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

Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 12 July 2019

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There can be no doubt at all that this is the time of the young ones.  As the avian breeding season finally draws towards its close, the evidence that this has been very productive is all around me.  Indeed, my garden seems to be awash with young birds all of which are daily gaining in confidence and making strides towards self-sufficiency.  I'm not sure how many families of starlings there are here but there is certainly more than one.  The other day I counted at least twelve young starlings on or around my bird-table.

The main attraction seems to be the fat blocks we string up for them.  Indeed, there are times when the squabbling over who gets prime position to peck away at the fat provides us with rich entertainment.  I am constantly reminded of the curious two dimensions of starling behaviour.  There have been times - and doubtless there will be again - when I am awe-struck by the amazing discipline starlings can exhibit when, mainly during the winter months, they come together in those amazing murmurations and proceed to baffle us with the fantastic patterns they proscribe in the air.  No human artwork can surely match the precision, the ever-changing shapes produced by the massed ranks of starlings.

Here, we don't see the massive murmurations filmed near Gretna Green that have been shown on television, which involves thousands if not hundreds of thousands of starlings painting the sky with their ever changing patterns.  But, more often than not, during the winter months we do find some forty or fifty starlings roosting in our leylandi hedge and conducting mini-murmurations.  The discipline required must be absolute.  They change direction at a whim, thus changing the shape of their formation as they fly first this way and then that in a dizzying sequence of movements that is indeed baffling.  I have watched closely as they hurtle forth and can definitely confirm that there is never a single leader conducting this amazing orchestration.  There may be one bird that leads for a short while, then another takes over, and another and another and so on.

There is never the merest hint of collision.  Every bird in the flock knows its place...absolutely.  The scientists tell us that each bird has a set amount of space between its neighbours, ahead, behind, above and below and to the sides.  What discipline that must take, especially as they conduct these movements at incredible speed.  The only similarity I can strike is between starlings and those remarkable flocks of waders, such as knot, that collect in the estuarine environment and perform similar feats of collective aerobatics.  Similar mass disciplines must also be at work there too.

So, why is my new generation of starlings so completely undisciplined?  They fight and argue with pernicious vigour all the time, vying with each other to secure a place on the fat.  Initially, it was the parent birds that pecked so vigorously so as to secure quite large beaks of fat, which they then rammed down the throats of pleading youngsters.  But gradually, the youngsters found they too were able to fly up, secure a hold on the wire and ram their long beaks into the fat.  I had just read about the problems afflicting human society - that obesity has now overtaken cancer as a problem.  The way these starlings are battering away at the fat, I found myself wondering whether they too are heading down the same road.  Why is it, that so much pure fat effects humans and not starlings?  However, I suppose that they burn up a good deal of energy zooming from place to place and in those whirling murmurations!

The starlings are not alone.  The fat is also a major attraction to great spotted woodpeckers.  It has been evident that two pairs of these colourful characters have been re-charging their batteries on those same slabs of fat.  One pair comes from one direction, the other from the opposite point of the compass and we have been watching the newly fledged redcaps - young woodpeckers - being fed by their parents.  But like the new broods of starlings, some of the redcaps too are now coming in and helping themselves.

It is evident that the young starlings are unaware of the threat woodpecker's can pose with their well-known antipathy to all other birds when food is the attraction.  The parent starlings certainly know for they soon make themselves scarce when the woodpeckers arrive, retreating to a safe distance.  The young starlings however, seemed unaware of the antagonism of the woodpeckers....until eventually one of the woodpecker parents had a real go at a couple of them, putting them to immediate flight with a couple of thrusts of that long and presumably sharp, rapier-like beak.  Maybe at last they will have learned the lesson!

Meanwhile a four-strong family of blackbirds has joined the melee, coming regularly to feed on the fallen sunflower seeds.  I also watched two song thrush youngsters following a parent and begging for food.  The parent bird, typical of the thrush family, moves in short sharp bursts before suddenly darting forward and seizing on some tiny fragment of invertebrate life which was eventually thrust down the throat of one of the following youngsters.  The begging also extends to two young crows which are now pursuing their parents everywhere they go, flapping their wings and fawning as they repeatedly ask for food.  All young birds are equipped with brightly coloured inner mouths, which stimulate the parent birds into stuffing more and more food into those colourful gapes!

There are times when mini battles break out.  Indeed, it is clear that there is no love lost between competing siblings.  One of the young crows in its eagerness to be first to receive a beak full of food from a parent, knocked its sibling for six.  Furthermore, hostility between them seems to break out from time to time.  One was so aggresive that it had its sibling on its back the other day.  There is another example of conflict that surprised me.  There has been a pair of collared doves around right through spring and summer.  However, there has been no sign of youngsters.  One of the said doves was wandering around the other day when a magpie landed close by.  The dove - aren't they supposed to be birds of peace? - immediately flew into a rage at the magpie which, to my surprise hurriedly departed in panic!  I speculated that maybe a magpie, perhaps this one, had robbed the dove's nest of either her eggs or young and this was appropriate retribution!  I'm afraid magpies are often the villains of the piece!

It is the redcaps however, that provide the most entertainment. They fly in explosively, clamp themselves to the wire containers for the fat and swing round and round as they pick vigorously away at the energy-giving treat.  Now they are also threatening any of the young starlings that dare to challenge them for a beak full of fat.  As George Orwell once wrote, 'I'm fat but I'm thin inside'!



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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods