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The first stirrings of spring?

Posted on 1st February, 2019

In February signs of spring may slip out from the iron grip of winter, confusing us and birds alike. Valentine’s Day is said to be when birds traditionally find a mate and some species are certainly thinking about it even if the weather isn’t always spring-like. As I write this in January, great tits and dunnocks are already laying a musical claim to their garden territories, and blue tits have started inspecting boxes for a potential nest site. For some species like mistle thrush and blackbird it’s not unheard of for them to start laying eggs towards the end of the month.


Although a February start to nesting is a risky business, for the species that do it’s not a total disaster if their brood falls victim to a late blast of winter. Thrushes and robins, for example, can routinely produce two or three clutches of four eggs in a season. Tits on the other hand, start later but put all their eggs into the same metaphorical basket with a large single clutch - up to fourteen eggs in the case of the diminutive blue tit. They too, of course, can fall victim to a cold wet spring, but their biggest challenge now is climate warming. They need to time the hatching of their eggs to coincide with the maximum caterpillar availability to feed the young. But climate change has brought this forward by up to two weeks and it is taking some bird species time to adapt. While resident birds can take their cue from local weather conditions and lay earlier, birds that have to time their migration from central Africa (nightingales, for example) can't know what local UK weather conditions are, so many risk mis-timing their arrival and missing out on the peak availability of the food their young need.


And while all this is going on, our winter visitors from Scandinavia, the noisy fieldfare and more reserved redwing, are still making the most of our (hopefully) snow-free countryside. Other winter visitors from the continent include blackbirds, robins and chaffinches - they also prefer the luxury of our supposedly warmer maritime climate, but will hang on here in our woods, and especially our gardens, until the urge to mate finally takes hold and they too return whence they came in a month or so.


The village now boasts two new nest boxes erected in the Triangle. They are designed for tits or sparrows so hopefully they will attract some attention and provide accommodation for a pair this year. They are easy to see from the footpath so when the adults are busy constructing a nest, or feeding young, it will be possible to stand and stare – and marvel at the hard work they have to do.


Tits' nests are built on a substantial foundation of moss – and there is plenty of that in the trees and undergrowth around the triangle – and then lined with softer material. Blue tits tend to use feathers for this while great tits use mammal fur, hair or wool. Horse-hair is popular and plentiful, but can be a death trap for nestlings as they easily become entangled in it (or even swallow it) and become trapped or strangled.


If you devote enough time to watching them build their nests, you’ll see that birds that use feathers to line the nest cup select white ones for the purpose. When examined more closely, it was found that white feathers carry a higher proportion of microbes that act as an anti-bacterial agent than black feathers do. Thus they help keep the nest sanitised.















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