February mimics spring
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?
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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