The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 5.10.17

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Territorial integrity is fundamental, not just to animals and birds but indeed to us too. Whether in relation to a multi-roomed mansion or castle or a one-roomed flat perhaps more reminiscent of a shoe-box than a house, we psychologically need the security such a dwelling provides "An Englishman's home is his castle," is a well-worn phrase. A Scotsman's, perhaps, is his bothy! It perhaps boils down to our need to belong ... somewhere!

Animals and birds have precisely the same needs, albeit that territory for them, serves more than one purpose; on the one hand, a breeding territory. However, many of the small birds, which are especially vulnerable to attacks by predators, surrender their territorial sovereignty when they are unencumbered by the drive to procreate and their lifestyles are changed by the shortening days of winter.

Indeed, as winter approaches, territorial integrity as a means to a breeding end, ceases to be such a driving force for most birds. Instead, the mentality now switches more vitally to the harsh reality of survival and that goal is more readily achieved by surrendering all such notions and individual status to come together in flocks. Thus, during the next few weeks many small birds in particular will cast aside their individuality - not absolutely perhaps but to a substantial degree - and instead become members of a community of fellow birds.

I'm sure that those of you, who derive pleasure from feeding birds during the autumn and winter months, will have noticed that occasionally, the cock birds taking advantage of your generosity, do have little spats with one another. I suppose that the spirit of competition still lurks deeply within the breasts of many males of various species. However, for the duration of the winter they try their best to suppress their antagonism to other rival males, in the rather more important pursuit of food.

Yet things are not always as we may expect them to be. Much to my surprise the other day, I was suddenly aware of a cock great tit, suddenly bursting into song. His, strident 'tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher' proclamation is not something I would normally expect to hear until January at least. I therefore wondered if this solitary songster had been inspired by the resident robins and wrens here, which as mentioned a week or two ago, remain in musical mood throughout the winter months, as they put down their vocal markers in establishing winter feeding territories.

They, the redbreasts and jenny wrens, are perhaps egotistical enough to resist the temptation to adopt corporate life and instead fiercely resist any notion of togetherness. But, that said, wrens can sometimes surrender their individuality too, in especially cold weather, coming together for the warmth generated in a communal roost. Often dozens of them will squeeze themselves into small spaces such as nesting boxes, where they generate sufficient heat to get them through the night.

Located in my garden, there are four cock robins, each occupying and prepared to defend a distinct and separate territory. For robins it seems that winter territory is just as important as breeding territory in the springtime ... and as intensely defended, although that defence is more often than not reflected in song - each occupant responding to the challenge and songs of the others. For me, the result is extremely pleasant for their vocal proclamations of territorial integrity provide a remarkable oasis of sweet song against a background, save for the rattling wrens and that lone great tit, of relative silence.

Nevertheless, as autumn advances and natural foods begin to dwindle, most other small birds will indeed ditch that singularity and come together in large communities. It is all about improving their chances of surviving those harsh winter months. Corporately, so many pairs of eyes will be better able to source food and also, they are similarly useful in spotting and warding off predators. For instance, the likes of sparrowhawks are literally repelled by a swirling mass of birds, put off and confused by them and prevented from selecting single birds as victims. All those raptors can hope for is to pick off stragglers - usually birds which are not perhaps as fit as they should be.

And, if recent reports from the British Trust for Ornithology are universally correct, some of those flocks might just be that much bigger this winter. Research shows that most small birds have had a very bountiful year. Indeed, figures suggest that 2017 has been their most productive breeding year since 1992. These figures, therefore, point towards a short-term reversal to the trend, which in recent years has suggested an alarming decline in many small bird populations.

Cock great tits can be very assertive but as garden bird feeders will be well aware, they do, during the winter months, tolerate (more or less) the corporate presence of other great tits, male and female. And whilst that surprising and strident little burst of song is typical of these feisty little birds, more often heard perhaps in the spring, great tits are more versatile than you may have cause to think. Experts tell me that a male great tit may have as many as forty different songs in his repertoire.

Such a range of songs is of course a substantial advantage when, next spring, it comes to the selection of a mate. Although the male may seem to be the one that leads that process, in reality, the choice of mate is definitely made by the female. However, as with many other small birds, there is a coming together for the common good during the winter months, but the greater his range of song, the better his chances of being selected as a mate.

The origin of these flocks may well have their beginnings during the late summer, when juvenile birds, having ceased to be reliant upon their parents, first face the need to learn the art of survival. Again, the reason for this togetherness is entirely pragmatic for these newcomers will have a much better chance of survival as a group than as individuals. And as autumn and then winter comes along and food becomes harder to find, other tits may join these wandering bands. Again, it is all about self-interest!

As observers will know only too well, great tits are not only versatile vocalists they are also very omnivorous when it comes to choices of food. This is perhaps why they are relatively successful. Close observation has for instance, identified that great tits consume invertebrates from an astonishing range of up to 135 different species, ranging from months and butterflies to beetles, bugs, flies, wasps and spiders.

Clearly such things become very scarce in the winter, hence the eager presence of great tits at garden bird-tables and their liking for peanuts and fat. However, beech-mast and other tree sees are important sources of food during the winter months. But, there is entertainment of a highly visual quality provided by all those birds, especially those great tits, when they flock to our bird-tables during these shorter days of winter. And while robin and wren may regularly break the silence, you might just hear the odd great tit too! Feeding time approaches, which means here are rich rewards and much entertainment to be enjoyed.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods