Unquestionably, the sap is rising. Nothing more clearly illustrates the growing enthusiasm for the fast approaching season of renewal, than the song thrush which has taken up residence in my orchard and is currently belting out his message to female thrushes that he is available. And, judging by the passion that clearly laces his daily musical diatribe, he is definitely in the mood!
On the loch there is further evidence of approaching spring provided by a gaggle of goldeneye, already enthusiastically indulging in their courtship displays. The males throw their heads back so that their bills are pointing skyward and paddle furiously in their attempts to impress the gathering of the plainer looking ducks. These displays are as action-packed as the song of the thrush is so audibly vibrant.
What seems so bizarre about that particular courtship ritual is that it is happening before the goldeneye community takes leaves of us to return to its breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Northern Russia. It is assumed that pairings established here during winter and spring, are maintained when they reach their native heaths. If there appears to be just as much enthusiasm generated by the vocalisation of the thrush, as in the goldeneyes' gyrations, the curiosity is that they, the goldeneye, just need to fly a few thousand miles before their enthusiasm can finally be consummated!
There have been isolated incidents of goldeneye nesting in Britain and there have been a variey of attempts to encourage them to breed here with the provision of nesting boxes in what are regarded as suitable locations. Goldeneye, of course, nest in tree holes. Indeed, the youngsters are extremely resilient little creatures for at just one day old, they leave their relatively high rise nests and tumble to the floor. They are therefore the epitome of 'bouncing babies'!
Meanwhile, the chaffinches are literally swarming on and around my bird-table. The pink breasts of the males are now fairly glowing as most of them are in their full breeding plumage. Indeed, whilst I have yet to hear a chaffinch in voice, the feistiness demonstrated by these cock birds as they break off from snatching as many morsels as possible to confront one another is in itself significant. Chest to chest they fly up in brief bouts of rivalry, which shows that here too the sap is rising!
There was also a significant moment when there were suddenly two robins feeding side by side, picking away at the detritus that is spilt from the array of feeders above. Clearly they are a pair, for cock robins simply never tolerate the presence of other cock robins. For all their sweet singing, their apparent boldness and a willingness to often live in close proximity of people, robins are among the most intolerant and belligerent of birds. Two such cock birds will show such a degree of animosity towards each other that they are sometimes prepared to battle to the bitter end - in extreme cases to the death! The two that are vigorously pecking away here are obviously a pair for they are entirely happy in one another's company!
At the nearby rookery, there is increasingly feverish activity as more of the colony begin their 'spring cleaning', restoring their nests as best as they can, repairing any damage winter storms may have caused and adding choice sticks to their structures.
Here too there can be little traumas over miniscule territories, although fighting to the death is not the way with rooks. However, as mentioned before, there is plenty of evidence of theft. I watched one bird, perched quietly beside its own nest which, as soon as its neighbours had departed to collect more nesting material, was quickly in action, pilfering choice bits of sticks from the other nest and weaving them into its own.
There has been plenty of evidence in courtship among the rooks with an abundance of bowing and scraping as pairs strengthen their bonds. The males present themselves to the femaies. their food pouches brimful of food mostly comprising of insects and grubs and including many that are crop pests such as wire-worms and leather-jackets. The males then regurgitate their nuptial gifts and feed them to the females. There are bouts of mutual preening and canoodling as the pair may tenderly fondle one another's bills.
Although rooks pair for life, there are times when infedility can be rife. However, other aspects of rook life are surprisingly disciplined. For instances, there is a kind of class structure, which ensures that the most senior ranked birds enjoy the richest of the pickings when a flock feeds communally. The birds further down the pecking order have to settle for less advantageous places on the edge of the flock in which to feed. This social order is, I suppose, a case of maintaining a strong gene pool by ensuring that the fittest survive.
The theme of discipline caries over into other aspects of rook society, with what are sometimes known as 'Rook Parliaments' in which the senior members of a colony - the elders - gather together and seemingly sentence a member of their flock to either expulsion or death. This group of senior birds then carries out the sentence by literally pecking the victim of their perfunctory justice to death or by literally kicking it out! I have witnessed such events and conclude that the victim must be a bird that is sick and thus deemed to pose an infectious threat to the rest of the community. I do not believe that the victims are merely miscreants as some suggest! Otherwise those thieving nest builders would all be victims!
As already said, the theme of courtship is manifested in different ways, by song and by display. However, another factor is appearance, especially colour. Mallard drakes are very colourful whereas the ducks are much plainer. Furthermore, the brighter the colours of the male, the more impressed is the female. However, this colour variation only applies to certain species. The aforementioned chaffinches illustrate the point, the males resplendent in colour, the females relatively plain. In contrast, the male and female goldfinches are identical which is why as spring advances, males show some aggression towards females until they have established their gender!
Some of the most invigorated displays in the spring are provided by our raptors. Arguably the most spectacular is enacted by the rare hen harriers when the grey male soars high with prey in its talons. The brown female then flies up and the male now folding its wings and diving, drops his 'gift' which is then adroitly caught in mid-air by the female with all the aplomb of a cricketer. Sometimes such and exchange takes place directly from talon to talon.
During these next two weeks, many of us will be hoping to enjoy our first sighting of returning ospreys. They also provide some spectacular displays, the male birds flying to great heights, pausing briefly to hover, and then diving spectacularly. Its all beginning to happen as the landscape once more comes alive, despite the brief return of bouts of wintry weather including flurries of snow. Meanwhile, the volume of spring song continues to rise by the day. And, slowly, with the gradual appearance of that green haze on the trees we can be sure that the season of re-birth is at last beginning to galvanise itself. The sap is definitely rising!