Winter thus far has been largely wet and windy as opposed to cold and frosty but during the past few days it has more boldly asserted itself as winds moved round the compass into the north and the landscape accordingly turned white! Proper winter had arrived! Nevertheless, despite these tumbling temperatures and the nightly, looming presence of Mr Frost, the first indications of new life have already begun to manifest themselves. There, in a hedge bottom, trembling in the icy blast, were to be seen the year’s first new signs of life in the delicate form of snowdrops. For all their pristine delicacy, snowdrops, with their fragile white petals and fine-spun greenery must indeed in essence be extremely hardy. Furthermore they surely induce a ‘smile’ factor, just when we need it!
These first blooms declare a new beginning of the eternal cycle of life, the first heralds of another season of re-birth. Yet, these are inevitably very slow and even cautious beginnings, for true winter may perhaps have only just begun! And, hitherto, there have been precious few hints from our feathered friends that they are awakening to that new dawn. Thus far I had heard little more than a few whispered avian conversations, most of them barely audible.
Only one songster to speak of has thus far, made any kind of impression. Inevitably, that lone voice belongs to redbreast, his sweet little phrases briefly permeating an otherwise silent sylvan setting. I always get the impression at this time of the year that robins have little or no structure to their song. Instead, they seem to blurt out little collections of random notes, almost involuntarily, as if they open their little beaks before letting their brains slip into gear! Yet those erratic bursts of sugar sweet notes are welcome, for they brighten up even the dullest of days … and nights. Indeed, robin’s voice is even more penetrating when he sings us an evening lullaby as darkness descends.
Robins are in truth, enigmatic and perverse little creatures. They may seem all sweetness and light; bright, dewy eyed, alluring with their glowing red breasts, often surprisingly happy to enjoy our close company and of course, to entertain us with their solo music during the short days of the winter months. But they are not quite so endearing when it comes to relationships with their own kindred. Only one robin comes to my bird-table albeit that another came the other day, clearly brandishing a gauntlet!
He perhaps harbours ambitions of sharing the daily provender but the resident redbreast is decidedly singular in every respect. ‘This is my sole territory; trespassers will not be tolerated’ is his message to all other redbreasts. Thus far he reigns supreme, the one and only robin allowed here! Any incursions by such rivals are rebuffed with a ferocity, which is hardly equalled in other avian circles. Thus, there was a brief flurry as the well-entrenched bird flew purposefully but swiftly towards the interloper. Within seconds, only one bird was to be seen. Discretion had, once more, become the better part of valour!
Cock robins simply do not tolerate other cock robins and conflict between rivals is often resolved with remarkable brutality with one of the contenders, should he resist, likely to end up more dead than alive! The little shenanigans between other birds at the feeders are nothing compared with the malice that enters cock robin’s breast should another robin invade his territory. Rivalry between birds of the same species, most noticeably among the male birds, is endemic and clearly evident at the feeders, yet such fall outs are usually brief with basic survival the main consideration. In cock robins, no such restraining feature exists!
Robins therefore are arguably, the most openly belligerent of our more familiar birds. Yet others too have short fuses. My growing flock of house sparrows is constantly living up to that collective description of their kind, for ‘quarrels’ seem to break out constantly. In utter contrast, dunnocks give the distinct impression of being the antithesis of such conflict, always quietly remaining on the periphery, content to feast upon the crumbs whilst others scrap over the scraps! And yet, the humble little dunnock is not quite as genteel as you may think for of all the more familiar garden birds, this is the one that is firmest in its belief that monogamy is not for him!
I have often felt that among the titmice, the great tit above all, exhibits the greatest degree of physical dominance and competitiveness. So, I was not at all surprised that a day or two after seeing my first snowdrops, I was at last to hear a pronouncement that further confirmed the slow revolution, which over the next few weeks and months will inevitably, alter and quicken the rhythms of natural life. The oft-repeated two-tone proclamation of a cock great tit rang out as distinctively as the lone voice of the robin had earlier echoed through the wood. ‘Tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’, he trumpeted. The message rang out loud and clear – the first real, audible sign of a rising of the sap. Cock great tits are nearly always the first out of the blocks in proclaiming their availability to any hen great tits that care to listen, and the message they promote is that they are of course, ‘the most desirable of mates’!
If there was a lack of real conviction, of stridency, in that first proclamation, it did at least, provide another benchmark in the New Year’s progression. The message was clear - the march towards spring has begun. With the emerging snowdrops, it represented the first chapter in what may well be a saga of great length … or indeed shortness. Who knows? Some say this is destined to be a hard winter but the computers don’t really know, they can only predict. And what that solitary great tit had to say for himself will surely soon I’m sure, be echoed by others. Inevitably rival cocks will respond and in the weeks to come, the air will resonate ever louder with that two-tone statement of intent … from all the airts!
There will be much ritual to undertake in the meantime. And, ambitions will not always be fulfilled. The hen birds, which are of course, the decision-makers, will eventually make their choices of mates, choices which will depend on a variety of factors. The assertive nature for instance, of that ‘tea-cher, tea-cher,’ territorial claim; the nature of the territory a male has claimed; the quality of nesting sites within that territory, even the length and breadth of the black band that dominates his front. But above all, the food resources available for the raising of a family within his chosen territory when that eventuality has to be met, will be regarded as crucial.
That latter assessment, dependent mainly upon the availability of caterpillars, she may not be able to make at this early stage but as their relationship develops, that will become for her a prime requisite. And should his chosen territory prove to be below par in that respect, just when fulfilment seems at hand, she may well abscond to find a better provider elsewhere! Fickle that may seem but it is in essence pragmatic!
So the first signs are there; can spring break free from winter’s grip? Well, there may indeed, be many a slip ‘tween cup and lip!