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A monthly commentary on birds in and around The Farleighs.

 

I have lived in East Farleigh for more than thirty years. As well as witnessing the steep country-wide decline in bird life over that period, I've become closely involved in monitoring the changes and in finding ways to conserve what we still have.

 

And there are good things happening too, so I hope this contribution presents a mixture of what makes the study of birds so interesting, especially of those still seen around The Farleighs.

 

Ray Morris

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December: Two Turtle Doves ....

Posted on 27th November, 2017

But only if you are very lucky. Nowadays, the second day of Christmas gift from the traditional song is highly unlikely to be given by anyone’s true love. Apart from the fact they spend their winters in sub-Saharan Africa, these beautiful doves have declined by 91% in the last twenty years. Their scientific name Streptopelia turtur comes from their gentle ‘turr-turr’ song. You may be lucky to hear one in the village in the summer, although I haven’t heard one here for two years now, but they can still be heard in Kent which is one of its last UK strongholds.

Click for an (almost) forgotten sound of summer

 

The area between Ashford and Marden has been designated a ‘turtle dove friendly zone’ where many farmers are catering for their special needs. They need weedy patches of bare ground, with tall, thick hedges for nesting - as explained on a recent BBC World At One broadcast  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05p32nk - something becoming increasingly hard to find in our intensively farmed and ‘tidied-up’ countryside. A delayed Christmas gift of seeing a turtle dove next summer would certainly be one worth waiting for!

 

A number of birds are included as gifts in the seasonal song, although no-one really knows for certain why. A plausible theory is that the original ‘numbers’ were chosen to represent religious symbols at a time when these were banned during The Commonwealth. The two turtle doves, for example, represent the two testaments of the bible, the six geese-a-laying is code for the six days of Creation, and so on.

 

 

The single partridge in a pear tree is the resurrected Christ lifted aloft – pear tree rhyming with ‘perdix’, the French for partridge. Sadly, the partridge in question is the Grey Partridge (known as the English partridge), yet another endangered species as a result of modern farming practices. The commoner Red-Legged (or French) Partridge is an introduced species ‘farmed‘ for shooting purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

A bird that is fortunately still very common is the wren – I doubt there is a garden anywhere in The Farleighs, or in any village from here to the northernmost outpost of the UK, that doesn’t shelter this tiny bird. You probably hear it more often than see it, as it tends to keep out of sight in a never-ending search for food, hence its scientific name Troglodytes troglodytes - the cave-dweller. It too has been the subject of a Boxing – or St Stephen’s - Day custom for centuries. No-one really knows the origin of ‘Hunting the Wren’: a pagan ritual to mark the winter solstice, or a Christian one to mark the apparent part the bird’s unusually loud song played in disclosing the hiding place of the Christian Stephen?  As a result, Stephen was allegedly stoned to death, a fate that used to befall the unfortunate wren captured as part of the ritual. Apparently the custom is still partly enacted in parts of Ireland and Wales, but with a token, not real, wren that is carried from house to house by children soliciting sweets!

The familiar Robin, of course, is probably the bird most associated with Christmas – being featured on countless Christmas cards, decorations and even a Waitrose TV advert! Many people refer to the one in their garden as ‘our‘ robin as it is there keeping them company throughout the year. But there is a strong chance that ‘our’ robin has moved to warmer parts of Europe for the winter, and its place taken by a Scandinavian bird enjoying the usually mild Farleighs weather! If we are lucky, robins (and wrens) will serenade us on our post-Christmas dinner walk around the village.

 

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to hear or see a turtle dove or grey partridge in the coming year – please let me know. It’s important for conservation bodies and landowners to know where these species are so that appropriate action can be taken to ‘bring them back from the brink’. Celebrating Christ’s birth would be so much more meaningful if, for the rest of the year, we took more care of the world He created. Happy Christmas.

November: War Birds?

Posted on 24th October, 2017

November can have the first hard weather of the winter, so be prepared for even greater numbers of woodpigeon and stock doves in surrounding fields, as thousands can descend on us to escape freezing conditions further north. Although Aristotle understood why some birds migrate, scientists are still unraveling the mysteries of how they actually do it. Navigation strategies include using the  position of the sun and stars, sensing polarised light or the earth’s magnetic field, as well as simple sight and smell (yes, some birds have a very good sense of smell!) to remember where they’ve been before.

 

But the pigeon was the first species to have its uncanny skill exploited by man. Homing pigeons were extensively used in the two World Wars and there is no doubt that the carnage could have been even worse were it not for their unerring ability to find their way back to their loft - even though this was on a lorry moving around the battlefield! - with life-saving messages. Many were awarded the Dickin Medal (the animals’ VC), including a bird called William of Orange who was credited with saving the lives of 2000 allied airborne soldiers at the battle of Arnhem in 1944, after covering the 250 miles back to England in just four and a half hours with invaluable information about the soldiers’ plight.

 

 

 

 

 

So as you walk to church on Remembrance Sunday, look for the pigeons in the fields and reflect on what might have been had their relatives’ incredible ability not been harnessed.

 

It isn’t just the cold weather that causes an influx of northern birds; a crop failure of a species’ main food has the same effect. Waxwings arrive in their thousands if their staple winter diet of berries, especially rowan, is reduced in this way. Some have already been spotted in Strood and Maidstone this year, so if you have a fine display of berries in your garden keep an eye open for these beautifully gaudy Scandinavians muscling-in on the local blackbirds devouring pyracantha and snowberries. They arrive in flocks and often announce their presence with a delightful flute-like call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Listen to their call here

 

  They get their name from the stiff, waxy tips of their

  feathers that resemble old-fashioned sealing wax!

 

 

 

 

 

Last month I also mentioned the possibility of coming across a Ring Ouzel (a mountain Blackbird that breeds in northern UK and Dartmoor) resting up locally during a break in its southward journey to winter in the Atlas Mountains.These two birds were photographed in a flock of eleven seen at Langdon Hole, Dover in late October.

 

October: Just passing through

Posted on 3rd October, 2017

Spring and Autumn are the times to see unusual birds in the village as they pass through on their long-haul migration to and from northern Europe and tropical Africa. A bird you may be lucky enough to see is the Wheatear.  A relative of the Robin, it was once commonly referred to as ‘the White Arse’ because of its conspicuous white rump, but Victorian sensitivities demanded it be renamed! It breeds in the north of the UK and as far north as Greenland and winters in Africa. One was recently seen in the field at the Horseshoes riding school; wheatears like to perch on a raised rock, or piles of horse manure in this case, from which they pounce on their insect prey!

 

Another possible passing visitor is the Ring Ouzel – yes, it is a bird! It's a close relative of the Blackbird that nests on high ground or mountainous terrain in the north of England and winters in the Atlas Mountains in North Africa.

 

 Small birds migrate at night, so keep your eyes open if you walk your dog first thing in the morning as the migrants are busily searching for food to top-up their fat supplies before embarking on the next leg of their journey.

 

It isn’t just the birds that winter in Africa that are on the move. Later this month will see the arrival of fieldfares and redwings, close relatives of blackbirds and thrushes, from Scandinavia. I usually hear them before I see them: fieldfares are noisy birds uttering loud ‘chack-chack’ calls as they forage in the orchards or on ploughed fields; the smaller redwings, which are like song-thrushes with an orange blush under their wings – hence the name – make a high pitched ‘see-see’ call as they fly overhead, often at night.

 

Strangely, while we play winter host to these northern thrushes, many of ‘our’ thrushes and blackbirds move south and west too, especially if we experience hard weather. So your regular garden blackbird, robin or chaffinch may be feeding in a garden in Cornwall, or even France or Spain, while their regular place in your garden is gratefully taken by birds from northern or central Europe.

September: Ticking Robins

Posted on 31st August, 2017

In September most robins will have finished their annual moult. Unlike human hair, birds’ feathers are ‘dead’ once they have emerged, and cannot grow to repair damage from sunlight or abrasion from hard surfaces. So most adults replace every feather on their body after breeding, and this year’s juveniles also moult their breast feathers to acquire the full badge of adult plumage. But this is when trouble starts in the robin community, as both males and females are territorial throughout the year. So, resplendent in their new feathers, all robins will be making the ticking sound that lets others know they are there, and the dominant birds will puff out their chests to intimidate those further down the pecking order – often dive-bombing them to drive them out of the territory.

 

 

Another bird acquiring a red face as part of its adult plumage is the goldfinch. When so much of our native wildlife is in decline, this bird is a good news story. No longer a relatively scarce garden bird, its population has more than doubled in the last twenty years and flocks, or ‘charms’ to use their collective noun, can be heard almost anywhere there are trees – in towns, in the countryside or in gardens. The reasons for the increase are likely to be a combination of warmer winters, more ‘bird friendly’ land management that leaves weedy strips along farm field edges and, especially, garden bird feeders. Once nyger seed (from a tropical thistle) was introduced to gardens it attracted the goldfinches whose needle-pointed beaks are adapted to extracting the tiny seeds from thistles and teasels. The birds then discovered sunflower hearts, since when there has been no stopping them. This year has been a good nesting season for them too, enabling them to produce two or three broods. A nestling from a garden nest was brought in – alive - by a neighbour’s cat on August 18th, evidence that goldfinches and other species are benefiting from our changing climate. This is supported by findings from the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme, which has data on nesting dates and productivity dating back to 1937!  With this secure scientific base, DEFRA recently extended the ban on farmland hedge-cutting by a month, to the end of August, to avoid destruction of active nests.

 

Sadly, I have also seen two birds recently in my garden showing signs of the disease trichomonosis (caused by a parasite that infects their throat so that they can’t eat).

 

 

So I will be stopping feeding for a couple of weeks to allow the birds to disperse – there is plenty of food available in the hedgerows at the moment – and giving the birdfeeders and bird baths a thorough clean and sterilisation as the disease is passed on through their saliva and faeces.

 

Other garden wildlife, such as frogs, hedgehogs and, even, grass snakes, are vulnerable to a range of diseases too. You can find out more about these from the Garden Wildlife Health initiative based at London Zoo. If you report sightings of sick animals (or are prepared to send in a dead animal for postmortem examination) it helps track animal diseases which can infect domestic animals and humans too.

Where have all the birds gone?

Posted on 27th July, 2017

August usually prompts the question “Where have all the garden birds gone?”. To which the answer is usually “into the fields and hedgerows where there is now more food available”. Our house sparrows are no exception. A few weeks ago there were daily family parties of adults feeding their newly fledged youngsters from the millet seed specially provided for them in our garden; now they are only coming in small groups, and I expect visits to get less and less frequent throughout August and September as they take advantage of the natural harvest. They’ll be back in October, especially if it is cold and wet, to prepare for the winter battle against the elements. Along with most other small garden birds, less than half of this year’s young will survive to breed next spring, and a good proportion of adults will also perish if it is a hard winter.

 

 

For the past six years I have been taking part in a national project to monitor the survival of adult house sparrows. It is being run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and is helping our understanding of why sparrow numbers have declined so drastically in the last thirty years. Fortunately it is starting to provide some answers that are leading to ideas for how we can them. The project is based at Frith Farm and the Horseshoes Riding School in Dean Street, and in Vicarage Lane, and is one of eighteen across the country. Sparrows are fitted with coloured leg-rings so they can be tracked throughout the year. Data so far show their survival compares less well in East Farleigh (and the South-East generally) with that of those nationally. Results for ‘our’ sparrows show that only 39% of adult males and 36% of adult females survive each year. This compares with 44% and 42% elsewhere. Although sparrows don’t normally travel far from the colony they were born in, it would be interesting to know if any have been tempted by the promise of a better life in West Farleigh! If you see any of them, or would like more information, please do let me know - (01622 726164 / lepiaf@hotmail.co.uk).

 

It is no coincidence that predators also time their breeding so that there are plenty of young, naive birds around when they need extra food to feed own hungry youngsters. So now is a good time to see sparrowhawks, kestrels, buzzards and owls – all fairly common now in The Farleighs – out hunting for birds, rodents, rabbits and earthworms (the latter a favourite of buzzards and little owls). Of course, the predators’ young, once fledged, are naive too and have to learn how to hunt through trial and error. So you may be lucky enough to see a young, perplexed-looking sparrowhawk sitting near your garden feeders wondering why the other birds all disappeared when he arrived. Like this one, photographed in July in a Dean Street garden eyeing-up the sparrow chick poking its head out of the nest box!  Enjoy them while you can.

 

      

              

 

 

JULY: New village residents

Posted on 28th June, 2017

Mid-summer sees an increase in the village bird population. Not migrants, but this year’s newly-fledged young birds. Our two East Farleigh churchyard nestboxes occupied by blue tits contributed thirteen new birds to the population; they all have rings on so you may see them around the church or in a nearby garden. Blue tits rarely travel far from where they were hatched, but there are exceptions. I ringed one as a juvenile on a farm in Marden in 2015, saw it there again in 2016, and was amazed to re-trap it in my garden in East Farleigh a few weeks ago.

 

If moving from Marden to Farleigh is unusual, a blue tit from Lithuania caught at Sandwich, Kent, last year is even more so! The map shows just how far this bird had travelled since It was ringed as an adult on 15 Sept 2015 (nearly 1,400 km in about 6 months). The bird was noticeably brighter blue than local birds; its wing was a big 70 mm and it weighed 11 grams (average for British blue tits is 63mm wing and 10 grams).

 

 

So keep an eye on your new garden birds – the majority will be from a local nest, but you could also have one with fledgling wanderlust!

 

 

Most newly-fledged birds are easily identified – they are likely to be softer-looking, spottier versions of their parents, often with the remains of their yellow gape still visible at the base of their bill.

 

 

Owls are no exception, but you rarely see them of course,       apart from the Little Owl, which hunts during the day as well as at night.

 

They feed on worms and beetles, and you could well find a young one parked on the ground or on a fence post by its parents. If you do it is almost certainly not abandoned – so don't touch it unless it is in imminent danger from cats or dogs, its parents will be back to feed it!

 

 

Can you identify these garden youngsters? (Answers below)

 

 

 

 

 

You may be lucky enough to enjoy the sight of young swallows and house martins lining up on overhead wires. If you are, there won't be any swifts among them – swifts never perch, and when the young leave the nest they remain airborne 24/7 for at least their first year of life, in some cases two or three years.

 

Sadly, the populations of these three birds are severely declining, especially in southern England. It's likely that lack of insects is a major cause, but in the case of the house martin it could be difficulty in finding enough mud for nests. It seems too that many people object to the mess they cause on houses; house martin nests are often destroyed by overly house-proud humans, or holes are blocked to stop swallows entering outbuildings.

 

As all birds now have legal protection, destroying a house martin nest in the breeding season is illegal and attracts a £2000 summary fine! What the law can't resolve, though, is young swallows becoming trapped in their nests by horsehair – I know of several cases recently in local stables; a natural hazard to add to the many human ones.

 

So enjoy the new birds while you can. They grow up all too quickly!

 

Were you right? 

Answers: 1. Goldfinch  2. Robin  3. Blackbird  4. House Sparrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JUNE: New life in gardens and hedgerows

Posted on 24th May, 2017

By June gardens and hedgerows are often peppered with young birds just out of the nest. They are usually ‘parked’ in a safe place by parents who return regularly to feed them. They are normally quiet to avoid attracting the attention of predators, but may make begging calls if any bird (or human) happens by.

 

Although they may appear so, they haven’t been abandoned, so ignore the urge to rescue small birds to care for them yourself. Leave them alone and the parents will return to feed them. If you have cats in your garden, move the bird to a safe place (eg. perched in a bush off the ground) so it doesn’t become one of the annual millions of moggie victims. If you have a garden nestbox or a nest in your shrubbery, and a cat as well, it’s worth keeping the cat indoors in the early mornings as this is often when birds first leave the nest and are at their most vulnerable. It is often argued, quite rightly, that it is natural for cats to hunt. However, they are no longer living in a natural environment. Humankind has substantially modified and reduced the natural environment so that many birds are dependent on our gardens for food and nest sites. Cats in gardens – and they roam into other people’s gardens too and surrounding hedgerows – are behaving naturally in an unnatural situation.

Three blackbirds that the owner of a Farleigh garden won’t have the pleasure of

listening to next year. These pathetic chicks have been decapitated –

a sign they were taken by a cat.

I recently found a dying robin in my garden that I knew to be incubating four eggs. I had ringed it as a juvenile bird in 2013, so it had survived for four years. I sent its body to the Garden Wildlife Initiative (GWI) run by The Zoological Society of London at London Zoo for a post mortem analysis. The GWI was set up to track diseases in wildlife (eg. avian flu) and the presence of harmful chemicals in the natural environment we share with animals. The PM summary may make interesting reading for cat owners:

 

'We detected evidence of disseminated (widespread) bacterial infection with Pasteurella multocida: this disease is known as pasteurellosis. The robin was in thin body condition and appeared to not have eaten recently. The ultimate cause of death is likely to be starvation/exhaustion triggered by the ill health caused by the infection with the bacteria.

 

Pasteurella multocida is a common cause of infection following bites by mammals, especially cats, since the bacteria often forms part of the normal bacterial community in their mouths. Whilst we did not see any evidence of recent puncture wounds, the lesion on the left wing could be an old wound that developed as a result of a previous bite injury.'

 

Of course, cats and other pets do a huge amount of good as companions for people – and are often a lifeline for those living on their own. But it is worth remembering that cats also carry potential disease risks for their owners.  Pasteurellosis, the one found in my robin, is one of them (see: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/pasteurellosis ) and Toxoplasmosis another (see:

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Toxoplasmosis/Pages/Introduction.aspx ).

 

It’s always entertaining for us watching the parents desperately trying to cram food into the ever-open bills of their young, but the parents can’t stop, even if they wanted to. They are programmed to respond to the bright yellow gape of their youngsters by giving it food - even if it is a chick of a different species. In the nest, the chick with the biggest gape is likely to get the most food, so will have the most energy. In cold, wet springs when food for chicks is scarce, as it was in 2016, the ones with the most energy will beg the most, getting the major share. So those with less energy (or smaller gapes because they were hatched later) are likely to die.

Evolution has even given some chicks an advantage by providing

them with conspicuous spots on their tongues - like these skylarks -

which also act as a trigger for the parents’ attention.

Meanwhile, busy parent birds will often take advantage of the garden feeding station, so it’s worth taking a few steps to help them in their seemingly non-stop task. First of all, avoid providing poor-quality food like bread as it fills chicks up without providing sufficient energy. Make sure food is not mouldy, and keep your feeders and bird baths clean as young birds are especially vulnerable to disease. If you can find them, mealworms are ideal. If you don’t like the idea of live ones, dried mealworms are cheap and easily available, but soak them first before putting them out; nestlings rely on moisture in food for their water and a dry mealworm could even lodge in their throat and choke them.

Our garden robins will sell their souls for mealworms!

An excellent alternative at any time of the year is 500g of Lidl’s or Tesco’s cheapest porridge oats, mixed with half a bar of lard; zap them in the microwave for a few minutes to melt the lard and stir it in.

 

 

May: Sumer is icumen in, laude sing cuccu

Posted on 26th April, 2017

So runs the medieval song. By the time you read this, the first of this summer's cuckoos should have arrived in the Farleighs, their arrival timed to coincide with the start of peak egg-laying time of small birds. Each female cuckoo is programmed to lay her eggs in the nest of the same species in which she was raised. Those most targeted are reed warbler and meadow pipit. I'm not aware of any local reedbeds for the warblers, although there may possibly be some rough grassland left just big enough for a pair of meadow pipits.

 

However, at the moment we still have plenty of dunnocks (often called hedge sparrows), another favourite host. Many village gardens will have these, so yours could soon have a pair frantically trying to satisfy the hunger of a cuckoo chick. It's happened twice in the last three years in my garden, with the enormous fledgling cuckoo being 'parked' on the garage roof or garden table while its diminutive foster parents forage for insects.

 

A cuckoo's egg laid in a warbler's or pipit's nest looks similar to the host's eggs, but those laid in the dunnock's, or sometimes a robin's, look entirely different. This suggests that cuckoos have only recently evolved to parasitise these two species, and the hosts have not yet evolved to recognise the strange egg and eject it. Interestingly, it was an eighteenth century country doctor who first observed a cuckoo chick ejecting the eggs and young of its host; he wrote a scientific paper about it for The Royal Society in 1778, but some people ridiculed his claim and refused to believe it! Ten years later the same doctor, Edward Jenner, also presented a paper on injecting people with fairly harmless cowpox, to protect them against the deadly smallpox. Some people scoffed at that idea too - I wonder what became of it?

 

Everyone knows the cuckoo's call, but the familiar one is the male's. The female makes a loud bubbling call after she lays her egg - possibly to celebrate the fact that she has had to sit patiently watching a nest for a day or more to time her egg-laying successfully. It takes her just ten seconds to eject (or swallow - nothing is wasted in nature) one of the host's clutch and lay her own replacement.

 

Listen to the female call:

 

 

 

But cuckoos are in trouble. Their numbers have halved in the last 20 years. Although they are suffering like most birds in the UK from a reduction in their insect prey (their favourite is hairy caterpillars - when did you last see one?) the populations of their main hosts are not declining as fast as the cuckoo's. It seems the main problem affecting them occurs on migration, so scientists at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have been fitting birds with satellite tags to track their journeys to central Africa and back. The study has revealed some fascinating information, not least that climate change and rising human population is implicated. The first of this year's satellite tagged cuckoos to make it back to the UK arrived on April 13th, but as I write this in the last week of April I still haven’t heard one.

 

If you’d like to find out more about what the scientists are doing and what they are finding out, the BTO provides a very readable account of their work here

April: The start of summer's soundtrack

Posted on 16th March, 2017

The first of our African migrants, the chiffchaff, returns en masse to provide the prelude to the background music of our summer countryside and gardens. It sings ‘what it says on the tin’ – a repeated “chif-chaff” call – from the tops of trees, but often nests on or close to the ground in long grass.

 

chiffchaff

Chiffchaff - click here to listen to its characteristic song.

 

Another early arrival is the blackcap, named on account of the male’s black head, although the female’s is a chestnut brown. To the untrained ear, the blackcap’s song is rather like a turbo-charged robin – very loud and ‘bright’.

 

Robin singing

 

Blackcap

Click the boxes to compare their songs

                                       Robin                                                                   Blackcap

 

Blackcaps bathing

This pair of blackcaps was snapped in a Farleigh garden last March - perhaps

enjoying their first ablutions after a long dusty journey from North Africa? 

(Photo: Ginny Wenban)

 

Both these species will adopt larger gardens (or a group of smaller ones) if there are enough trees and ‘untidy’ areas where they can find their insect food. Chiffchaffs are especially useful in my garden as I have a large sycamore that really is ‘dripping’ with aphids in the summer, and the birds can be seen hanging upside down under leaves gorging themselves on what most people regard as garden pests. The ‘dripping’ is the sweet honeydew the insects excrete; much loved by ants, it’s also what makes your car so sticky if you park it beneath a sycamore. The aphids are also an essential food for the chicks of many birds – even seed-eaters like finches and house sparrows.

 

An ant 'milking' an aphid for its honeydew.

 

As our climate warms, some individuals are remaining here over winter thus avoiding the risks of a long migration. Evolution is taking place before our eyes (and ears). I normally expect to hear my first chiffchaff of the year by the last weekend in March. This year it was March 4th. But that could have been one of an increasing handful of chiffchaffs whose genetic makeup has altered by chance and they are no longer programmed to migrate, so they spend the winter in the UK. While these individuals run the risk of starving to death if the winter is a hard one, they avoid the many risks involved in flying to sub-Saharan Africa and back as the rest of their species do. As our climate slowly warms, more and more of these ‘remainers’ survive to pass on their genes to their offspring, who then also ‘remain’.

 

Blackcaps and chiffchaffs are just two of a small number of common species whose populations remain stable, or are even increasing slightly. But another once common bird around the Farleighs and the rest of southern England, the yellowhammer, has suffered a significant decline due to the changes in farming methods, especially hedgerow removal, brought about by our demand for ever-cheaper food. Although there are places nearby (Poultry Farm in Marden is one) where their familiar ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeeese’ song can still be heard in abundance, I have not heard it in East Farleigh for about ten years.

 

Yellowhammer - click to hear its "little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese" song

 

I’d love to know if it is hanging on in West Farleigh. Do let me know if you hear one regularly near you.

The great crocus robbery

Posted on 25th February, 2017

A common complaint of gardeners at this time of year is the mysterious disappearance of yellow crocus flowers, and the finger of suspicion is often pointed at the local house sparrows. It’s not entirely a coincidence, nor is it undeserved. As spring blossom starts to brighten the garden and attract our attention to the show of fresh colours, so the males of many bird species start to display brighter colours too to attract the attention of females.

 

Last year’s young blackbirds get their first breeding opportunities and acquire the bright yellow bill and eye-ring that help attract a mate. The coloured feathers of some species also start to look a bit brighter – male chaffinches, blue tits and great tits seem to look just that bit brighter in the spring sunshine, and the male house sparrow’s black bib begins to look bigger and bolder too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A young male before the breeding season (left) and one in full breeding condition (right).

 

The reason for all this, of course, is the need for males to demonstrate to females that they are the fittest, strongest and most reliable partners available to ensure the females can raise healthy young. Females are understandably choosy; they want their young to survive to adulthood and so pass on their genes.

 

 

 

The grey tips of this sparrow’s plumage are wearing off to expose the black underneath. Males need a bold bib to impress a female.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The theft of yellow crocus flowers (and my red runner bean flowers later in the summer) is actually an important part of this process. Chemicals contained in red and yellow flowers are known to be associated with an efficient immune system in birds, and also help produce yellow and red plumage. So the female blue tit is looking for the male displaying the finest yellow as he’s likely to be healthy and a good bet for helping with chick feeding.

 

 

 

Just what a female blue tit is looking for: the bright yellow suggests this is a ‘fit’ male, and his bright blue crown possibly means he has a ‘good’ territory with plenty of food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another reason for the feathers looking brighter is that the duller tips are wearing away to reveal deeper colours underneath, like the chaffinches pink breast – just when they are needed. It’s why the male sparrow’s black bib is also getting bigger, the dull grey feather ends are wearing away and females are attracted by the best bibs as that is another sign of the owner’s fitness. More daylight hours also stimulate the males to sing. Our resident garden birds have no competition from summer migrants yet, so evenings are full of their territorial song. Some blackbirds, song thrushes and, particularly, robins will sing well into the night if there is a nearby light source. The nightingale that famously sang in Berkley Square was almost certainly a robin: our evening shopping visits to Lidl at this time of year are always brightened by Tovil’s own car park ‘nightingale’ singing its heart out as we struggle with bags to the car (below!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, a reminder that any necessary trimming of hedges and shrubs should now be done very carefully, and only after first inspecting them to check there are no nests under construction or already in use. All birds are protected by law, along with their nests and eggs, and it is an offence to disturb them once they have started breeding. This includes the humble sparrows – even if they have devoured your crocuses!