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

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 16.11.17

on .

There was a real clamour on a bright and sunny morning as I went about my chores a day or two ago. The sky was criss-crossed by countless skeins of pink-feet. This was indeed a large gathering and at one time, individual skeins seemed to be heading towards almost every point of the compass. Hence the sky simply seemed a mass of geese. And wherever there are pink-feet, there is always also that shrill clamour. These geese always seem to be in endless conversation with one another, morning, noon and night! But also contributing to the racket, were jackdaws not thousands of them like the geese but hundreds anyway.

They were vocal enough to almost completely drown out the cawing of the numerous rooks also sailing above the surrounding fields. Frankly, knowing jackdaws as I do, I had a notion, that this rabble was looking for mischief. I often think that is what jackdaws are all about! And to add to this cacophony of avian sound, mischief already seemed to be in the making at closer quarters, for the growing population of speugs hereabouts were absolutely in full voice and were clearly, as sparrows are wont to do, having a 'ding-dong' of an argument. That such gatherings rejoice in the collective name of 'quarrels', could not be more appropriate, for I cannot think of any birds as eager to join in arguments than sparrows, most notably those of the 'house' variety!

Across the entire globe, sparrows seem endemic. Despite recent reports of declining numbers of house sparrows in some of our urban areas, these it might be argued, are among the most successful birds on the planet. You may have noticed that they have a great affinity with the human followed in his wake. But then, above all, sparrows are opportunists and know only too well that wherever mankind goes, there will always be crumbs upon which to feed. Moreover, we have given them a helping hand in their march across the globe, by introducing them to North America for instance.

The other sparrow of note hereabouts is the tree sparrow - really I suppose a subtle variation on a sparrow theme! The tree sparrow is notably adorned by a dark splodge on each cheek, the only really marked difference between it and its cousin, the ubiquitous house sparrow. The tree sparrow is also the rurally based cousin of the so-called urban house variety and very much the junior partner in the sparrow club, quite rare in comparison with the house sparrow. I can certainly tell you that if house sparrows are said to be in decline, they aren't here! Indeed, in Scotland as a whole these cheeky little fellows are bucking the trend.

Mind you, tree sparrows have their place in history. During Mao Zedong's all-powerful chairmanship of the Chinese Communist Government, he decreed that the tree sparrows, which were consuming vast amounts of the country's cereal crops, should therefore by targeted, almost as public enemies number one! Mao subsequently ordered the destruction of an estimated three million tree sparrows in order to protect those crops. It proved not to be one of Mao's wisest prognostications. As a result, those crops were utterly devastated, not by the now absent sparrows but by locusts, which of course, had been previously controlled ... by the sparrows! Not one for Mao's little red book!

However, thus far this winter, tree sparrows have been noticeably absent from my bird-table. Not surprisingly, there has been absolutely no shortage of house sparrows. I suppose I've lived with sparrows for most of my life and it has been extremely interesting to watch them evolve from birds which as I remember from childhood, were only able to exploit food that was either on the ground or on a bird-table. Nuts or fat in hanging baskets were off the menu - they literally didn't have the ability or strength of food to scale such heights. Sparrows now, however, swarm over basket and bags as to the manner born. In short they have improved their dexterity, generation by generation.

Reflecting on the fact that autumn has this year been something of a long running saga, clearly largely bereft of frosts until recent nights, so the colours, over the past few days have only just come into their full glory. And, coincidentally, traffic at my bird-table, had thus far been somewhat fitful too. There has been no shortage of one of my favourites, the goldfinch ... and no shortage therefore of 'goudspink' squabbling over prime place at the sunflower hearts and to a lesser degree of the nyger seed. But the titmice in particular seem not to be so numerous thus far. Mind you, I have also noticed that there remains plenty of insect life in the air, which may in part explain something of a reluctance among the avian classes, to exploit what is on offer here.

But now as temperatures very definitely follow a downward trend, there is by the day, more and more activity. Needless to say, the ubiquitous chaffinches are once again very much to the fore. These are perhaps the most recognisable birds on most garden bird-tables and are indeed, among the most successful of our British breeding birds. However, contrary to opinion, many British chaffinches join the migratory exodus in the autumn, heading southwards through the Continent towards the Mediterranean. Whilst I certainly seem to see as many females as males, chaffinches often opt to come together during the winter months, in single sex flocks. Indeed, flocks comprising almost entirely of females tend to be rather more ambitious than their male counterparts, generally travelling further afield.

One reason for the apparent reluctance on the part of males to venture too far away from home, may well be linked to a desire to be able, as spring advances, to stake a claim to territory as early as possible. Chaffinches are one of the birds, which come together in flocks for winter whilst giving voice, is one of the certain signs that spring is in the air. And, by the way, chaffinches from different parts of the country sing in different dialects. The differences are not strong - you won't for instance hear a north of England based bird singing, 'ee, bah gum' or a cockney based bird singing 'cor blimey'. But wherever you go in the country, if you listen carefully you may be able to identify the slightly different inflections between regional songs.

Chaffinches, because they feed more extensively than other finches on insect life and with their marginally longer wings, may in springtime be seen making short flights in pursuit of flying insects. For this reason, chaffinches tend to be more territory conscious whereas many other finches are more inclined to nest communally. Of course, it will be some time before that chattering little song will greet advancing spring. Meanwhile, chaffinches are set to entertain us during the forthcoming months. Like the sparrows, they have certainly learned to exploit food hung in nets or baskets. These days they are indeed, extremely dextrous. And come to think of it, the male bird's plumage actually mirrors many of the autumn colours!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods