Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 13.4.16

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There are those who are hooked on insects and who study them in infinite detail. On the other hand there are those who regard most insects as little more than nuisances and pests. Yet, whether you hate or love insects, they are the very essence of life. They are for instance, pollinators and thus are not just important but indeed vital to our very survival. They are also of course, vitally important as the main source of food for millions and millions of birds, especially those currently on their way here as summer migrants.

Indeed, most of the birds currently en route from Africa to Northern Europe are utterly dependent upon insects as their sole source of food. I have on those few really encouraging days that truly signal the advance of spring, seen plenty of evidence of emerging insect life, albeit that the current prevalence of easterly winds has probably put the brakes temporarily on further ‘blooms’. And yet, rather late in the day perhaps, I have at last heard the first monotonous tones of newly arrived chiff-chaffs. Here is a minuscule bird – a warbler of course – which is always one the earliest of the mass of birds to arrive after that astonishing migratory journey from darkest Africa! And, chiff-chaffs feed exclusively on insects!

I must confess that chiff-chaffs are not exactly exciting, either to listen to or indeed, to look at. Yet the evidence of their presence does cause the heart to beat that little bit quicker for they surely confirm absolutely that spring is with us. But they lack the glamour exuded by the likes of swallows and martins. Many folk of my acquaintance regard the house martin and the swallow as the true summer birds and with the wind still blowing in from the east (all the way from Siberia perhaps?) there is as yet, unsurprisingly, no sign of them. But there is a third member of this clan, the sand martin. On examination, although it is relatively unobtrusive and accordingly less glamorous than its better known cousins, in flight it is extremely adept.

And, there they were, skimming low over the waters of the loch, which were well ruffled by that biting easterly.  If I could see them dodging the waves, I could not, of course, see the hosts of insects they were so energetically pursuing. The newly arrived martins were obviously filling their little stomachs with them. Sand martins may not be quite as glamorous as their ‘up-market’ cousins but my word they can fly! They are earth brown in colour, ‘dirty’ white underneath, with a greyish brown necklace separating the white of the throat from that of the belly.

As I scanned the waters, to snatch brief glimpses of these aerial insect predators, another bird crossed my field of vision. This was rather easier to follow, for instead of dodging the waves, it was bobbing on them! The great crested grebes have probably been back on the loch for a few weeks now for they are not long distance migrants like the sand martins. Instead they spend their winters off shore probably on the icy waters of the North Sea, a rather harsher environment than that sought by the sand martins in tropical Africa! If the martins were earning their living above water, the grebes instead, depend on what is beneath the water.

Many years ago, I used to regularly make my way on summer days to a wee lochan where, lying on my stomach high above this crystal clear hidden gem, I could watch the grebes doing what grebes do best, swimming under water. If grebes, because their legs are set so far back on their bodies, are ‘out of their depth’ so to speak, when on terra firma, they are absolutely in their element as sub-mariners. In those clear waters I could watch every sinuous movement, every surge they made in their unremitting search for small fish, with absolute wonder. If they are known rather unkindly as ‘arsefoots’ for their clumsy disposition on dry land, they are otherwise more kindly called ‘doukers’ or ‘crested doukers’ for their exploits in or under water.

Great crested grebes are lowland birds, seldom disporting themselves on or in less fertile Highland lochs, which is precisely why at least seven pairs regularly grace these local waters, just south of the Highland Line. There was a time, when these remarkable birds were a real rarity, for during the nineteenth century, when the fashion icons of Victoriana demanded the use of feathers as decorations for hats, the head and neck plumes of the grebes were so much in demand that the grebe population collapsed. By 1860 it was estimated that there remained in the whole of Britain but 42 pairs of these lovely birds!

It wasn’t just those head and neck plumes which by the way, look an awful lot better on the grebes themselves than on hats, for the body plumage too was so thick and of course, waterproof, that it was known as ‘grebe fur’, which was accordingly also very popular with the fashionable clothing industry of that time. Thankfully, before it was too late, the politicians were alerted to this crisis and introduced successive parliamentary bills as a means of protecting among other birds, the endangered grebes. As was in those days, always the case, it took time for the legislation to be effective and the recovery of the grebe population was slow. Indeed, by the nineteen thirties, there were still only around 1,300 grebes recorded throughout Britain.

In the early twentieth century, great crested grebes hit the headlines for an entirely different reason, through the remarkable work of Thomas Huxley whose study of the remarkable courtship displays of these enigmatic birds came to be regarded as a truly seminal work. These courtship displays are indeed amazing to behold with both male and female offering gifts of water weed to each other, as face to face, breast to breast, they rise until they seem to be walking on water!  There is much head shaking and some loud and to our ears, coarse calling. Huxley’s work was and still is regarded as unique in the field of animal behaviour.

Happily the grebe population was further boosted during the 1930’s due to a rapid expansion in road and house building which required much sand and gravel. As a result, the creation of many so called gravel pits, duly filled with water which were apparently tailor made for grebes saw the beginning of a real recovery in breeding numbers! Strangely enough, sand martins too shared in this unnatural expansion of suitable habitat, the steep sided often sandy banks of these new ‘ponds’ ideal as nesting sites. Two quite different species then, enjoying the benefits of human activity!

Both provide further confirmation of the season’s progress and both in their own distinctive ways, add a particular kind of animation to the gathering sense of excitement as the season of re-birth really begins to gather momentum.

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!

Country View 31.3.16

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The sunny, smiling faces of delicate yellow primroses, together with clouds and clouds of nodding golden daffodils, are visual confirmation of the continuing advance of spring.  And with the moving forward of the clock to lengthen our evenings, there is in the air a sense of real optimism. Yet, there is always at the back of the mind, memories of treacherous April days. It is so easy to be fooled!

Catkins tremble provocatively on a cool breeze which suggests that winter’s tail may yet contain a sting! But there is an apparent, faint greening as the trees begin at last to respond to the ever warmer rays of an ascending sun. However, it is more the sounds rather than the sights, that tell the news of the dawning of the first true month of spring. The hills, the glens, the forests, the fields and the gardens, are indeed increasingly alive with the sound of music! Sonic spring is certainly springing!

A newly returned osprey greeted Easter Sunday’s mixed bag of sunshine and showers, flying high against what was at that moment, an azure sky and piping perhaps its joy to be back home in Scotland after a winter sojourn, who knows where? Africa, perhaps, or maybe the Iberian Peninsula? The somewhat scratchy, shrill and yet distinctly musical voices of dunnocks, sometimes inappropriately called ‘hedge sparrows’, now compete vociferously with the constant and less musical argumentative chattering of the house sparrows, whilst the cock chaffinches are well and truly getting in the mood. Like the said sparrows, chaffinches are equipped with blocky seed eating beaks whereas the dunnocks, which are definitely not sparrows of any kind, have the slender beaks of insect eating birds.

Dominant in this growing chorus however, are the merle and the mavis, two celebrated songsters cherished by poets ancient and modern. Indeed, these two extremely accomplished musicians, more commonly known as the blackbird and the song thrush, compete among verse writers, for pride of place. James Grahame, the Glasgow born poet wrote:-

                        “How much alike in habits, form and size

                         The merle and mavis! how unlike in plumage and in song!

                         The thrush’s song is varied as his plumes

                         Blend beauteous each with each, so run his notes

                         Smoothly with rise and fall

                         How prettily upon his parded breast

                         The vividly contrasted tints unite

                         To please the admiring eye!

                         So loud and soft,

                         And high and low, all in his notes combine,

                         In alternation sweet, to charm the ear.

                         Full earlier than the blackbird he begins

                         His vernal strain.”

For Grahame then, the mavis wins! Yet the merle perhaps in recent times has been the real winner for it proves itself to be a real survivor. Where so many of our birds are in decline, the blackbird seems to prosper. The song thrush, throughout Britain, is definitely in decline and where once its musical presence was a given, now it has become a rarity. I put this down to the fact that the blackbird seems so much more adaptable when it comes to food. Indeed, this is in every way, a creature with extremely omnivorous tastes. I might say that here that versatility is demonstrated by the fact that a plethora of the said merles, daily plunder the food provided for my motley assemblage of hens! No thrushes join this pilfering pilgrimage!

And yet, right now and for the first time in many years, the dominant springtime chorister hereabouts is not the blackbird but the thrush. From almost every airt now, the strongly phrased eloquence of the mavis echoes across the fields more stridently than the more mellifluous pronouncement of the blackbirds. And that of course is the vocal difference between these two immortal songsters. The blackbird’s music flows in one continuous outpouring of sweet notes, a sequence which he then repeats. The thrush on the other hand sings in distinctive phrases, usually repeating each short phrase four or five times before moving on to the next one which may be extremely unlike its musical predecessor.

Like the blackbird, it then repeats the entire sequence. Both are musical in the extreme, the thrush more staccato, whilst the blackbird’s offering is perhaps more flowing. Both merle and mavis are always prepared to add to their repertoires by listening to the vocal variations on a theme uttered by their fellow merle and mavis competitors and perhaps inserting some of the new learnt burst of song into their own performances. A more comprehensive musical repertoire is likely to be more attractive to potential female partners. In other words, ‘music makes the heart grow fonder’.

Indeed, there is currently a thrush situated to the north of here, I think located on the edge of the nearby forest, which struck me some weeks ago as a particularly loud and tuneful songster. His message to all female mavis’ in the vicinity was apparently so loud and clear that he has almost certainly, established a bond with one such female for instead of singing virtually throughout the day, as he was wont to do then, his music now is more or less confined to morning and evening.  Once paired, thrush song is rationed!

In between times it is highly likely that this pair of thrushes is busy house hunting! It appears to be the case that female song thrushes are big on comfort when it comes to nesting. There is accordingly, when a potential nest site is being examined, much shuffling about on the part of the female to be absolutely sure that the location is to her liking. Indeed, even as the nest is being built, she will constantly test it for comfort!

Yet, if blackbirds have proved themselves to be more versatile feeders than their close relatives the thrushes, they have not matched the ingenuity of their cousins which famously repeatedly use the same stone upon which to smash the shells of snails to smithereens. These ‘anvils’ as they are known, are used time after time and are identified by the mass of broken shells that accumulate in their vicinity as a result. It is as far as I know one of the very few cases of birds using tools to obtain a meal. Mind you it is also often the case that blackbirds will loiter at such places in the hope of snatching a free meal from under the very beaks of the ‘hard working’ thrushes!

There is another thrush currently singing his heart out in my orchard. As his song is a feature of any time of the day, it may be assumed that he has not yet managed to attract a mate. Indeed, his lone and frequent bouts of continuing song may well be an indication that there are not so many female throstles about!

That song therefore, is a bonus as far as I’m concerned and a very welcome addition to the growing chorus welcoming spring. As Scott put it in ‘Marmion’,

                                    “To dear St Valentine no thrush

                                      Sings lovelier from a springtide bush.”

,

Country View 17.3.16

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Conversation may be regarded as one of the most important and exclusively human expressions. Yet when I was a child, I imagined that conversation was not limited to human society but was a normal part of everyday life, with a rapport existing between we humans and the animals and birds, with which we share this planet. This conclusion was based upon the first book I ever read which was about a certain Dr Doolittle! Those of us who have pets I guess, still sub-consciously subscribe to such imaginative thoughts.

I expect, that like many readers, I regularly hold conversations with my dogs. Well, not exactly conversations for such communications are inevitably of a one-way nature. Words uttered by me and listened to by two dogs, which I confess, generally obey my commands in the manner of the subservient beasts they are, whilst one cat which typically of all felines does exactly what he wants and only usually responds, vocally or otherwise, to the provision of food. Someone once said that whilst we own dogs; cats in reality, own us! You may not be surprised to hear that vocally, the dogs don’t respond, albeit that the said cat mews almost pathetically when he requires food, which is always. He is named Oliver which may give some indication of his mind set. ‘Miaow’ I definitely know, means ‘more’!

So, we presume that properly constructed speech in sentences is essentially a human faculty. Wrong!  New scientific research now tells us that some birds actually communicate with each other in a way that is as properly constructed - in what we call syntax, which is in other words, properly formed sentences! These revelations are based on research done by Swedish scientists who have been studying Japanese great tits, which are very similar and closely related to the great tits currently pronouncing a very firm welcome to advancing spring in our own landscape. Swedish scientists incidentally are examining the meaning of cat vocalisation too! I repeat that I can tell them that that pathetic mewing means ‘more’!

Birdsong is almost exclusively a spring and summer phenomenon. As winter descends, the avian community, with one or two very notable exceptions, chooses to fall silent but as spring begins to lengthen our days, we find ourselves increasingly listening to the voices of birds. Indeed, it is the birds, perhaps more than any factor which alert us to the progress of the season of re-birth. It is their voices that provide us with those feelings of great expectations and the great tit is one of the leading choristers as that choir begins to find its voice.

The two-tone proclamation of great tits, usually interpreted as ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’, is the one of the most familiar signals of impending spring but the great tit has a surprisingly wide vocal range beyond that familiar proclamation. Those who record such facts in quite amazing detail, tell me for instance, that at least forty different calls can be attributed to this woodland bird which as we all know, has evolved into one of our more familiar garden residents. Indeed,  I have, as a result of this statistic, frequently commented on the likelihood that snatches of bird music we may hear without being able to certainly identify its originators, are very likely to emanate from this extremely familiar and well-studied bird, such is its vocal versatility.

The notion that this bird, or at least its Japanese cousin, constructs sentences is apparently an example of a corporate lifestyle in which birds send each other important ‘survival’ messages. These communications betray for instance, a common interest in issuing warnings that predators are in the vicinity. Further research on the part of those Swedish academics suggests that other animals issue similar warnings and can go a step further by issuing varying vocal signals to warn of the presence of different predators, one series of sounds for instance for a threatening snake and another for an equally threatening raptor.

Our own judgement regarding the advance of spring is probably as much reliant upon the volume of birdsong as it is dependent upon the appearance of new green shoots and catkins for instance. And, during the past few days, one sound in particular has registered in my mind, the certainty of spring’s arrival. There are many signs to be recognised; the first sightings in these inland areas of lapwing, oyster catchers and curlew provide visual evidence of the changes being manifested and the great tit’s chanting is an easily recognised audio signal. But it is surely the cheery incantation of one of our most familiar garden birds, the chaffinch, that is the final certain confirmation of winter’s retreat.

The cock chaffinch’s cheery little ditty, a rapid succession of jumbled up notes which are signed off with an assertive flourish at its conclusion, was once likened to me by a cricketing friend, to the stuttering run-up of a bowler who has somehow lost his normal stride in a cricket match but finally manages to deliver the ball effectively in the end! Yet, travel around the country and you will find many subtle variations on a theme. Cock chaffinches you see, begin to learn the song that is their vocal hallmark very soon after they have fledged by listening to others (cock chaffinches maintain song right through the summer), so by listening to their immediate neighbours, they therefore learn the local dialect.  Move just a few miles away and you may find yourself listening to a slightly different chaffinch song. As far as I remember, that was something of which the said Dr Doolittle had little knowledge!

As most avid feeders of garden birds will know, chaffinches are, during the winter months, extremely gregarious. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Male and female chaffinches feed here in roughly equal numbers and with equal enthusiasm. But during those winter months, although they may come together to exploit feeding opportunities, they very definitely live in separate communities – all the males travelling together in bachelor flocks and the females likewise, in spinster groups.

Now however, as spring takes hold, the individuality of the males especially, comes to the surface and birds, which during the bleaker months of winter sought solace and indeed survival in the security of the flock, are beginning to find their own specific stations in life as they assert a more singular lifestyle. And nothing demonstrates that change in lifestyle better than the chuntering little bursts of song which each day are increasing in regularity and which are of course, inviting response from other equally assertive cock birds.

The merles are in much the same way issuing their melodic pronouncements of advancing spring. Their music resonates perhaps more than that of any other songster, yet many of our more renowned poets have revered more ardently the phrased and repetitive offerings of the mavis, which in recent days incidentally hereabouts, has ardently joined the chorus. How does that old, much adulterated verse go? ‘The spring is sprung, the grass is ris; I wonder where the birdies is!’ The chaffinches will tell you with increasing exuberance!  

Country View 2.3.16

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‘Should Auld Acquaintance be forgot’….  So wrote Robert Burns and these it seemed were the sentiments being expressed by three or four pairs of rooks returning to the nearby rookery a few days before their traditional trysting. St David’s Day, the first day of March and as far as the Met office is concerned, the first day of spring, is the traditional day on which rooks, which incidentally pair for life, renew their vows,  their partnerships and return to their rookeries. And there they were, like everything else it seems this year, a few days early, coming together in the trees, which for as long as I can remember, have been their high rise settlement.

Despite the rather scruffy, even tousled image in which rooks are generally held and the fact that they are black and thus regarded by many simply as members of the all-embracing and hated crow clan, they live in social groups which may, in many respects, be seen as being remarkably similar to human communities. Accordingly they reflect both good and bad elements within their sometimes garrulous gatherings. If the constancy of rooks is something to be admired perhaps, the reality of their bonding is such that if vows are genuinely made, they are all too often broken! Rookeries may therefore all too closely resemble certain human communities in which infidelity can sometimes be rife and theft relatively commonplace.

Most of these traits will be particularly evident during the early days of spring when nests are being re-furbished or indeed re-built from scratch as is often the case where rookeries are regularly exposed during the winter months to high winds. By and large the male is the supplier of most of the required materials for these construction tasks whilst the female is more often than not, the builder albeit that both often contribute to the collection of suitable twigs and both may play a part in the building process. However, pairs of rooks are better advised not to leave the ‘building site’ at the same time as that is simply an invitation to neighbouring nest builders to filch the choicest of materials from their neighbour’s nest!

Observation of a rookery might suggest a collective community-minded sense of spirit but I’m afraid that harmonious it is often not! Each pair has its own very strict territorial boundaries, invisible to our gaze but well kent and recognised by the members of that community. The breaching of those boundaries leads to noisy and on occasions, violent confrontation which quickly creates an atmosphere of quarrelling and disharmony!

In every phase of rook life there is also a strictly observed pecking order which has absolutely nothing to do with the arrival of spring or indeed the passions generated by the breeding season. That hierarchy is evident in every aspect of the life of rooks throughout the year. We are, for instance, constantly aware during the winter months of the gatherings of rooks in the fields which are from time to time ‘blackened’ by the sometimes surprisingly large congregations of these collectively organised birds,

The hierarchy is very much at work here, for all the best feeding areas are taken by the most senior members of the flock; junior members having to find places around the periphery. As I’ve said many times before, rooks are not generally consumers of germinating grain seeds for their preferences are for the teeming invertebrates such as wire-worms and leatherjackets which are of course, extremely destructive of growing crops.

And of course there are the ‘rook parliaments or courts’ in which those same senior members of the community pass judgement and indeed sometimes, death sentences upon subsidiary members of their community. Because we always like to anthropomorphise on such issues, always seeking to compare actions in communities of animals and birds with those of human society, the belief that these courts judge and condemn miscreants and wrongdoers is almost certainly a misinterpretation of them. In truth, and from my own observations, it has always been my contention that these so called courts are in fact a means whereby rooks try to identify and remove carriers of diseases which could be discerned as threatening to the community as a whole.

Anyone who might suggest that such behaviour is surely too sophisticated for mere birds, should take heed of the remarkable degree of intelligence displayed by rooks in a wide variety of experiments and observations conducted with both tame and wild birds by eminent scientists. Some such experiments have even led to some scientists suggesting that rooks display a level of intelligence comparable with that of apes. I would challenge any reader to see if their very young children (or grandchildren) could work out that by dropping stones in a vessel containing water, they could raise the level of the water as a means of making it reachable. Captive rooks achieve this as a matter of course!

The slightly premature gatherings of rooks may just be another sign of the climatic changes we are experiencing. This has been the wettest and indeed the mildest of winters since records began. Bear in mind that the records referred to have only been kept and recorded for a mere hundred and six years. And bear in mind that climatic change has always been apparent. There have been ‘mini’ Ice Ages in relatively recent times, when the River Thames and even Loch Lomond froze over, together with droughts and floods. Our world and its weather are, and always have been volatile. That is the nature of things! However the rapid growth of industry over the past two or three centuries and of course, the arrival en masse of motor vehicles is certain to have been a contributory factor to these changes.

Such variations may cause some patterns of animal and birds behaviour to change but much more are our activities likely to force those adjustments. The constant poaching of green landscape for either industrial development or yet more housing, may be perceived as being a necessary evil and yet we wonder why foxes in particular are increasingly invading our towns and cities. Even polar bears are invading human settlements in North America as we continue to invade the wild Arctic areas that are their habitat.

I recently watched with some amusement a film about black bears invading the ever spreading suburbs of American towns. The clip of one such bear coolly relaxing in a hammock in a garden said it all and gave me the notion that the picture would only be completed by a request for a gin and tonic! In reality, we are the invaders. Some creatures simply adapt to our increasing invasion of their territory; others retreat before the advancing encroachment. Some seem unable to cope with the changes we impose and subsequently become ever rarer.    

Rooks are certainly not in the latter category. Their year began on the first day of spring or perhaps a day or two before. Mind you they might just have forgotten that this is a Leap Year!

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

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods