A Few of my Favourite Wings…
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
We provide for our friends the birds at Manor Bottom. Ours is a wildlife garden that naturally attracts all kinds of birds, and our fields, hedgerows and trees provide food and shelter for them. But we also feed them various seeds and suet throughout the year. There is no reason not to do this (some people point out that it is not their natural food provision, but as humans have taken away so much of what they naturally feed on, it seems that anything we can do to help them survive or recover should be done) and having them come right by the house to feed is a wonderful sight.
For a full list of the species that visit us here you can go to the Wildlife page of our site. But below I have picked out some of my personal favourites, along with a reason or two why they fascinate me. My selection consists of the humbler, everyday birds. We get rarer, much more stunning birds, but it is the day-to-day visitors I go for, perhaps because I get to know them more, understand them better and see their individual personalities.
Jays – I have often noted that these elegant birds give a shrill shriek just before they fly into the garden to go to the feeder. This cry makes the other birds panic and scatter in fear, leaving the jay to have its pick of the food. The smarts of this though is that it is not the jay they are scared of – it is the buzzard or sparrow hawk whose cry it has just mimicked! Clever fella!
Long Tailed Tits – I love it when these guys cluster eat at the feeders – it looks like that old game Kerplonk! when twelve of so of them digging in, tails out, all over the cylinder. I have never seen the nest of one of these birds, but it would be fascinating to do so as, apparently, they can use 6000 separate pieces to build it. The nest, also, is always a collaboration between both members of the breeding pair. And the birds don’t have an innate ability to build the nest – perhaps they have an innate template, but their construction comes together through trial and error, collaboration, and problems solving.
Swallows – these guys come back to us, all the way from sub-Saharan Africa, around April or May, and go straight back to the same spot in the stable that they have nested in for the last few years. The brain of a bird is a small-world network. It is not one thing that dominates bird’s navigation. They don’t just rely on an innate ability, or a magnetic pull, but perhaps these things as well as a whole host of other things: smell, weather prediction, landmarks. A bird’s map is a network of all these things. When the parts of this network balance a bird has an easy time of navigation, when problems arise in one area it can switch and rely on a separate part of the network. This network map is hugely complex and shows the learned aspect of the bird’s navigation – and that they are masters of cognitive integration.
Woodpeckers – one of the cleverest birds out there. No wonder the professor in Bagpuss was a Yaffle! But despite their intelligence, they are basically noise hooligans. They shriek rather than sing, and the back and forth at feeding time when clicks are fledging, sounds like an orgy of squeaky children’s toys. If that is not enough, they use hammering to keep in touch with their partners and ward of competitors. When this hammering is on your cement-fibre roof at six in the morning, you start to question their etiquette. Despite all this racket, they are wonderful birds to see on the feeders, or creeping up trees, their red markings making then truly lovely.
Songbirds: Robins, Wrens, Blackbirds and Finches – it seems for songbirds the ‘gates of learning’ stay open for longer than is the case for other kinds of birds, which learn enough song to communicate and then stop (like humans who learn languages easily in the first few years but then these gates close, although there do seem to be occasional exceptions to this). But for many songbirds these ‘gates’ stay open allowing them to continually pick up new songs, riffs, expand on the theme, learning from other birds, pushing their ability. And there is quite considerable evidence that, just sometimes, birds just sing for pleasure.
We need to be kind to all of these birds. Having said that they have survived mass extinctions before. And although they are having a hard time of it just now, with bird numbers and species decimated from what they were 70 years ago, before we humans upped intensive farming and the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and the destruction of avian habitats, it may be the birds that see out this mass extinction and survive us. After all, as Leon Megginson has said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent…It is the one that is most adaptable to change’.
In reality, it seems the birds that have survived are the ones that have been able to adapt to our model of living. Those that have been unable to do things the way humans demand have perished – that is one in four species. And even those that did adapt well, such as the house sparrow, have struggled once humans changed the rules again. Once thriving they now fail to cope in our cities that have tall glass building for them to dash themselves against, more pollution for them to choke on, and less natural food as we have paved our front gardens for car births, and flattened our back gardens into lawns. But at least they are surviving.
Corvids, very adaptable to change and very smart, I’m sure will outlive us. Us humans can’t seem to adapt quickly enough but these birds can. A shame as it is a simple switch we need to make – the move toward a more plant-based diet, less use of harmful pesticide and fertiliser, less use of fossil fuels, stop using and littering plastic. But we don’t seem to be making this change. Perhaps we are not as intelligent as we think, if we are not smart enough to adapt. At least it comforts me to think of the birds inheriting the earth, once again.
A great book on this subject, cribbed from slightly here, is Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds
And a great piece of music inspired by bird song is Le Merle Noir