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Sweet summer songs.

Byline: With Keith Graham

There is much to admire about the dedication that most parent birds show towards their young.

I watched enthralled the other day as a young blackbird followed its father around our lawn as if on a lead. The yellow-billed cock bird picked away at the damp grass, no doubt discovering countless worms coming to the surface in response to the rain. Other invertebrates were also clearly being garnered as he pecked away incessantly.

The youngster was never far behind and so was well placed to receive the parent bird's offerings, flapping its wings vigorously and opening wide its beak. In response the parent bird literally stuffed all the worms and other creepycrawlies he had gathered into the youngster's beak. He was no doubt stimulated so to do by that wide-open beak, the colourful interior of the mouth and the flapping wings.

Rooks are performing the same duties in the neighbouring fields, similarly responding to the same inducements. Automatically the youngsters of both blackbird and rook know how to persuade the parent birds to go on pushing food into those mouths from dawn until dusk.

I suspect this particular young blackbird is one of four I have been watching over the past few days. The father's continuing song confirms his territorial integrity but perhaps proclaims to the avian world the proud news of the arrival of that family of youngsters. As the poet Montgomery wrote: "Is there another bird that sings like me? My pipe gives all the grove variety".

I am heartened by the fact that the blackbird's song gets better and better with age. While in most other species male birds learn their entire repertoire in the first year of their lives, blackbirds as they grow older are always adding new stanzas and phrases, thus proving that they are good listeners as well as super singers. The new phrases are woven into a continually growing repertoire.

However, song is not the only weapon at his disposal as he seeks to charm the lady blackbirds. The male blackbirds possessed of the brightest yellow-orange bills are the favourites. The strength of colour in their beak is an indicator of their good state of health and is down to the ingestion of carotenoids, which play a major role in the immune system of the bird. Female blackbirds want a male which is in good physical condition, ensuring that he will be able to play a full part in rearing their young.

Cock blackbirds are always aware of the presence of rivals and sometimes become a little agitated and even belligerent towards what they may see as rivals for food sources. Yet in recent days there have been song thrushes sharing this feeding space, seeking out the same food but not engendering the same degree of jealousy. Indeed, there is no hint at all of aggression towards the thrushes.

While both thrush and blackbird - mavis and merle in old currency - are renowned for their vocal prowess, the thrush's anthem is sweet but repetitive, made up of distinct phrases which are repeated generally three or four times before the next set follows. The blackbird's song is more flowing without those repeated phrases. However, once the thrush has gained a mate his singing becomes more restricted, more evident at dawn and dusk, while the blackbird sings on throughout the days.

Song thrushes are well known for their use of what are called anvils: stones which are regularly used to crack open the shells of snails. The stone soon becomes surrounded by broken snail shells.

The other day I was convinced that a song thrush was using a stone in my garden for this purpose. The bird was certainly hammering something against the stone but I could find no evidence of shells. I concluded it had not been hammering away at a snail but was ensuring that something it had caught was thoroughly dead before consuming it.

I often wonder about communication between birds relating to communal feeding opportunities. A couple of fields near here have recently been ploughed, harrowed and planted. At the first sound of the tractor, a cloud of gulls arrived. There were common gulls, black-headed gulls and lesser black-backs, all feasting on the invertebrates that the blades of the plough had uncovered.

How do they know? Is there some form of messaging service in progress that alerts gulls wherever they are? The other facet of gull behaviour that fascinates me is to be witnessed during dry spells, when you may see them doing their rain dance. This involves the birds marking time, standing on the spot, in order to reproduce the sound and vibration of falling rain as a means of inducing worms to come to the surface.

Captive crows are capable of using an amazing array of dodges in order to obtain food. One of the most amazing examples comes from a crow which, unable to reach food placed in water, proceeded to fill the container with stones in order to raise the level of water and thus reach the food.

And we call people of low intellect birdbrains. That derogatory phrase certainly does not seem to apply to birds themselves.


Charmer A male blackbird
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Stirling Observer (Stirling, Scotland)
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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