy does a service to us too by providing so richly for the otherwise unemployed wasps.  If it wasn’t for the ivy our lunchtimes outdoors would draw a bigger crowd of these vagabond insects. 

Now the ivy stands provide constant entertainment as, in addition to the redwings, woodpigeons have descended in their numbers to cash in on the free food. While the ivy doesn’t register the weight of thrushes it is a different matter for the portly pigeons. Undeterred, they launch themselves at the juiciest of berry clusters and deal with however little support from the ivy they receive. 

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This leads to some hilarious sights and a lot of crashing and flapping of pigeon wings! Frequently woodpigeons can be seen hanging upside down from the ivy, clinging on like parrots with their claws, wings spread downwards like a hung gamebird, and yet ever-straining for the very best berry in sight.

They frequently fall off but seem remarkably adept at recovering uprightness whether through a brief flight or crash-landing on a new perch. Their sheer determination is evidenced in the profusion of white feathers all over our lawn, the price of a good ivy berry meal. 

I admire the woodpigeons’ willingness to ditch dignity for a good meal.  This tenacity and unexpected agility must account, at least in part, for their success in bucking the downwards trend of other species’ populations.

That said, their boisterous activities do attract the occasional sally from the local sparrowhawk and just this last week it may have accounted for a particularly low pass by a couple of peregrine falcons. 

I’m still getting used to the idea that peregrines fly over my garden. Once on the brink of extinction in Britain, they are now a regular part of the avian scene in St Albans and can sometime be seen perched on the Abbey or circling high over the city centre.

I perhaps have the woodpigeon feeding frenzy to thank for the below-treetop flyby I witnessed – maybe just a playful pass on the peregrines’ part but enough to panic the pigeons. Exploding outwards in all directions a single tree often holds over 30 pigeons. The redwings and other thrushes remain but fall utterly silent as the predator shockwave passes through. 

All of this drama is provided by the humble and much-maligned ivy.  I like to think that, if the peregrines are doing well, then it is because of our ivy berries that fattened their pigeon meal.

Or, if the redwings make it back to Scandinavia across the harsh North Sea, then it is these ivy berries that fuelled their flight and enabled a new generation of redwings to return next winter. Even after the berries are gone, the drama will go on, but to the gentler sounds of baby birds and humming insects.