Tag Archives: Ornithology

British Birds – The Dunnock

May has been a good month for birds in the garden and I have seen all of the usual visitors at some time or another as well as the Bullfinch for the first time.

One bird that I am seeing more and more of is the Dunnock, which is a small bird that doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself and is commonly mistaken for the sparrow.  After a period of decline its numbers are increasing again in the UK and the bird is now on the RSPB amber status list.

It is sometimes called the Hedge Accentor, Hedge Sparrow or Hedge Warbler and you will probably guess from this that it spends a lot of time in hedges and small bushes looking for food.  The Dunnock doesn’t visit the bird table or the feeders, but prefer to pick up food from the ground which has been dropped by other birds.  They seem to be able to go about their business relatively undisturbed because except for competing with the Robin for the same sort of food they don’t seem to be inconveniencing anyone else. It may be for this reason that many people mistake the Dunnock for a female Robin, which it isn’t!

At first sight I suppose you might say that the Dunnock is relatively dull but if they sit still long enough you can see that, as with most birds, this is not the case at all.  Although it is never going to compete with the gaily coloured finches and the tits it really does have quite striking colours especially around its head and collar where the feathers are a very attractive grey-blue and it has white freckle like specks around its inquisitive little eyes.  Despite the first impression the Dunnock is a handsome little bird and he is a welcome visitor to my garden.

I was interested this weekend to see two birds squabbling in the garden with lots of chasing each other about, wing flapping and tail flicking in a competitive sort of way and I have found out why.

An interesting fact about the Dunnock is that this is the swinger of all birds, quite fond of a bit of wife swapping.  Females are polyandrous, breeding with two or more males at once and DNA testing has shown that chicks within broods often have different fathers.  The males too don’t putting it about either and this makes the Dunnock quite rare as this sort of behaviour is only found in about 2% of birds because the majority are monogamous, where one male and one female breed and stay together.  There are more than two million breeding Dunnocks in the UK so that sounds like an awful lot of fun.

Not being absolutely sure who the father of the chicks might be may also account for the fact that It is a common host of the cuckoo and whilst the eggs bear no resemblance to each other the cuckoo eggs are commonly accepted.  I have read that this may be a recent thing because other birds have got better at spotting the cuckoo’s egg but I don’t think it can be so because Shakespeare refers to it in King Lear when the Fool (who is not nearly as daft as he looks) provides an interesting assessment of the betrayal of the King by his daughter Goneril with these lines:

“The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long
That had it’s head bit off by it’s young.” [
I, 4]

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Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

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British Birds – The Robin

IMG_4155

In 1960 the Times Newspaper conducted a poll to identify Britain’s favourite bird.  Not surprisingly, the Robin had a landslide victory and as a result there was a campaign to have it adopted as Britain’s national bird.  The Government however did not respond to the concept (the Tories were in power at the time and this had no benefit for the rich people in the country) and Britain remains therefore without an official avian representative!  As a sort of consolation the Robin was used as a symbol of a Bird Protection Society, but only for a few years before because this was discontinued after a short while.

Unlike most other woodland and garden birds, the robin rarely migrates abroad and is probably for this reason that we associate them with Christmas, taking a starring role as they do every year on thousands of Christmas cards.  The Robin has also appeared on a complete set of Christmas postage stamps in 1995 and before that in 1966 in a ‘Birds of Britain’ set.

An old English folk tale seeks to explain the Robin’s distinctive red breast and legend has it that when Jesus was dying on the cross, the Robin, then simply brown in colour, flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him in his pain.  The blood from his wounds stained the Robin’s breast, and after that all Robins got the mark of Christ’s blood upon them.  The robin’s red breast is often assumed to play a role in courtship but in fact it is purely used in defence because despite their distinctly cute appearance Robins are fiercely territorial and will defend their patch to the death.

All the birds of the air                                                                                                                    fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,                                                                                                   when they heard the bell toll                                                                                                      for poor Cock Robin.

In the birds of Shakespeare,  the Robin (or the Ruddock) gets three mentions, in Cymberline, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry IV part 1.

Because their home colours are red at least eight English football clubs are nicknamed ‘The Robins’.  Only one other bird is the nickname of more than one club and that is the Magpie, so the Robin is rather over represented in this respect.  Here is my list, but there are probably some more:

West Bromich Albion            Throstles (Song Thrush)

Norwich City                           Canaries

Newcastle United                    Magpies

Notts County                           Magpies

Leeds  United                          Peacocks

Sheffield Wednesday             Owls

Crystal Palace                          Eagles

Cardiff City                               Bluebirds

Swansea City                            Swans

Torquay United                       Gulls

Brighton & Hove                     Seagulls

Kiddermister    Town             Harriers

and the Robins are: Chetenham Town, Swindon Town, Bristol City, Wrexham, Altincham, Ilkeston Town, Bracknell Town and Selby Town!

None of these nicknames though are as interesting as my favourite.  Hartlepool United are known as the Monkeyhangers because during the Napoleonic wars the residents of the town allegedly mistook a monkey for a Frenchman and strung it up from the town gallows.  According to local folklore a French ship was wrecked off the coast and the only survivor was a monkey, wearing a French uniform.  On discovering the monkey, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial on the beach and since the unfortunate animal was unable to answer their questions (and many locals were unaware of what a Frenchman may look like) they concluded that the monkey was in fact a French spy and had it put to death.

In the list of nicknames there are no Great Tits I notice, although it is almost certain that most clubs, or their players, will be referred to as such at some time during a season.  In the world of Rugby League Hull Kingston Rovers are called the Robins and so is the Swindon speedway team.

Other famous Robins are the Boy Wonder in the Batman comics, the Robin Reliant car and of course our most famous hero of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood!  There is a story that in the DC comic ‘Batman’ the name ‘Robin the Boy Wonder’ was inspired by the Errol Flynn movie ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ but other theories about Robin’s origin have instead often said the name comes from the bird, which neatly explains the red tunic.

This is my dad’s page about Robins:

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Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

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Ornithology, Blackbirds and Sweden

An early piece of artwork c1960

I am going to begin with a warning.  It is a word of caution about the sudden acquisition of new and unlikely interests.  I was sure that this could not possibly happen to me but I have been struck down with a chronic interest in wild birds.

I have become a twitcher!  and it happened so quickly and without warning so I was powerless to resist it.  It has become so bad that I now even look out for Bill Oddie programmes on the television (Springwatch, Autumnwatch, How to Watch Wildlife, Wild In Your Garden, Birding with Bill Oddie, Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie and Bill Oddie Goes Wild) and not so long ago I would have preferred to boil my own head rather than watch a Bill Oddie programme.

When I was a boy I used to collect Brooke Bond tea cards and diligently stick them in an album, even then one of my least favourite collections was British Birds because it was just so dull.  I preferred the African Wild Life and the Asian Wild Life collections because they were colourful and exciting, I think I even quite liked the Tropical Birds set but British Birds, for me, were always such a disappointment.

One day in March I was doing a little early shrub pruning in the garden and I was tackling an overgrown and scruffy specimen that is attached to the garden shed.  I was working in a frenzy, slashing away and cutting back indiscriminately, when my efforts revealed an obviously recently constructed bird’s nest.  I was sorry about that because where it had been carefully concealed in the labyrinth of twigs and leaves it was now dangerously exposed to the elements and potential predators.  At this stage no one seemed to be occupying the nest but I kept an eye on it for any sign of activity and began to see a pair of blackbirds flying in and out quite regularly.  Goodness knows what they thought about the rearrangements that I had made to their front door but I was pleased that it hadn’t scared them away.

Then one day it happened.  This was the day that I crossed over and I became hopelessly hooked.  I had been making regular inspections but on this day I was elated to discover three shiny blue speckled eggs in the moss at the bottom of the nest.  Because of my habitat vandalism I decided that this pair of birds was my special responsibility and I started to provide food so that they wouldn’t have to go far away from the nest that I had uncovered to the world.

I carried out some research and was surprised to learn that these eggs could be hatched in about three weeks so I increased my nest inspections to twice a day in anticipation of the happy event and was overjoyed one day to find some baby chicks lying pathetic and vulnerable in the bottom of the nest.  After that I stayed away for fear of frightening away the adults but I needn’t have worried and they stayed around and were happy enough to accept the food that I was regularly putting out for them.

The male quickly became the boss of the back garden becoming increasingly territorial and chasing away other birds that were bold enough to venture in to share the bread and raisins that I was providing and the pair of them kept up a frenetic level of activity going backwards and forwards to the nest to keep the little ones fed.  I was surprised how quickly they grew and very soon there was a serious overcrowding problem in the nest with three fat chicks competing for their share of a very restricted space.

Then in April I was away for a few days and upon return was disappointed to find that they had gone, not even a thank you note left behind and I was sad that I had missed their first flight, I had been looking forward to it as though I was a parent myself waiting for a child to take its first steps.

See, I told you that I was hooked!

An interesting fact about the Blackbird is that it is the national bird of Sweden and although many World countries have national birds this is the only one, apart from the English Robin, that I can find that has chosen a bird that I have found in my garden.  Many countries, especially in the tropics prefer colourful specimens like parrots for their national bird, the French have the Cockerel and the USA has the Bald Eagle and others too like to choose something spectacular and powerful.  The most common national bird is the Golden Eagle which is claimed by Austria and Germany, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Scotland.

In the Middle Ages and right up to Shakespeare’s time the blackbird was known by the distinctive old English name of the Ouzel, Ousel or Wosle and it is a pity that this has become obsolete, though it may still be referred to as such in Scotland.  The first recorded usage of blackbird was in 1486 and even though there are bigger black birds in medieval England such as the Crow, Raven, Rook or Jackdaw, these were previously regarded as fowl so the Ouzel was simply the largest black bird at that time.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the bird as ‘The Woosell cocke, so blacke of hew, With Orenge-tawny bill’.

Also, north of the border, where linguistic relics of the old alliance with France still remain, the blackbird is sometimes known by its French name of le Merle.  A Blackbird is el Mirlo in Spanish and il Merlo in Italian; all of which are from the Latin Merula by the way.

My dad knew all about birds and when he was young he kept a journal of British species in an exercise book.  This is his blackbird page…

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Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

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Collared Doves – Avian Colonisers

Collared Doves really are the most stupid of all birds.  Currently there is a pair of them trying to build a nest in the eaves of my house (X marks the spot) and, it has to be said,  failing pretty spectacularly.  After six weeks it still hasn’t occurred to them that the spot that they have chosen is completely unsuitable.  Every day they deliver  twigs to the narrow ledge above my bedroom window and everyday it falls down onto the drive and gives me a failed nesting debris sweep-up operation.

Each morning starting at dawn they sit there cooing away to each other, stopping every now and again for an avian wing-trembler, which I have to say doesn’t look very thrilling or satisfying, and then they return to their hopeless nest building task and if, against all odds, they ever get it built I am only going to take it down anyway!

The story of the Collared Dove is an interesting one.

Only a hundred years ago, the species was found primarily on the Indian subcontinent, although its range extended slightly into Europe but certainly no further than Turkey.  In the early 1900s, however, the species began significantly expanding its range and colonised as far as France, the Low Countries and Denmark and then in 1953 reached it the United Kingdom when it was spotted in Norfolk for the first time.

Today, Collared Doves are living above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia.

The spread of Collared Doves across the United Kingdom has been very rapid. From the first breeding report in 1955 the species was subsequently reported breeding in Kent and Lincolnshire in 1957, with birds also seen as far north as Scotland.  Two years later Ireland was colonised and by 1970 there may have been as many as twenty-five thousand pairs in Britain and Ireland and between 1972 and 1976 the population increased five fold.

The Collared Dove, it turns out, is one of the great colonisers of the avian world.  After it was introduced into the Bahamas in the 1970s it managed to spread to Florida in the United States by 1982.  Its stronghold in North America is still the Gulf Coast, but it is now found as far south as Veracruz, as far west as California, and as far north as British Columbia and the Great Lakes.

All of this goes to show that although they are hopeless at building nests they regardless of this they are good at breeding and pretty spectacular at colonisation.

Collared Doves are quite big birds and have a buff grey colour that makes them quite conspicuous.   Although on first site they may look uninteresting they are really quite attractive with the half collar marking on the back of the neck, a pinkish flush on the chest and really wonderful black eyes with a red ring.  This is a picture of the visitor to my garden so you can see just how close, without a massive telephoto lens,  he will let me get to him (or perhaps her, because actually I can’t tell the difference).

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Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

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A Life in a Year – 2nd October, Fat Balls!

With so many birds stopping by the garden now buying food from the garden centre or the supermarket can start to get a bit expensive so I have been looking for alternatives so here are some tips to prepare your own bird gourmet meal.

I have been experimenting with making my own fat balls and so far I am really quite pleased with the results.

Bottom left in the picture is a beef fat preparation that I made by rendering down the fat from some sirloin steak and then adding to it some seed, fruit and oats.  Unfortunately this wasn’t a completely brilliant success and it started to melt down a bit in the warm October sunshine.  This wasn’t a problem however because the birds finished it off before it could completely drip away.  It was a success mainly with the Starlings who squabbled over it until it was gone.

Bottom right is a similar preparation but this time using pork fat and this seems to be much more successful.  It has an altogether thicker consistency and it seems to bind together so much better.  This time I added the seeds and the fruit but also some broken up bread crusts that seemed to soak up and hold the fat together well.  It looks good enough to eat yourself don’t you think?  A bit like a luxury Belgian Florentine! Again this was a big favourite with the Starlings and the Great Tit showed a great deal of interest as well.

One other little tip is that you might want to keep the kitchen window open while you are preparing the fat mixture!

Top left there is some pork fat that was left over after preparing the fat ball and this is always a big favourite with the birds and top right is the ever popular bacon fat.  Don’t throw it away, just grill it slowly for a while and the blackbirds will love it.  I suppose it looks a bit like a juicy worm!

Don’t throw gone over fruit away either, because the birds will really enjoy chopped up grapes and oranges and as for an old pear, they will go crazy!

There are a number of places to go on the web to find out more about making your own bird food and I recommend this helpful site and page: http://www.cottagesmallholder.com/?p=357  Be careful however when you search on ‘fat balls’ because you might not always find exactly what you were expecting!

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Other posts about birds:

Blackbirds

Collared Doves

Dunnock

Fat Balls

Mozart’s Starling

Robin

Seagull

Starlings

Starlings in the USA

Vinkensetting

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