February 2018: Nature Watch

January 26 2018

It used to be said that the birds choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day.

It used to be said that the birds choose their mates on St Valentine’s Day. The credible timing of this ancient belief, mentioned in Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, suggests that those old ancients observed their birds rather well. Come mid-February many birds are establishing territories and displaying to potential mates.

This time last year I watched eight magpies arrive, two by two, to perch together in the top of the huge beech on Berkeley Road. Magpies are usually hard to miss and this was an exceptionally quarrelsome bunch. In addition to their usual chattering and screeching calls they were making a loud, nasal ‘ewk ewk’ and a harsh sound, something like the Scottish ‘ch’ in the word loch but with added cheek vibration (if you’re human, that is, and attempting to mimic it). They sounded more like parrots than magpies and reminded me of squabbling children... “no, you shut up” “no, YOU shut up!” “NO, YOU SHUT UP!” It was a show of territorial behaviour - this tree must offer the best all round view in the area from which to argue about disputed boundaries.  

Starlings also like to occupy the topmost boughs of the Berkeley beech, sometimes singing their weird but wonderful songs from this prominent platform. They have a particularly varied song involving all manner of squeaks, bells and whistles and research has shown that as a starling gets older he elaborates more, continually adding new noises to his repertoire. They are famously good mimics and used to be kept as pets – Mozart apparently had a pet starling which could sing a few bars from one of his piano concertos (No. 17 in G). At the allotments I once stood listening to a large group of them who were exchanging views involving a particularly loud call that sounded like “WOULD you? WOULD you?” as though they were playing Snog, Marry, Avoid! 

Starlings prefer to breed in loose colonies, not sharing the same nest hole but happier when they are in a group with other families very close by. They are not shy of using human structures and often nest in lofts. These starling families will then forage together in their own home range. 

In contrast, magpies are territorial nesters; each breeding pair will establish an exclusive territory and defend it all year round. They will build an impressively large nest complete with a dome which protects the eggs and nestlings from the weather and from the view of predators. They often build high in a tree and gaze out boldly from their tree-top perch, like a pirate scanning the horizon for ships. Two very different breeding strategies that just go to show there’s more than one way to survive in the city.

Finally, the fern wall in last month’s photo was at Nailsea Electrical on Gloucester Road and the winner of the bar of Divine chocolate was Bryan from Bishopston!