Fe­bru­ary mim­ics spring

Stirling Observer - - SCHOOL NEWS - With Keith Graham

Fickle Fe­bru­ary! Just as we were be­gin­ning to be­lieve that spring was on the march, a bit­ter wind, the ori­gins of which were prob­a­bly some­where in Siberia, hurled in from the east.

Flur­ries of snow were a fur­ther re­minder that this month is in­deed a child of win­ter! And yet, the days are stretch­ing and there are cer­tain signs that, even if it doesn’t feel like it, the in­flu­ence of spring is be­gin­ning to per­co­late.

The chat­ter­ing of my neigh­bour­hood spar­rows intensifies by the day – their typ­i­cally quar­rel­some and pre­co­cious be­hav­iour is in­creas­ingly to the fore. And, there have been un­usual snatches of sweet song, no­tice­ably brief in their na­ture, for they em­anate from a lit­tle posse of star­lings, which have de­cided to en­camp here.

As star­lings al­ways do, they prat­tle – rat­tling away like spin­ning jen­nies. Yet in be­tween, there have also been heard some short ex­cerpts of re­mark­ably sweet song. Clearly they have been lis­ten­ing and, as star­lings are wont to do, copy­ing. How­ever star­lings ap­pear to re­sem­ble se­cond-rate ac­tors, con­stantly for­get­ting their lines, be­cause they never seem able to prop­erly com­plete what they start!

Star­lings are, of course, renowned for their mimicry, and fre­quently copy frag­ments of the songs of other birds. In this mod­ern day and age, they also use their tal­ents to be­come dab hands at imi­tat­ing per­fectly the sounds of both land and mo­bile phones, caus­ing con­ster­na­tion, as a re­sult, to the own­ers of such gad­gets. But star­ling­sof course, are not alone in demon­strat­ing an abil­ity to copy a wide range of sounds. Mem­bers of the crow clan too are adept at imi­tat­ing all kinds of bizarre noises. Jays, for in­stance, may copy the calls of rap­tors to warn all and sundry that such a bird is around and pos­ing a threat. Jack­daws too are great mim­ics and, in cap­tiv­ity, read­ily copy the hu­man voice.

It will come as lit­tle sur­prise that ravens are also ver­sa­tile im­pres­sion­ists and ac­cord­ingly on a day-to-day ba­sis may be heard re­pro­duc­ing the most amaz­ing range of calls. They are, of course, highly in­tel­li­gent birds, which clearly pos­sess a keen sense of hu­mour as well as a real ea­ger­ness to get into the breeding sea­son each year as quickly as pos­si­ble. In re­cent days I have seen plenty of ev­i­dence of courtship among the in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion here­abouts, openly de­fy­ing the sud­den re­ver­sion to win­ter.

Ravens, even though most of them th­ese days choose to live largely among the moun­tains, are nev­er­the­less al­ways quick off the mark when it comes to breeding am­bi­tions and in­deed, may of­ten be found in­cu­bat­ing eggs dur­ing Fe­bru­ary.

Their moun­tain-based avian col­leagues the golden ea­gles are also quick off the mark, al­beit that for them, the breeding sea­son is an ex­tremely pro­longed process, of­ten be­gin­ning with the choice of the year’s nest­ing site, which may of­ten be made as the new year be­gins.

The whole pro­ce­dure of in­cu­ba­tion, hatch­ing and rear­ing ea­glets to the point of fledg­ing and even­tual self­suf­fi­ciency, goes on and on un­til the first hints of au­tumn gold are with us.

In th­ese Low­land lo­ca­tions, ea­gles are a rare sight in­deed. How­ever, we do find our­selves watch­ing “the tourist’s ea­gles”, bet­ter known as buzzards, on a daily ba­sis and here again, I have been aware of early courtship ac­tiv­ity. One pair in par­tic­u­lar have been drift­ing above a lo­cal wood­land, typ­i­cally pro­scrib­ing grace­ful cir­cles with the vis­i­bly smaller cock bird fol­low­ing ea­gerly in the wake of his larger prospec­tive mate.

Buzzards, un­justly per­haps, do not gen­er­ally re­ceive a par­tic­u­larly good press. Be­cause of their propen­sity to ex­ploit car­rion, they are prob­a­bly, along with the new gen­er­a­tion of red kites, the most com­mon vic­tims of the il­le­gal prac­tice of set­ting poi­soned baits. This is still, I’m afraid, a prob­lem in some parts of the coun­try.

Our vi­sion of both th­ese rap­tors is that they spend a good deal of their time sim­ply cir­cling in the sky. In­deed, some ob­servers even sug­gest that th­ese cir­cling mo­tions point to a de­gree of idle­ness on the part of th­ese birds. Not­ing could be far­ther from the truth. Both buzzards and kites have re­mark­ably good “tele­photo” vi­sion and their as­sumed aim­less­ness is in fact quite the op­po­site, for from their aerial per­spec­tive they are, in fact, care­fully scour­ing ev­ery inch of the ground be­low for feed­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Buzzards are no­tice­ably bulkier than the more slen­der kites and thus are not quite as mas­ter­ful in flight. That said, I must say that in my view, there is a cer­tain majesty about a glid­ing buz­zard. And, of course, buzzards are reg­u­larly con­fused with ea­gles by folk who are not par­tic­u­larly fa­mil­iar with lar­gish birds of prey.

Their habit of reg­u­larly perch­ing on tele­graph poles might also be taken as a sug­ges­tion of lazi­ness. Yet this is per­haps an alternative and a less en­ergy-con­sum­ing means of search­ing for food sources. The rel­a­tively slow­mov­ing, lazy flight pat­tern of the buz­zard, like that of the kite, doubt­less made them eas­ier tar­gets for those in­tent on their de­struc­tion when such prac­tice was com­mon­place.

It is his­toric fact that the de­struc­tion of any bird with a hooked beak, not to men­tion an­i­mals with a taste for the flesh of game birds, was pre­cisely what oc­curred with the sud­den rise in the de­vel­op­ment of “sport­ing es­tates” back in the 19th cen­tury. In­deed, the universal as­sault upon eas­ily tar­geted buzzards and kites reached such dev­as­tat­ing pro­por­tions that the kite be­came ex­tinct as a breeding bird in both Scot­land and Eng­land, to be rein­tro­duced, of course, in much more re­cent times.

De­spite such wide­spread slaugh­ter, the more com­mon buz­zard sur­vived. In this airt, the per­se­cu­tion seems to have been se­vere to such an ex­tent that around Cal­lan­der there was a slaugh­ter of hun­dreds of them. The more rea­soned at­ti­tude to­wards birds of prey which be­gan to be pro­moted in the wake of the First World War, was not how­ever, nec­es­sar­ily adopted by all.

Leg­is­la­tion to en­force the pro­tec­tion of some birds such Early morn­ing mist set­tles on the ground be­low the Wal­lace Monument. Pho­to­graph by Kelly Fitz­patrick. Why not send us your snaps and have your im­age ap­pear as our Reader’s Pic of the Day?

You can e-mail pho­to­graphs to news@ stir­ling ob­server.co.uk or pop into our of­fice at 34 Up­per Craigs, Stir­ling, FK8 2DW.

You can also log on to our web­site at www. stir­ling ob­server.co.uk and send your pic­ture us­ing the“send your pics” link.

Please make sure that when your are send­ing your images you in­clude your name, ad­dress and con­tact de­tails and a lit­tle piece of in­for­ma­tion about your pic­ture. as the great crested grebe which hith­erto had faced ex­tinc­tion due to the de­mand for its feath­ers, had be­gun to ap­pear late in the 19th cen­tury and grad­u­ally, dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, more leg­is­la­tion ap­peared on the statute book.

There were and in­deed are those how­ever, who are still so in­tent upon pro­tect­ing game birds such as pheas­ants and, on the moors, grouse, who con­tinue to flout the law. Con­se­quently in some ar­eas buz­zard num­bers con­tinue to de­cline. How­ever, the in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of farm­ing and a re­sult­ing dearth of suit­able prey may also be con­trib­u­tory fac­tors in the east.

But here at least, the ev­i­dence is cur­rently point­ing to a grad­ual re­cov­ery. Thus the re­cently ob­served signs of courtship sug­gest that de­spite the re­cent re­turn of win­ter, prepa­ra­tions for the breeding sea­son seem well in hand.

There was also a mo­ment of fur­ther con­fir­ma­tion of the mood in the shape of a pair of car­rion crows clearly canoodling, en­gag­ing in what could only be de­scribed as bond­ing be­hav­iour, af­fec­tion­ately con­tact­ing each other, beak to beak. Notwith­stand­ing those cold easter­lies, the birds are sig­nalling the in­evitable fact that spring is ac­tu­ally spring­ing.

Tak­ing it easy Buzzards will perch to con­serve en­ergy

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