Territory is a material necessity for most creatures albeit that the evidence for establishing, declaring territorial integrity and if necessary, defending it, is more apparent during the spring than at any other time of the year.
For example, to define territorial integrity is why the birds sing in springtime. They have staked out a claim and they are telling the world, especially the avian world, that through their singing they are staking a claim for the lordship of a particular piece of territory. At the same time, they are announcing to the females of their kind that they are available and therefore through their song are advertising for a mate.
However, once autumn and winter descend, most such claims become history which is why bird-song is largely absent until January when the claimants pipe up again. Generally, the first such signals emanate from great tits, their ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’ strident calls echoing across an otherwise silent landscape but there is an exception to this rule as we may become aware of in forthcoming months. This exception is, of course, cock robin for which the establishment of winter territory seems almost as important as its establishment in spring and summer.
That is why we easily recognize the sweet tones of the robin’s song throughout autumn and winter. These bursts of music – and they emerge very much as bursts almost as if sung involuntarily – lighten the short winter days and issue promises for next spring. And of course, they stand out because there is little or no competition except from the wintering geese and the cawing of rooks. However, the song of robins may be sweet but that sweetness certainly doesn’t reflect the nature of the bird. When competing for territory, be it in spring or autumn, robins do not spare themselves and are so committed to the cause that they will fight as fiercely as any bird for their rights. Robins will, and sometimes do, fight literally to the death when their quest is to establish that territorial integrity.
Even among the packed cliffs, where colonies of seabirds seem to dwell literally cheek by jowl, there is territory at stake and even in such close company, scuffles and fights frequently break out between birds which seem barely a few inches apart. No matter how miniscule they may be, such territories are still fought over and woe betides any neighbour that steps over into another’s territory!
Having said that, competition for territory may seem to die once spring and summer have passed however here, there is still competition between two families of great spotted woodpeckers. Throughout the summer, we have been entertaining two distinct families of these birds and now of course, it is the year’s progeny we are mainly seeing - the redcap youngsters - as each family clearly produced a brood. Even they, however, are not fully prepared to tolerate the presence of the redcaps from the other family, albeit that they do not approach the ‘enemy’ with as much vitriol as the adult birds which actually chase each other off.
Frequently, we see one redcap ensconced on the peanuts and another will arrive, initially clamping itself to the central pole of the bird-table and shinning up it towards the baskets. Indeed, in the case of adults that would mean an immediate exit but when redcaps are involved the animosity is not as obvious. In that situation, the newly arrived youngster often reaches out from that central pole to pilfer a few fragments of nuts rather than the usual ‘cling on’ method in which they hang upside down on the feeder while pecking vigorously away at the contents. If occasionally feeding together, the redcaps appear to be slightly more tolerant of the other family of redcaps, not yet having learnt the antagonism that is otherwise on display by their parents, the adults certainly won’t even tolerate a rival adult’s presence and immediately the chase is on!
And then at last, we had another scaler of that bird-table central pole in the form of a nuthatch. As reported earlier in the year, I have been aware of the presence of them in the vicinity but apart from one fleeting visit, I have never had the pleasure of entertaining these newcomers from the south. Now, suddenly I am seeing them on a regular basis so I may now claim to be hosting this highly attractive bird at my bird-table. The gradual spread of nuthatches into Scotland has been occurring for some years now and may be yet another manifestation of global warming. Slowly, birds once restricted to more southern climes are spreading gradually farther and farther north and the nuthatch is now becoming quite common in areas once bereft of them. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that my now regular visitor will establish a territory near here, remain as one of the regular visitors and may indeed find a mate.
It is interesting to see the nuthatch traverse that central pole of the bird-table for unlike the woodpeckers, not only are they able to climb it skillfully, they are able to travel up and down it by turning and descending head first, being the only birds in the world able to do this. On the other hand, the woodpeckers, when descending, do so upright, always with the head up top! Like woodpeckers, nuthatches often nest in deciduous trees where they may find a hollow or hole. But, the nuthatches are very defensively minded and use mud to reduce the size of the entrance hole by building up a layer of mud that sets very hard. This is their way of ensuring that larger birds such as starlings cannot gain entry and usurp the nest. Smaller birds such as tits they can more easily get rid of.
Funnily enough, the nuthatches, currently sharing the peanuts with the woodpeckers, can be severely threatened by woodpecker neighbours and so the re-enforcements to the entrance hole of their nest has to also withstand investigation and assault from the woodpeckers which, given the chance, are likely to feast upon both nuthatch eggs and chicks. That mud therefore, has to really set hard to deter their unwelcome attention.
Like other birds, nuthatches are territorial yet sometimes if confronted by a wandering flock of other nuthatches may somehow seem to be impelled to join the flock as if drawn by some invisible magnet. However, as soon as this flock moves out of their territory, the pair returns to their own patch. The other peculiarity of a nuthatch nest, by the way, is that the birds line it with conifer bark, again the only birds that use this kind of lining. Thus, the ideal territory is one that offers both deciduous and coniferous trees.
With evenings now drawing in, the priority is to find as much food as possible. For those about to set out on perilous journeys south with Africa the main destination for most migrants, that food will act as the energy filled fuel that will carry them on their amazing journeys. Those that are destined to stay here must also have an eye open for every feeding opportunity for as winter closes is as surely it will, food will become scarce and with fewer daylight hours in which to source food, finding sufficient on which to survive is of course the priority.
And of course, as those food sources begin to diminish, it is surely our responsibility to bridge the gap and begin to offer food on our bird-tables. It may yet seem a good way off but winter is inexorably approaching. And who knows, you may already have nuthatches on your bird-table. If not maybe there’s a nuthatch preparing to visit you soon!