Dear Readers, today I was mostly weeding in the garden – I have a high tolerance for wild plants, as you might imagine, but the cleavers (Galium aparine) was getting away from somewhat. Although it doesn’t actually climb, it does smother other plants, and so up it came. Meantime, my intrepid husband was wrestling with the bramble that lives behind the shed and is impossible to eradicate. I don’t mind brambles up to a point, what with the blackberries and the pollinators and all, but in some years it has actually grown through some of my pots and into the soil beneath, so I do need to keep some kind of control.
And once we sat down with a cup of tea to treat our various scratches and nettle stings, I noticed that one of the two collared doves who were working their way through the upturned soil was not like the others. For one thing, the bird was not as confident a flyer: s/he kept landing on things that were too flimsy to bear their weight. But for another thing, there are very subtle differences in the plumage. A juvenile collared dove has less variation in the colour of its plumage (though this is subtle at the best of times), and the neck ring in this one has not quite grown in yet. Plus, is it just me or is there something about the eyes that is different? Maybe it’s just that innocent, slightly gormless look that most young birds seem to have.
In other good news, the collared dove with the horrible chest injury seems to be almost completely healed, with just a tiny dent where the feathers are growing in. I shall try to get you a photograph later in the week.
The mother squirrel and the babies are still about: the youngsters are putting on weight at an amazing rate. The only way to tell them apart, unless they’re standing next to one another, is by the slightly less bushy tails of the youngsters, and their appalling behaviour – swinging from branches, chasing one another through the undergrowth, running at the starlings and almost falling in the pond.
But we do have another completely new youngster, and I couldn’t be more delighted.
Young robins have completely different plumage from the adults, and yet their behaviour is essentially identical. Although this one is not long out of the nest (to judge by the remnants of the gape flanges). And what is a gape flange, I hear you say? When baby birds are in the nest, the part of beak where the upper and lower bill meet is often fleshy and sometimes brightly coloured, which probably helps the parent bird to know exactly where to stuff the caterpillar they’ve caught. Sometimes parts of the mouth are also visible in ultraviolet light, which birds can see, but we can’t. This ‘hinge’ is known as the gape flange. In our robin there is still a tiny hint of yellow at the corner of the mouth, showing that s/he is still young.
The young robin’s parents were still about, seeing off any other robins and generally keeping an eye open, but the youngster was foraging for itself, especially in the area where I’ve pulled up weeds and there were worms and other invertebrates on show. When the parent bird sounded an alarm because a cat was wandering through, the youngster flew up and took up the call (a very distinctive ‘chink-chink’ sound that always reminds me of someone hitting a teeny-tiny anvil with a small but effective hammer). I was pleased to see that the collared dove flew up as well, though whether because it understood the alarm call or because it noticed the behaviour of the other birds I’m not sure. Many creatures listen to one another’s alarm calls, and also understand the variations that indicate if the predator is airborne or on the ground.
A young robin leaves the nest after about fourteen days, and all subsequent care is normally provided by the father, as the female settles down to produce a second batch of eggs. Robins normally breed twice a year, but can go through the whole performance another couple of times if conditions are good. I wonder what effect the lockdown will have? Less disturbance, more people providing bird food: maybe it could be a bumper year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. After all, this is officially the UK’s favourite bird.