February is the month of romance even for wildlife

February is the month of romance - and house hunting, as Tom Marshall of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust reports

February can often be the harshest month of winter, with an almost perpetual chill in the air. But one of the most delightful sights to warm the heart on any February morning is the courtship of great crested grebes.

The delicate dance of the grebes on a misty mirror-calm lake is not to be missed, and with moves that could rival anything to tread the floors of Strictly Come Dancing, these graceful birds perhaps have one of the most elaborate and captivating displays in the natural world.

A varied repertoire of neck twists, stretching and bowing are at the heart of the routine, with the most fascinating element being the split-second imitation by both partners of each and every move. And, like the passionate pass of a rose during a steamy tango, the rather more practical offering of submerged weeds and aquatic vegetation completes the show, with each grebe reaching breast-to-breast above the water’s surface on feet placed far back on their bodies.

Although iconic creatures such as the panda and orangutan have come to represent global conservation today, the great crested grebe was at the heart of the movement to secure a better future for British wildlife 200 years ago.

Their striking feathers, and those from other water birds such as egrets, were highly sought after for millinery and clothing in the 19th century - leading to an almost complete collapse in grebe numbers, with Cheshire remaining one of their last refuges. Such was the importance of the county to the grebe’s survival (due to the many private wetlands on estates beyond the reach of hunters) the great crested grebe was adopted as the Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s earliest logo, and remains the title of their magazine ‘The Grebe’ to this day.

As the 1800s gave way to the 20th century, the practice of taking birds simply for their plumage came to be seen as increasingly unacceptable and this led to the formation of the earliest wildlife conservationists, including groups we now know as the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and many others.

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Location, location, location

February is perhaps the last opportunity to attract some new neighbours for the spring and summer as part of National Nestbox Week, which runs from Valentine's Day.

Whether you opt for a DIY effort made from bits of wood lying around the backyard, or splash out on the latest high-tech feathered des res with built in CCTV, you can be sure the birds will fly in for a viewing and may even consider putting down a deposit.

One of the earliest uses for nest boxes was the rather macabre medieval practice of attracting breeding birds so the young could be eaten, with the first boxes installed purely for the joy of watching our feathered friends around the early 19th century. Nesting and roosting boxes are now not only a multi-million pound business, but are also at the heart of direct conservation management for birds such as pied flycatchers and barn owls - and some of our rarest mammals such as the dormouse and many species of bats.

The traditional square box with a two pence-sized hole still remains the firm favourite, and is likely to be rented from spring onwards by blue tits or great tits. One of the more unusual nest boxes to come into use in recent years however, is one that is synonymous with the north of England - the terrace box. Like the red brick residences of Coronation Street, the terrace box is a winner when it comes to providing accommodation for house sparrows - a bird that has declined massively in the last 20 years, almost unnoticed due to its once ubiquitous nature in our towns and cities.

House sparrows aren't the only ones struggling to find an urban crash-pad, with swifts - one of our most enigmatic summer migrants, also struggling to get on the property ladder. These peerless fliers are one of a handful of birds that spend almost their entire life 'on the wing' - only taking a break each summer to build a nest. Help is now coming from perhaps the most appropriate corner however - the construction industry, with some manufacturers building swift 'bricks' that can be installed directly into new developments and contain a dedicated nesting area.

Whatever nestbox you choose, make sure it's in place by the end of the month, to have the best chance of having a feathered family on your doorstep this spring.

Thinking inside the boxCheshire Wildlife Trust’s top nestbox tips

Take the time to choose the right box for the species you want to attract - a blue tit box will be suitable almost anywhere, but a barn owl box in the middle of Chester may be less successful

Ensure the box is at a suitable height, to deter most predators but allow you easy access for cleaning

If possible, avoid facing boxes south, as they can warm up in the afternoon sun and overheat the chicks inside. Boxes facing the prevailing wind are also less desirable

Use FSC sustainably-sourced wood, or purchase tough 'woodcrete' boxes with a long lifespan that can thermo-regulate in all weathers, and deter the most ardent predators

Ensure the entrance hole is a good height above the nest (at least 10cm/4in for small boxes) and don't forget a blue tit can build a nest several centimetres thick

You can get more information on Cheshire Wildlife Trust's website at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.co.uk.

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