These are days of rapid growth. Many birds emerge from the egg, bald, blind and thus utterly helpless. At this early stage in their lives, they are completely dependent upon their parents for food and warmth. Thus those parent birds are driven to search for and deliver a constant supply of food, most of it in the form of invertebrate life. The nature of the weather also plays its part and long periods of rain may shorten the odds on the continuity of that vitally regular supply of food and thus the survival of some or indeed all of the brood. Those 'hard working' parents must therefore take advantage of the long hours of daylight available in midsummer to continue to forage late into the evening and resume during the wee small hours.
The result of this dedication is a remarkable transformation, from those helpless, blind and bald chicks into little balls of feather, bright eyed if not perhaps bushy tailed, literally in a few short days. The wide-open beaks of young birds, with their brightly coloured inner mouths, stimulate the parent birds into ever more frantic searching for more and more food. Of all our native birds, the most startlingly colourful mouth belongs to a young cuckoo.
Furthermore, young cuckoos grow at the most remarkable rate, soon dwarfing their foster parents and thus reminiscent of Topsy, who, we were told, grew and grew and grew. Cuckoo parents, as we know, take absolutely no interest in the welfare of their off-spring, simply laying eggs in other bird's nests and relying utterly upon the unfortunate hosts to just get on with the arduous job of rearing what soon becomes the single, monster, alien chick! As early as next month the parent cuckoos will begin their journeys back to Africa, leaving the next generation to the tender mercies of foster parents and their offspring's eventual migratory journey literally to chance!
Perhaps cuckoos are the exception to the rule with dedication clearly not a primary instinct! The cuckoo egg of course hatches after just thirteen days of incubation, usually a day or so earlier than those of its foster parents. The young cuckoo also emerges blind and bald, yet instinctively, it immediately begins to expel as many of the 'natural' eggs of its foster parents from the nest as it can, manipulating them on to its concavely shaped back and heaving them overboard. And if any do manage to hatch, the resultant chicks quickly go the same way. Strangely, the foster parents seem almost hypnotised by their fast growing chick and indifferent to the tragic demise of their own young as they now focus entirely on this single, rapidly growing youngster.
That ever-wide open, gaping chasm of a beak that is a hallmark of that chick, simply impels them to find more and more caterpillars. Oddly enough, that brightly coloured gape sometimes mesmerises neighbouring birds too. I once watched in amazement, when a starling hurtling back towards its own nest with a beak full of insects, was so enchanted by that colourful interior that it found itself involuntarily making a diversion. Instead of feeding its own young, it found itself stuffing the contents of its beak into that extremely receptive, cavernous cuckoo beak.
All around us during June, are parent birds exploiting the rich variety of invertebrate life that is currently emerging at this productive time of the year. The growth rate of these newly hatched youngsters is remarkable, their transmogrification amazing. Yellowhammer chicks for example, are precocious enough to fly in less than two weeks after emerging from the egg. Warblers of various kinds too are quick out of the blocks, pretty much on a par with the yellow yites, with blackcap chicks even jumping the starter's gun and fledging within ten days!
These weeks of midsummer, if they represent make or break for so many of our birds, are also crucial for the future ambitions of our largest land mammals, red deer. During the spring of each year, usually during March, red deer stags cast their antlers. Immediately a new set begins to grow. If we marvel at the rapid growth of newly hatched birds, equally staggering is the rapid development of a new and in the case of master stags, very substantial set of antlers. When it comes to growth, the accoutrements, which make red deer stags so majestic and special to most folk, grow at an absolutely phenomenal rate. By August that growth is complete albeit that the new set of antlers is covered by velvet, a living material containing blood vessels. This velvet is rubbed off during September so that the antlers are 'clean' in preparation for that crucial annual autumn spectacle, the rut, when the size of those antlers really does matter. A master stag, therefore will grow a full set of antlers of say twelve or fourteen points in something like five months.
Such a rate of growth is not surprisingly, very demanding upon the physiology of the stags and during this period, these impressive animals, which are of course essentially vegetarians, can often be seen chewing on cast antlers. The reason for this is that they desperately need extra calcium as the new antlers grow. It is hardly surprising then, that in many parts of Scotland there are folk who go up into the mountains and glens in the spring: their quest to find those cast antlers. These they can fashion into all manner of mementoes such as handles for walking sticks, crooks and sgian dhus.
I have a friend who has gathered quite a collection of antlers but he didn't have to go off to the Highlands to find them. Instead he picked them up in a nearby Lowland conifer forest which has not been managed for several years and which now supports a fascinating spectrum of wildlife. Among its residents are some interesting raptors and even wild boar, not to mention red squirrels and pine marten but in particular, there is also a very healthy and increasingly large herd of red deer.
Indeed, during these past days, I have been reminded of the growing presence of red deer in this Lowland airt, when I spotted a red deer stag in a field in which down the years, I have often seen roe deer but never before red. This fellow has clearly been enjoying the shelter afforded by a nearby patch of mixed woodland. Unlike the aforementioned coniferous forest, this delightful little wood is instead, dominated by deciduous trees. As I have said many times before, whereas generally red habitat is not in fact treeless and exposed hillsides but woodland. Indeed red deer living out their lives in such environments are, because of the more sheltered environment, are generally much larger and heavier than Highland deer.
This month, many red deer hinds will be dropping their calves, which are of course at birth, generously spotted. This form of pelage betrays that woodland origin of red deer. In that kind of environment the spots are an extremely effective form of camouflage with the sun filtering through the ever moving canopy causing a dappling effect which allows the calves to merge beautifully with their background. It therefore comes as little surprise that when they get the opportunity, red deer will gladly revert to type and return to the woodland environment.
Hence the surprise sighting and the clear evidence to be seen of an adornment of newly-sprouting antlers. By August that stag will surely be transformed and once he has rubbed off the velvet in September, perhaps he will be revealed not so much as the Monarch of the Glen but perhaps as the Monarch of the Vale!