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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Christmas tweets

It's that time of year ... with some interesting bird behaviour on show, for anyone who can pause amid the Xmas shopping and sales rush. In the dearth of natural food, whether winter insects or fruit, migrant and resident songbirds have been descending on urban areas seeking out berrying street trees and bushes.

Robins might be more likely to appear on the season's greeting cards, but blackbirds - the colly bird of the traditional song - thrushes and redwings can perhaps make a similar claim.  A random cotoneaster, hawthorn or rowan might have 3 or 4 perched on top, at various heights, vying for and defending this precious resource.
St David's street food: blackbird on rowan; a pigeon joins in on some pyracantha
It illustrates the value of some non-native berrying garden and street shrubs, such as cotoneaster and pyracantha. These apparently aren't the first choice of wild birds, but at a certain point the berries will be taken avidly, and must help birds survive through this otherwise lean time.

There's also been a winter version of a dawn chorus, of sorts: I've heard robins starting up pre-dawn in fullish song before 7a.m. In the UK most robins are sedentary, but winter numbers increase with some migrants arriving from the Continent. The British and Irish subspecies is Erithacus rubecula melophilus, found across Western Europe and occurring as a vagrant in adjacent regions. Those that stay, or arrive, must keep and guard a territory throughout the season. Male and female robins do this, explaining why both can sing on winter mornings. The association with gardens and towns is a peculiarly UK phenomenon, not so readily seen elsewhere in the robin's range, where it is more of a shy scrub and woodland bird.

While the blackbirds and thrushes are partial to rowan and cotoneaster berries, spindle bush Euonymus europaeus, a classic Devon hedgerow plant, is said to be favoured by robins. In German the plant is Rotkehlchenbrot or 'robin's bread'. In mild years, the next breeding season can start as early as January. Apparently individual robins can be told apart from the red breast pattern, though this is a challenge.

Exeter's greenfinches, thrushes, blue tits, thrushes and blackbirds were also vocally evident during a Valley Park walk in the milder, almost sunny spell on Boxing Day. A hint of things to come, looking towards the Big Garden Birdwatch 2017 on 28-30 January.

Birds and Berries by Barbara and David Snow (T & AD Poyser, 1990)
RSPB 21 robin facts page

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