The hedgerows and the hills are aglow with a golden haze of gorse. Hawthorn blossom and the rapidly greening trees, add to the romance of the month of May, enhanced even further by the settled weather we have been enjoying during the past few weeks. Uncharacteristically, the cry now is for rain, desperately needed by gardeners and farmers alike. However, rain or dry, romance, in so far as nature is ever stricken by that very human emotion, is in the air. Presently, all our feathered friends are compelled by one driving force. They respond each spring and summer, to the need to reproduce.
Thus, if perhaps romance is not an emotion of which the birds currently filling our ears with music are aware, they are nevertheless driven, sometimes frenetically, by the importance of establishing or renewing bonds and partnerships. The ultimate goal will eventually result in a permanent, in many cases just for a single season, partnership and the subsequent production of a family, in some cases not just one but two or even three families. If it isn't what we might define as romance, it certainly is about sex appeal. Yet that too is a sensation, which in that avian world, comes in many different forms. Music is perhaps the most obvious, whilst the colours or indeed, the patterns of plumage can also have a major impact as well as the behaviour patterns between courting or indeed, rival birds.
And of course, there will most likely be extensive posturing, even dancing, more often than not, used by males to impress and attract females. In some cases, however, roles may be partially reversed with posturing displays sometimes employed by female birds as a means of attracting males. In recent weeks I have often referred to the amazing vocal volume generated by tiny 'jenny' wrens. Indeed, the volume of that rat-a-tat song apparently does influence female wrens to determine which of the competing males they will pair up with, the louder the better. So as I say in my garden at the weekend, it became increasingly clear that male great tits also deem it necessary to employ volume if they are to succeed in attracting a mate. Remember, in the majority of cases in avian society, most of the decision making, including the selection of a mate, is very much the prerogative of the female!
I have in the past used 'teach-er', 'teach-er' to describe the chanting of cock great tits. Having say literally just below one such little fellow for some time the other day, I now interpret that oft repeated, two-note pronouncement as 'tis me', 'tis me', 'tis me' ... ad infinitum. It wasn't just that his strident, incessantly repetitive message, was issued with such volume but also I thought at times, it was even verging on desperation! Comparing his extremely assertive chanting with the songs of countless newly arrived willow warblers - their numbers seem particularly high this year - provided an extraordinary contrast. The warblers' sweet voices, also all around me, seem to me to convey a feeling of wistful contemplation rather than urgency.
Female great tits actually listen for that vibrancy but they also look at a potential mate's plumage for certain indicators of his vigour. In particular it seems the bold black vertical stripe down the cock great tit's chest and stretching right down his body is a sure sign of his virility. It has to be solid, wide and prominent for him to be considered as a suitable partner! One other factor will be prominent in the female's thoughts. That loud, chanting cock bird will have selected a number of potential nest sites within the territory he now commands. Any female considering him as a possible partner, will also judge him on that selection and, perhaps even more crucially, on the quantity and indeed the quality of food likely to be available within that territory!
The increasing influence of global warming, even if Mr Trump regards it as a hoax, is another factor, which must be taken into account. The survival and prosperity of a family will depend utterly on a good supply of caterpillars, mostly those of moths. Thus as these preliminary courtship rituals are conducted, she will be weighing up that particular issue. Global warming is encouraging the moths to lay their eggs earlier and earlier so the great tits have to be aware of this and thus time their own egg laying so that the hatching of their young will coincide with the emergence of those caterpillars.
That vigorous singing is therefore merely the preliminary phase of a protracted process which, depending ultimately on the perspicacity of each pair of great tits will result in the rearing of large numbers of their kind, or, should they get their timing wrong, disaster. Great tits may, during other times of the year, have a relatively varied diet, which can include seeds and of course, nuts and beech mast. But when it comes to the feeding of youngsters, those caterpillars are essential, providing an instant and very digestible form of protein, which is the means of rapid growth.
One other voice - in fact a whole conglomerate of them - is, when compared with the melodies of the willow warblers and blackbirds for instance, definitely not very musical, but it is also loud. There is resident here one little black-bibbed, grey-pated and grey-cheeked cock sparrow, which has a particularly loud chirp. His declaration is loud enough to be heard from inside the house, even when the television is on, 'chirp, chirp, chirp'! We have a healthy little bevy of house sparrows here. It is not a quiet presence; it is atpically a rudely argumentative presence, characteristic of course, of sparrows. Sparrows have always existed in close proximity to people. Indeed I cannot but believe that they probably followed and chose to reside beside the earliest hunter-gatherer people, for sparrows above all, are opportunists, living very happily off whatever scraps they can pick up.
Sparrows are probably regarded by most folk as archetypically urban and suburban birds, yet I am far removed from such an environment. But, in recent times, their numbers have tumbled alarmingly. It is my understanding that modern methods of house building with little or nothing in the way of eaves to facilitate nesting, are at the heart of the problem. But pollution caused by traffic may also be a significant hazard, reducing the sparrows' ability to breed. Yet, when it comes to the breeding season, sparrows are by nature, eager competitors and prolific breeders. Indeed, historically, sparrow's eggs were regarded as something of an aphrodisiac and were accordingly consumed by some with appropriate enthusiasm ... and perhaps optimism!
However, sparrows have also sometimes enjoyed a dubious reputation as shown in last week's Stirling Observer, when an article reproduced from the days of the First World War, dubbed sparrows as 'wicked'! The anonymous wartime correspondent even went so far as to declare ... that 'people who toil early and late in the cultivation of gardens or allotments are disposed to regard all birds as vermin.' He (or she) went on to suggest that the sparrow in particular deserved no mercy. I doubt if the anti-sparrow brigade has in any way been responsible for the declining status of house sparrows in recent years. Although perhaps regarded by many as being the most numerous of our birds - there are in fact more chaffinches and more wrens in Britain - sparrow populations have declined by a staggering seventy per cent in England over the past forty years or so.
In direct contrast, in Scotland and indeed in Ireland too, sparrows in recent times seem to be prospering, their numbers growing. So those anti sparrow sentiments voiced during the Great War, don't seem to have made a difference. Sparrows may not be sweet songsters; they're certainly not rare and indeed may be objects of disdain on the part of some. Yet somehow, I believe the world would be a poorer if rather quieter place without the cheeky, often churlish but always cheerful wee cock speugs of this world!