Blue tit line drawing (c) Rianne Mason

Observe and interact

Principle 1 of permaculture is ‘observe and interact’. It’s designed to encourage us to take time to witness our natural surroundings and understand the various elements within our larger system.

Living in Derbyshire (where it’s currently 3 degrees celsius) during a lockdown means that my time outside is limited. However, I’m very fortunate to have a large window that I can spend time looking out of, watching the many families of birds eating seeds, drinking, bathing and gathering twigs.

From dawn onwards I can also hear the birds’ beautiful chorus. It’s an unpredictable and cheerful melody played by many different species – each with their own unique contribution to the music. It never fails to lift my spirits.

Can you recognise any of the birds in my recording from this morning? I think I can make out a robin (the tuneful one) and a magpie (the cackle).

Bird song recorded at 7.30am today (c) Rianne Mason
Apologies for the sound quality – I was simply using my mobile phone.

The value of seeds

As I watch the birds pecking at the tumbled seed on a frosty morning I’m reminded of how valuable they are in providing the birds the fat that they need to get through these cold months.

Sunflower seeds are one of their most precious sources of energy and it got me wondering about how they get to them in the wild. It’s another important reminder to leave our sunflower seed heads out in the garden after they’ve flowered so that our little bird gardeners can get their lunch.

As I think about the larger system in play I feel grateful for the work that the birds do in removing harmful insects and maintaining the natural balance of the garden. If we all encourage these hard workers into our green space we’re rewarded with so much in return – the joy of bird watching, the dawn chorus welcoming us as we rise, and the natural pest control for our beloved plants.

The importance of trees

A tree with a nest (c) Rianne Mason
A willow tree with a magpie nest in the centre (c) Rianne Mason

Every so often I can see a magpie soaring in the air with a twig that seems far too large for it to carry. This family have taken residence in a mature willow tree this year and it looks like they’re doing some home renovations.

Mature trees and hedgerows are so important for our bird friends, and of course we humans get a lot out of them too. A 100 ft tall tree can take up 11,000 gallons of water from the soil and release it into the air as oxygen and water vapour1. It can also absorb approximately 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, sequestering 1 ton by the time it reaches 40 years old2 .

Considering we put an average of 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year3, I think we need all the mature trees we can get to help with the natural balance of our larger earth garden.

The little things we can do

Sunflower saved for seed (c) Rianne Mason
A sunflower head left in the garden over Autumn (c) Rianne Mason

Finally, I got to thinking about my own part in these birds’ lives. I’ll definitely be planting a sunflower or two in the garden this year. The seeds of any flower will be rescued or left our for the wildlife later in Autumn. I’ll be a bit more mindful of the power of mature trees – for their carbon storage, habitat for bird nests, oxygen to breathe and much needed shade on a summer’s day.

It’s also RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch this weekend (29-31 Jan) – where you can contribute to one of the UK’s largest citizen science projects. All you have to do is take an hour observing the birds through your window and count the ones you see. You can submit your results online. You’ll be helping RSPB to understand the challenges faced by wildlife, enabling them to make the first steps towards putting things right.

So why not put a handful of birdseed with a dish of water out today and wait for the magic to happen?

There are 12 permaculture principles and I’ll be exploring one each month throughout 2021. For more information and personal stories around them visit


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