One way or another, we all at some time in our lives, find ourselves part of a pecking order, Indeed , the way things are right now, those who are our leaders, find themselves categorised in much the same way. Allegedly, the President of the United States is said to be notionally the leading decision-maker in the World - at the top of that particular pecking order - the rest of the world's leaders relegated to subordinate roles! I'm not sure that Mr Putin or come to it, Kim Jong-un, see things that way! I'm not sure that I do either!
However, as said, we all inevitibly find ourselves in some kind of pecking order, whether we are at or near the top or closer to the bottom. Pecking orders, as the very words suggest, are very much a part of avian society. When you see a mob of rooks feeding in a field, you can be sure that the birds on the edge of the flock are very much the subordinates. Those at the top of the pecking order will be at the centre, which is where the best feeding is.
As the breeding season gets under way, the pecking order among birds becomes even more pronounced as cock birds try to establish their dominance, striving to achieve a place at the top of that pecking order in order to attract a mate. There are many cases where cock birds, having been subdued by their peers and reduced to subordinate positions, accept their status meekly and actually more or less become the slaves of those more successful birds.
In some cases, they may become so dutiful that they help to feed a brooding hen bird that was once the apple of their eye but who by the nature of things has chosen their 'boss' as a mate. Mind you, when it comes to the ultimate pecking order, it is the hen bird that rules the roost. It is she that makes all the key decisions, including exactly which of the nests the courting cock bird may have constructed, as is the case among wrens and of course, which cock bird she will select as a mate!
Like many folk, I gain a good deal of entertainment from watching the birds at my bird table. For example, I am amused by the feistiness of the plethora of goldfinches which, despite being smaller than the chaffinches, greenfinches and sparrows, readily see them off if they dare to challenge them for a position at the sunflower heart feeders. The siskins are similarly feisty and extremely reluctant to be dislodged. It is equally amusing to see the great titis and bluetits vying with one another for prime position at the peanut feeder. However, there is one other tit currently present here, a single, miniscule coal tit. He or she - the two sexes are identical - has to be a real opportunist to get any food at all.
Coal tits seem always to be way down the pecking order. My resident coal tit therefore makes very brief journeys to the bird-table. It nips in, grabs a nut and in a flash is gone before the other tits can bully it. In places where there are marsh tits, willow tits and crested tits - the latter exclusively resident in the Speyside pine forest - plus the usual blue and great tit varieties, the coal tit is very much the subservient bird. Indeed the poor old coal tit more often than not finds itself bullied by its titmouse cousins. Thus it always ends up at the bottom of the titmouse pecking order - always 'trumped' by other titmice, dare I say!
The only exception to this rule seems to be the long-tailed tit, which sadly I never seem to be able to attract to my bird-table. Long-tailed tits often seem to me to be birds with a very different character, disinclined to show much in the way of belligerance and always prepared to live a life free of antagonism. However, whilst that is certainly the impression one gets, nevertheless there is at the heart of their very socialble way of life - long-tailed tits always live in closely bunched flocks - another side to the story.
When the weather is cold, long-tailed tits often roost in what can only be described as huddles. Indeed their survival during the winter months may sometimes depend upon being part of such a gathering for when the birds come together in a continued space, the radiation of their combined body heat being the key to their survival. But here's the rub! The pecking order, that does exist after all, ensures that those at the top always command their places at the centre of the huddle where it is the warmest. Thus, the birds further down the line are confined to the outer part where if it gets really cold, their very existence may well be threatened.
However, there is always a sense of co-operation amongst colonies of long-tailed tits. For instance. their community spirit is such that non-breeders happily join in with those with families and help them by feeding and if necessary brooding their young. There is of course, a double indemnity in this kind of behaviour. Adult birds are forced to take risks when their families come along and their search for food is critical. They may therefore be more vulnerable to attacks by predators such as hawks.
All titmice spend the first two weeks of their chicks' lives frantically finding food and are therefore driven to take risks. As a result, these 'foster parents' among the flocks of long-tailed tits help the true parents in this, the most crucial period of their chicks' lives, ensure that if if a predator strikes, there is always back up for the successful rearing of that family. To illustrate the hectic nature of their lives at this time, a pair of bluetits has amazingly been recorded making as many as a thousand visits each day to their nest during this vital period. Minds are clearly focussed on family, not predators!
Long-tailed tits are charming little birds. Apart from their obvious socialbility they are extremely attractive wee balls of fluff to which are attached exceptionally long tails, accounting for well over half of the bird's entire length. Indeed, when a long-tailed tit is brooding eggs or young, the tail is often raised so that it covers the wee entrance hold to the nest, which in itself, is a real work of art. Its construction is oval or bottle-shaped and comprises of feathers, sheep's wool, moss and lichens held together with spider's silk to form a kind of felt. It is said that a long-tailed tit's nest might contain as many as two thousand feathers! I don't know who counted them but using so many feathers means that the tits must find places where other birds regularly roost and cast feathers or rely on dead birds as their source of this vital lining to their nest.
Unlike the tim'rous wee caol tit or indeed the very sociable long-tailed tit, the one bird that always considers itself to be at the top of its pecking order, is of course, cock robin. This is why redbreasts are always prepared to go those extra yards to fight to maintain their territorial dominance together with their place at the top...sometimes, even to the death!