Am Bratach No. 327
by Andy Summers
is not a breath of wind but the cold fingers of winter reach into my very
core. I can even taste the freezing air in my lungs. Everything is still
except the highpitched calls of small birds deep in the Culag woods. I can
make out blue tits, great tits and coal tits ducking and diving amongst the
birch bark and ivy. A treecreeper makes its way up a gnarled alder tree;
long tailed tits repeatedly call to each other as they do acrobatics in the
tree tops. I watch them flit cross my path and count them one by one. These
dainty birds with their absurdly long tails are some of my favourites.
Even Europe’s tiniest bird is here: goldcrests arrive in Scotland from
Scandinavia just for the winter, some battling through the 400- mile North
Sea crossing in less than twenty-four hours. A band of coal tits, their
subtle wintercoloured plumage a perfect match for the surrounding
environment, gather on a tall Scots Pine tree. The birds rummage within the
needles for insect food, so delicate is their fidgety but precise work. Coal
tits have long toes and an extremely narrow bill, the former ideal for
acrobatics high in branches. In the otherwise motionless valley, all these
small spirits kindle the life of the land.
In the winter, blue tits
often go about in these mixed species flocks; indeed, they often form the
nucleus of such aggregations. Ringing studies have shown that blue tits come
from two different social backgrounds: some are residents, moving around
with the flock close to their territory or birthplace; others are nomads,
moving from area to area and enjoying only temporary membership of any
flock. I wonder where these blue tits have come.
together and going systematically through a woodland, birds can save a lot
of wasted time and energy searching a patch that has just been searched
thoroughly by their neighbour. It makes sense to cooperate. And of course it
is a delight when you suddenly come across one of these mixed species flocks
of woodland gymnasts.
Anyone who spends a lot of time walking in the
winter quickly realises that, contrary to common perception, there can be a
lot of birds in some of these tiny pieces of woodland, even in the coldest
months. Birds need adequate food sources to stay safe and warm through the
long cold season, but when there are no buds, fruits or flowers available,
plants are dormant and insects are scarce, what do winter birds eat? While
there may not be flying insects in the winter, dormant insects and larvae
are a critical food source for birds. Tits, robins, wrens, treecreepers,
woodpeckers and other birds will forage in tree bark for insects that
provide valuable protein.
But finding enough food can be a
challenge, especially in poor weather and harsh conditions. That is why some
clever birds have been “caching” food throughout late summer and autumn.
They will visit these extra food supplies all winter long. Birds have good
memories and can recall where they found exceptional food sources earlier in
the year or in previous winters, and they will often revisit the same areas
in search of more resources.
There is one delightful little bird
that does this caching business really well. For a coal tit, life can be
hard. Being much smaller, coal tits are constantly bullied by blue tits and
great tits, which frequently attack them and steal their food. Where they
all live together, coal tits will find themselves literally at the bottom of
the tree when it comes to nest sites. Blue or great tits take the safer,
higher holes, while coal tits are condemned to mouse holes and crevices
But coal tits are clever. When a coal tit finds a
suitable supply of, let’s say, sunflower seeds in a nice person’s garden,
handily available in a lovely hanging tube feeder, it will take a seed, hide
it somewhere such as a crevice in tree bark, then return time after time to
do the same thing. When blue tits, great tits and house sparrows are
fighting among themselves for a dominant spot on the feeder so they can
munch away, a coal tit will nip in as quick as lightning, carry out a short
commando- style raid, and grab a seed. Indeed, a small flock of coal tits
can empty a whole feeder of black sunflower seeds in less than a day doing
just this. And if you didn’t know that the birds were caching the food
rather than eating it (though they will of course be eating some in the
process to keep energy levels up), then you might be forgiven for thinking
that hundreds of them were involved in the sortie on the feeder, rather than
the more probable number of half a dozen.
As part of this caching
strategy, individual coal tits will use multiple locations to hoard their
winter supply of food. This is called “scatter hoarding”. This ensures that
if another species of bird — for example, the more dominant great tit —
finds the food cache, then it will lose only one or two. Just as the small
birds in winter flock together to improve their chances of finding food and
surviving attacks by predators, I like to think that as we prepare ourselves
for the weather and times ahead we can follow their example.
Andy is a senior High Life Highland
ranger, based in Lochinver.
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