Coast and Country Nature

NATURE -- Winter's Star Performers

THERE'S a neighbourhood dispute going on in my street that does not seem likely to end any time soon, writes David Carnduff.

The combatants in this back garden melee are constantly squaring up to each other aggressively and I fear one of these days it will come to a punch-up. It may have already done so.

But I won't be calling the neighbourhood wardens to calm things down, for these are feathered fighters –- robins enraged in territorial disputes that, no doubt, will last until spring.

Yes, the sweet little robins that traditionally accompany messages of peace and goodwill on millions of Christmas cards, are renowned for defending their own winter patch with force.

In choosing to spend the winter among the dormant lawns, plots and vegetable patches of our gardens, the robin has become a familiar and well-loved species, especially with its smart plumage and confiding behaviour. Its melancholy song continues all winter and it can often be heard warbling away contentedly at night under the glow of street lamps.

The robin certainly rules the roost when it comes to winter's favourite bird, but there is another species that deserves respect for also bringing animation to drab midwinter days.

These are the starlings, also familiar denizens of our gardens and rooftops, that are very vocal, even in winter, when they demonstrate an amazing range of calls and mimicry.

The ones in my patch regularly mimic wading birds such as curlews and oystercatchers and often I have been fooled into thinking a mistle thrush is singing nearby only to find it's coming from a starling perched on someone's chimney.

Their remarkable ability to copy even mechanical sounds has been well researched, with car alarms and phones being noted in their repertoire.

However, a recent study from the Western Isles took the starling's uncanny vocal abilities to astonishing new levels. Recordings were made of starlings mimicking the sound of an old engine that had long since stopped working.

The conclusion was that the calls which mimic the mechanical churring of the engine are passed down from generation to generation in what seems to be inherited memory.

It's another indication that birds -- and animals -- are far smarter than we think.

Starlings migrate into the UK in winter to boost the resident population, but overall numbers are sadly in decline. Nonetheless, some parts of the country still witness spectacular murmurations, when thousands of starlings gather prior to roosting in huge black flocks that wheel and soar with mesmerising precision.

Even small flocks perform this twilight ritual. Around 30 starlings roosted in a thick climbing plant growing on my neighbour's gable end and even that small number had a good half hour of aerial antics before finally settling into the climber (which has now been cut down!) A larger murmuration gathers in the late afternoon over the docks in Greenock before settling in a safe roost among the buildings.

Another winter star is the waxwing, a colourful migrant from Scandinavia that feeds on berries. Large numbers arrived in the UK this time last year to delight birdwatchers who regard the waxwing as a “must see” species in winter.

So far this winter, these exotic Viking invaders have been very scarce, presumably because there is an ample supply of food for them in their Scandinavian haunts. So, we are left with the common or garden robin and starling as our resident winter stars. I, for one, am not complaining.

Thanks to Gail Young for supplying the pictures accompanying this article.

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