Some Titbits from British Birds

Dear Readers, one of the pleasures of having a whole fortnight off has been that it’s given me a chance to catch up on my magazines. I am a sucker for a specialist periodical – I receive the quarterly publication from the  British Arachnological Society, British Wildlife and, just lately, British Birds. This can be a very niche read – territorial behaviour of the Hen Harrier in winter? Breeding Marsh Warblers in Britain? Song periods of breeding birds in Norfolk? It’s all here, and more besides. But my guilty pleasure is the shorter articles sent in by bird enthusiasts from around the country, who are reporting on the strange behaviour of the rather commoner species who turn up in their gardens.

This month, my eye was caught by a tale of a wood pigeon and a sparrowhawk locked in mortal combat for twenty minutes in October last year. Paul Grimmett from Cheshire takes up the story:

Each time the Sparrowhawk attempted to attack the pigeon with its bill, the Wood Pigeon flapped its wings furiously. Shortly afterwards we realised that the only bird moving was the Wood Pigeon; the Sparrowhawk lay dead, its neck seemingly broken by the constant flapping of the Wood Pigeon’s wings. The Wood Pigeon survived, and three days later it was still being fed by an adult’.

My goodness! I have seen wood pigeons beating one another up on the bird table on many occasions, and there is quite a retort from a sharply-snapped wing, but who would have thought that a juvenile bird could see off a fearsome predator such as a sparrowhawk? There is a photo to prove it, but sadly not one that I can share with you, so you’ll just have to run out and get a subscription :-).

Wood pigeons beating one another up in the garden last year

And then, we have a tale of a young cuckoo being fed some Wonderloaf (other white bread is available) by its parent, a (no doubt exhausted) dunnock. This story, by Ann Mettam, is interesting to me a) because I didn’t know that dunnocks were ever ‘foster parents’ to cuckoos, b) because generally baby birds are offered insectivorous food by their parents, and c) because who knew that cuckoos were so various in their tastes? But the big lesson for me here is the sheer size of the baby cuckoo compared to the adult dunnock.

Juvenile Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus being fed white bread by its Dunnock Prunella modularis foster parent, Yorkshire, August 1996. Photo by Ann Mettam

There is a further fascinating cuckoo story, in a report by David H. Hatton.  In Emilia Romagna in Italy back in 2019, a pair of common redstarts built their nest in a bedroom occupied by the house-owner’s son. This would have been unlikely enough, but the redstart eggs were swiftly ejected by a cuckoo who took up residence. The bedroom was used continually by the son throughout the whole of the nesting and fledging period from April to June, but the loyal redstarts continued to feed the cuckoo right the way through, until it  finally left the nest on 11th June.

Juvenile Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus on nest behind a window shutter in an occupied bedroom of a house in Emilia Romagna, Italy, 8th June 2019. Note the discarded egg of the Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus foster parent at the base of the partially open window shutter. Photo by Rosina Costoli

And lest you think that the May issue was exceptionally interesting, the April issue featured a hybrid blue tit x great tit.

Great Tit Parus major x Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus hybrid, Northumberland, February 2019. Photo by Chris Redfern

The article, by Charles Enderby and Chris Redfern, describes mist-netting for blue and great tits (CE has been looking at these species since 1985). Chris Redfern was able to provide an independent opinion on the bird, and it appears that it is the result of a mating between a female great tit and a male blue tit – if it had been the other way round, the egg is unlikely to have been viable as the mother would not have been big enough to carry it. Mixed pairs of blue and great tits may occur in the wild, but this seems to be the first time that a hybrid offspring has been observed. Very interesting stuff!

And finally, how about this very intrepid eider duck? The article, submitted by Douglas E. Dickson, shows a female eider who had made her nest less than a metre from an access road in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in the only patch of vegetation along the entire harbour wall. She was nesting from at least 14th May, and when a dog frightened her off the nest on 25th May she was seen to be incubating two eggs. Despite the disruption she continued to brood, and on 30th May she was discovered swimming in the harbour with a single duckling (the other egg didn’t hatch). Although there are eider ducks nesting on Inchcolm, an island in the Forth Estuary, this seems to be the first confirmed record of the species nesting within the central Forth area.

Female Common Eider Somateria mollissima at a nest on the harbour wall, Kirkcaldy, Fife, May 2020. Photo by William Dickson

So, what can I say? For all things ornithological, be they unusual nesting sites, new hybrids or incidents of bird-on-bird murder, have a look at British Birds. There are sightings, ornithological papers and details of what it’s possible to see at the UK’s bird reserves too. Plus it has made me pay more attention to what ‘my’ birds get up to. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll spot something interesting enough to get published!


2 thoughts on “Some Titbits from British Birds

  1. Anne

    What an array of interesting accounts. It is the contributions from readers that attract my attention in our local outdoor magazines – I find it amazing what people observe in their areas, whether while travelling or at home.


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