• Abi Starr

Unsung heroes

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

I wrote this piece during the second year of my undergraduate degree for a science publishing module. I'm really fond of it - this is the style I'd like to write more of; informal but informative!

Unsung heroes

In our increasingly busy lives we often don’t think twice about that friendly robin in the garden, or the blackbird we hear on the way home from work, and yet, many of us dream of watching elephants on an African Safari, or seeing a humpback whale breach in the Arctic. People see these animals as exciting and interesting, so why not our feathered friends we see most often, but continue to overlook? These animals are just as fascinating, if only we looked a little closer...

Dunnock Mating strategies

While many birds stick to one partner per breeding season, with some species even mating for life, the humble dunnock does things very differently!

Sometimes referred to as the hedge sparrow (although not technically a sparrow at all), the dunnock is a shy, well camoflauged garden visitor, but despite its unassuming appearance, the dunnock has a truly fascinating strategy when it comes to bringing up the next generation.

Strategies include:

· Monogamy – one male with one female

· Polyandry – more than one male paired with the same female

· Polygyny – a male paired with more than one female

· Polygynandry – breeding groups with two birds of each sex

When a female mates with more than one male – she’s hoping they will both help raise her chicks (meaning they’re more likely to survive). However, sometimes, a male will know that a female has already mated and will peck at her cloaca to try and encourage her to eject his rival’s sperm before mating with her himself.

Quick Fire facts!

· Some birds such as blue tits use disinfectant! They’ve been found to bring sprigs of plants such as lavender and apple mint into their nests. This reduces the numbers of bacteria on the growing chicks, making them healthier and enabling them to grow faster as they don’t have to use so much energy maintaining their immune systems.

· Long tailed tits build their nests to last. You may have seen the classic image of a brood of young birds spilling out of the nest as they get bigger, but the long tailed tit builds a nest that can stretch as the youngsters grow! The nesting pair use lichen and spider silk to construct their elaborate nests, this choice of material means the nest actually expands as the chicks inside develop. No need for an extension here!

· House sparrows aren’t the charming, cheeky, characters they first appear to be. Not only do they dominate feeders, pushing out other birds, but they also tear apart or take over nests of birds such as house martins. In order to do so they will also destroy any eggs or chicks already in the nest, this violent behaviour can sometimes cause entire breeding colonies of martins to desert an area. A little bird with a big attitude!

· Wrens sure can shout! Although Britain’s second smallest bird, the wren has the loudest song compared to their body size of any UK bird.

· Blackbirds have strict rules on who looks after the chicks after they fledge – if the adults are going to attempt to breed again, then the male is left in charge of the previous brood whilst the female readies herself for the next clutch. However, if it’s the last brood of the year then the male and female will both tend the fledglings but assigning themselves to particular chicks.

· You can milk a woodpigeon! Yes, along with a small number of other birds, the woodpigeon produces ‘crop milk’. Its composition is remarkably similar to that of mammalian milk. Made in the structure in the throat that normally holds food, it is produced in the last few days of egg incubation. For the first few days of their lives, the crop milk is the only thing that the pigeon chicks (or ‘squabs’) are fed on.

You’ve got a friend in me

Lots of our garden birds are selfish when raising their young, only concerned with tending their own brood to ensure their genes make it into the next generation. However, this isn’t the case for all species.

In birds such as house martins and swallows, parents can be assisted in raising a brood of chicks by their first offspring from that season. This makes great sense as there are more birds feeding the new chicks – increasing their chances of survival.

Impressive as this seems, it’s nothing compared to the cooperative behaviours shown by the long-tailed tit.

With their stout, fluffy bodies and namesake long tails, long tailed tits are one of our most sociable garden birds. During the winter, a family group of long tailed tits will work together to hold a territory and then snuggle up together at night to keep warm. But it’s when spring rolls around that this remarkable little bird really comes into its own. In early spring, the flock will spread out, with each pair taking residence in an area of the territory the group held over winter.

As the breeding season gets underway, some pairs will ultimately fail in their attempts to become parents. If this happens when its too late in the season to try again, then the pair will separate and begin to tend the brood of a sibling. Not only does this mean that the chicks are fed more, but it also helps the parents of the nest maintain better condition as they don’t have to work so hard to meet the demands of their fast-growing chicks.

Nests may have multiple helpers, with two not uncommon and one nest was observed being tended by eight additional birds! The helpers do get rewarded for their efforts however, they gain acceptance into the winter flock, giving them access to all of the benefits that come from holding a territory through the harshest months, such as food, protection and warmth.

Using your enemies’ strengths against them

Ever seen a bird appear to sunbathe on a dreary day? Or seen a bird lying on the ground with what appears to be a broken wing, only for it to fly off when approached?

Well it may have been participating in an activity called anting. Anting is when a bird encourages ants to crawl over its body and cover its feathers in the formic acid and other chemicals they excrete.

Now this might sound painful, and perhaps a bit daft, but the birds appear to enjoy it – so what’s going on? Well, the bird is actually using the ants to provide insecticide! Many birds are constantly covered in parasites such as mites and ticks, but the ant secretions are so strong, that they actually kill those annoying little hitchhikers!

Anting can be done in one of two ways, actively or passively. The type of anting depends on the species of bird. Active anting involves the bird (such as a starling) taking ants in its bill and wiping them over their feathers. This appears very similar to ordinary preening, so unless you’re looking very closely, can be hard to see. When a bird is anting passively, it sits on top of an anthill and spreads its wings and tail. It then fidgets, to annoy the ants and trigger them to spray them with their chemical cocktail. A bird passively anting can look injured, or as if it’s sunbathing, but it should fly away when approached. Passive anting is found in birds such as jays and blackbirds.

Anting is clearly effective and birds seem to like it – so it’s a mystery as to why not every bird engages in anting and also why those that do so, ant infrequently.

Wren push comes to shove

So, as we’ve seen, there’s a lot more going on in the hedge at the bottom of your garden than you might expect. If you want to see some of these birds, and perhaps these particular behaviours for yourself, try encouraging them to your garden by feeding them! Perhaps start by throwing the crumbs from your breakfast toast on to the lawn, and upgrade to feeders when you’re ready.

If you don’t have much of a garden, feeders that attach to the window are available and offer fantastic, intimate views of a variety of birds. If you do use feeders, it’s important to keep them clean (birds such as Greenfinches have recently undergone a dramatic decline due to an infection spread via feeders). You will also need to provide your new feathered friends with fresh water, so they can drink and bathe to keep their feathers in tip-top condition.

Learning more about the wildlife we see most often enables us to appreciate it in ways we didn’t before, which is important as it would enable us to adapt to support certain aspects of these birds lives, should it become necessary for a more concentrated conservation effort. At the moment, all the birds featured in this article are common garden visitors, but as mankind has an increasing effect on the planet and our more local environment, this could change, in which case we need to respect our wild neighbours in order to protect them and ensure they visit our gardens for generations to come.

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