Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 5.4.16

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Small is beautiful! Thus wrote the American, Professor E.F. Schumacher in his renowned book of the same title. But small also seems, presently at least, to be successful too. Recent reports suggest that the winter just past, during which record rainfall and high temperatures were the order of the day, enabled many of our smaller birds to survive than would have been the case had it instead been a ‘normal’ winter with its usual rations of hard frosts and snow. The winter’s unusual mildness probably ensured that more insect life was to be found, a key factor in for instance, the survival of one of the most charming of our wee birds, the long-tailed tit, which is as a result is increasing in number.

I occasionally see and indeed hear little flocks of these delightful wee birds in this general locality, especially in the hedgerows but I have never managed to attract them to my bird-table despite the fact that it is always well stocked, especially with fat balls, which I understand are very much to the liking of these gregarious little birds. It would seem that the warming of our climate is suiting some of our smaller birds in particular, albeit that others are finding these changing conditions not to their liking. Small birds are of course, especially vulnerable in cold weather, simply because of their size and long-tailed tits may often therefore, be seen roosting together in huddles and where they can find them, cramming themselves into small spaces, where the heat they generate as a group, helps them survive cold nights.

The benign nature of winter past is also likely to be instrumental in the later than usual arrival here of siskins. These minuscule but brightly coloured little birds usually arrive here in numbers, at the end of February. For them the main attraction is the nyjer seed which they devour with great enthusiasm, alongside the goldfinches. Their late arrival here is a signal that the seeds of alders, which are their primary source of food during the winter months, are now belatedly exhausted and so extra food supplies have to be sought. The arrival of the siskins about a month later than usual probably signifies that the lack of frosts has led to a greater availability of seeds.

The growth of the siskin population is a relatively recent phenomenon. Once largely confined to northern latitudes where the great Caledonian pine forest dominated the landscape, the growth of the forestry industry – the acreage of mature forestry plantations has at least doubled over the last twenty or so years – has as far as the siskins are concerned, provided a real window of opportunity and they have accordingly gone forth and multiplied. From an estimated British population of 40,000, over a comparable period of time – say twenty five years - their numbers have grown to around 360,000. The bulk of British siskins are resident in Scotland but some of the birds seen in England, especially in the south, during the winter months, are probably winter migrants from elsewhere in Europe.

Like their feeding compatriots, the goldfinches, siskins were once prized as cage birds, for not only are they strikingly colourful, with their bright yellowish green and striking black plumage and in the case of the male birds, the little black caps they wear, but their music was also judged to be a pleasantly sweet, if rather randomly twittering. Apparently when in captivity they quickly become very docile although it occurs to me that as highly sociable birds, if separated from their avian communities perhaps misery subdues them! Siskins, like goldfinches and indeed the aforementioned long-tailed tits, are amongst the most community orientated of birds.

However, siskins were previously thought to be shy and retiring by nature, rather reluctant to closely co-exist with human kind, so their relatively recent invasion of gardens, especially in late winter and early spring, seems to exhibit a new, bolder approach to life. Of course, their appearance also demonstrates a growing and fairly universal interest in avian life on our part with so many households now routinely attracting birds to their gardens with supplies of seed and nuts. Incredibly as recently as the early nineteen sixties, siskins appearing in gardens were a real rarity. Nowadays they are commonplace. But then by nature, siskins are nomadic, always seeking new sources of food.

One benefit of attracting them to our gardens is the entertainment they provide with the remarkable athleticism and dexterity they show.  In extracting seeds from alders, they frequently hang upside down and that same level of dexterity is demonstrated when teasing nyjer seed from feeders. One unusual facet of siskin life is reflected in the sight of male birds proffering food to other males. Slavery of an avian kind is apparently still very much a facet of siskin society for male birds which have fought their way to the top of the pecking order in a flock as the breeding season approaches, are thereafter ministered to by the now subservient males they have defeated!

Long-tailed tit society is perhaps rather less belligerent. When in breeding mode, they remain in tightly-knit communities, in which non-breeding birds roll up their feathered sleeves and pledge their assistance in the rearing of the next generation, feeding the youngsters of related birds and thus supplementing the food gathered by the natural parents. Young long-tailed tits therefore, get the very best start in life!    

The recent national garden survey revealed that long-tailed tits have increased their population in Britain by a staggering forty-four per cent a complete reversal of their fortunes in recent years. The survey also confirms my own observations that great tits and indeed, bluetits, have also flourished this winter as have goldfinches, whereas on the other side of the coin, blackbirds have suffered a decline of ten per cent. Also among the losers, together with starlings, the once ever present house sparrows continue to decline.

As the breeding season approaches, look out for the remarkable nests of long-tailed tits. Built in the depths of a bush, this is a nest of remarkable construction, oval in shape. Some say it is like a bottle, hence the pseudonyms such as ‘Jack-in-the-bottle’ and locally, ‘oven bird’, by which this little bird is known and made up of shredded wool, moss, spider’s silk and lichens, lined with feathers. One dedicated enthusiast once counted 2,000 feathers in one such nest! Most of these feathers incidentally, are collected from other dead birds.

One newspaper article recently described these birds as ‘flying lollipops’.  The little, round, fluffy body of the bird is delicately tinged with pink, the head strikingly black, with a white crown. The remarkably long tail is roughly twice the length of the wee bird’s body and when the female is brooding eggs or young, she folds her tail above her head, often blocking the little entrance hole with it.

The phrase, “We’re all in this together,” is these days common political currency. In long-tailed tit society it is for real!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods