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02/20/2006 Archived Entry: "Early Birds"
Theories about global warming and climate change continue to circulate, often with spectacular indications such as the melting of polar ice and extreme weather patterns around the world.
On a much more local level, it does seem that we are experiencing changes to our weather patterns with spring apparently beginning earlier than in the fairly recent past. Research conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) supports this because its own studies show that some species of birds are breeding up to two weeks earlier than they did a mere 35 years ago.
Out of 65 species monitored between 1971 and 1995, twenty were laying their eggs significantly earlier. On average, species were laying nine days earlier, with the range varying between four and seventeen days. Blackbirds, for example, usually lay their clutches of 3-4 eggs around the end of March, but already this year there are reports of blackbird fledglings in Cheshire. They were spotted on February 2 which means the eggs must have been laid at the end of December; there have also been reports of baby sparrows on the Scottish borders and in another case, a collared dove's nest was noted in early February, complete with two chicks. Collared doves are noted for their long nesting season, with some starting in March and others waiting until late in September.
One of the finest indicators of climate change is the bird life in domestic gardens. It is comparatively easy to observe garden birds and record their activities on a regular basis and so the BTO is seeking volunteers to join its Garden BirdWatch scheme. The BTO is interested in the early nesting activities of all garden birds, with a current emphasis on blackbirds, and its Garden BirdWatch scheme is the only nationwide survey of garden birds to run weekly throughout the year. Anyone who is interested in helping with this research can obtain a free information pack by contacting Garden BirdWatch, Room 7, British Trust for Ornithology, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2PU or by logging on to their web site.
As I pen these notes, the countryside is awakening after its annual winter slumbers. Despite the fact we are still in the season of winter, possibly with some unpredictable weather ahead, more new shoots are appearing almost by the day, snowdrops are in full bloom and daffodils are budding up. We are hearing more and more birdsong each day and blue tits have been studiously examining one of our nest boxes. Trees and bushes are beginning to display new buds while some like the hazel are already displaying yellow catkins.
In the midst of all this activity, however, there lurks a handsome villain. This is the bullfinch, a small plump bird which is slightly larger than a house-sparrow but readily identifiable due to its white rump. The male is strikingly beautiful. He sports a smart red waistcoat, a grey back and black tips to his wings and tail; he also wears a natty black cap but when he flies, it is his white rump which identifies him, along with distinctive white flashes on his wings. His mate also displays a white rump, but although her colours are similar to the male's she is not quite so brilliant; her underparts, for example, are rather dull pink instead of bright red. Before maturity, all the youngsters bear the distinctive white rump but their colours tend to be more brownish. Unfortunately, while it may be a handsome bird, the bullfinch may not be welcome in our gardens because it has a great fondness for new buds, particularly those which are beginning to appear on our fruit trees, berry bushes and flowering shrubs. In some fruit growing areas, the destructive activities of bullfinches have become such a problem that these birds are officially listed as pests, which means they may be destroyed.
Bullfinches are not regular visitors to our garden but, a few days ago, I did spot a male bullfinch on a bird feeder. He was not attacking any of our trees or bushes, probably because the buds were not sufficiently developed to satisfy his hunger but he did make a quick meal of some peanuts. One odd fact about this bird is that, in spite of his brilliant plumage, the male can easily hide in thick vegetation, his presence often being revealed only when he produces a piping note.
The bullfinch is just one member of the finch family, a colourful group of birds which prompted our Victorian ancestors to capture some of them and keep them in cages. High on their list was the goldfinch with its black and yellow wings, white rump and brilliant red face. Goldfinches often form flocks for bathing and feeding and, not surprisingly, they are then known collectively as a charm. Their rather delicate and pretty song also endeared them to cage-bird enthusiasts.
The chaffinch, a regular visitor to gardens, is one of our best known finches and some forty or fifty years ago, was our most common British bird. In recent years it has become scarcer, probably due to chemicals used in agriculture and horticulture for it relies heavily on weed seeds for food. Both the male and female have distinctive white markings on their shoulders and dark wings; the male is mainly pink with a grey head whilst his mate is rather more brown.
The greenfinch is another visitor to our gardens, this being easily recognised due to its green plumage and yellow stripe along its wings. The female is rather more dull than her mate but both can be very aggressive when feeding, not only chasing other birds from the food supply, but also chasing off other greenfinches. This bird's colouring is similar to a smaller finch known as a siskin. The siskin, however, is smaller and has dark wings with yellowish-green markings which are very prominent; the male also sports a neat little black cap. With the spread of pine forests, siskins have become more numerous but they are also regular visitors to many gardens.
Other finches include the hawfinch, brambling, linnet, redpoll and the sturdy crossbill with its twisted beak - all of whom add colour to our countryside but we are unlikely to see them in our gardens.