***Warning! Rant in middle of post!
It’s summer, so we can either be aggravated by swarms or entertained by Baby Watch 2014. The summer around here did not just begin with bees leaving their homes, but all kinds of birds fledging. We were actually privileged to watch a family of baby blue tits leave one of our nest boxes, five in all. Between the blue and great tits, there was a lot of investigation of our nest boxes in spring. We were a little excited to witness some nest building activity in our box with the camera. But I think the male blue tit was more enthusiastic about the accommodation than the female, as they soon abandoned the nest (not uncommon).
What all this baby fledging meant for us was doubling up our live meal worm supply, because we soon had screeching babies and harried parents all over the garden….
And, the baby starlings as annoying as their cries could be, had nothing on the baby tits, who hung around our conservatory all day. So there really was no escape, even in the house….
And in case you are failing to note the aggravation factor…
The parents got pretty persistent, especially when the worm supply looked to be dwindling…
This male robin (we call him Squinty because one of his eyes seems to close; his mate is Baldy, a really rough looking character) got so persistent one day when we had actually run out of worms that he hopped on into the conservatory through the kitchen and the dining room to give me the fright of my life when he hopped onto the couch in the living room! Since then we have had all kinds of incursions, and sadly one fatality when a baby robin escaped after we had captured it only for it to bang right into the glass of the conservatory. It’s not just sad when a little baby life ends, but you see all the effort the parents put into the feeding and raising, it’s doubly sad….
Naturally, when we are not around all kinds of incursions happen. A frequent visitor is our magpie mother, Spot (she has something on one side of her face, a bald patch, a tick, we don’t quite know what…). Not only is she a visitor, but she usually has two very squawky babies in tow. So for her it’s kind of like cruising up to a drive-through and then passing the worms to the babies in the backseat. The drawback for her with this arrangement is that it is a bit far away from the water bowls. She infinitely prefer to dunk the worms first, something she does with every bit of food that passes her beaky lips.
Don’t even get us started on Phil the pheasant…
Of course, all these incursions mean the babies are hopping about getting their own food, and even enjoying the company of others….
Springwatch 2014: *Warning rant starts here.
Those who have read this blog regularly know I indulge in a little winge about [Season] Watch at various points of the year. So here goes. Springwatch was made more endurable this year by the fact that we got more into the BBC red button live cams of various nests. In fact, I became addicted. The blessing of the live cams was just watching the birds in their habitats doing birdy things without the inane, anthropormophic observations and language (I get enough of writing them in these posts). That combined with the pretensions to science just drive me around the bend.
Now, I can hear you all, “You are expecting way too much of the show, it’s just light entertainment, they have to appeal to everyone, especially kids.” And you would be right. However, they are big into ‘citizen science:’ for instance, having people watch the nest cams for how many times chicks are being fed etc. This counting for a few hours on one day for each type of bird really proved nothing that I could see as each type of chick was at a different stage of growth, so of course the parents’ visits to the nests would vary. So producing a chart across types of birds’ feeding activity, well, they made a lot more of it than was actually there.
A lot of this is Chris Packham who tends to hold himself out as a bit of an expert. He’s ok as a presenter, and ok when he is with an actual scientist. Problem is on his own he cannot even cite real research correctly. For instance, he made mention of research suggesting that parent birds will favor male chicks when feeding. The actual research conducted by an Oxford research team in Canada looked at only one type of bird, the Common Mure (nope, I haven’t heard of it either). Granted I have only read a summary (here), but there are a number of questions that would have to be answered before I began citing this, especially as indicitive of all birds: namely, did the research account for the fact that as they age, males may be more assertive in grabbing the food or positioning themselves for the food? Indeed, one observation Springwatch made itself about blue tit feeding may suggest a variety of feeding practices: someone had asked, with a nest so clogged with chicks, how do blue tit parents make sure everyone is equally fed. What the Springwatch camera team observed when looking at hours of footage is that the chicks rotate after feeding, so they are constantly changing positions. Now this was an informal observation of one nest, but still indicates that a presenter should not cite scientific research without being very specific about what the implications are.
Lastly, another language thing: the hyperbole sends me around another bend: “it’s the first time ever” “it’s never been seen before” “spring watch is the first to…” I had to laugh when they did get caught out by another viewer who apparently had had enough. Now one thing Spring/winter/autumn watch is good at is the cams and placing them in the unlikeliest of places. They did score a real coup with the Bittern cam. However, not as much of a coup as they thought. They made their usual pronouncement of how this was the first time for bitterns to be observed on the nest (the extended suggestion was that bitterns were so secretive they’ve hardly been seen at all). Well, in a later episode the RSPB was showing black and white photographs, I don’t know taken in the 50s or 70s, and lo and behold, there were a few photos of bitterns on the nest. Not only that, but an elderly gentleman wrote in to claim that he had been involved in filming bitterns on the nest, I don’t know in the 40s or 50s. The gentleman went onto say of course they didn’t have the 24-hour type technology back then, but they were able to capture footage with what was available at the time. To their credit, the presenters did read out the letter, but not without Packham making a joke of it. [I don't know how much one can read into it, but in another segment when Packham had to say 'hyperbola,' her said 'hyperbole' instead.]***
Just one more thing, and pertinent to the next section. One of the high and low points of the show was seeing a chick in a nest being killed by a snake. It was really gruesome to watch. But what was almost as gruesome was the amount of “I’ve never seens” by crew and presenters, and the general air of wonder at how this could have happened. If you watch the next clip, you will learn that not only is it not unusual for snakes to predate nestlings, but they are considered the number one predator in some areas of the States. And snakes can climb. And so can I and am now climbing down from my soapbox.
***[Please know I do not have it in for Chris Packham. In fact, I quite appreciate at times how he takes a stance for things that the public generally is against, like foxes and magpies in the sense that they are not the only predators going after songbirds.]
But Springwatch pretend experts are difficult to endure when you can observe a couple of real experts, such as these two from the Cornell Ornithology Lab. It’s a little difficult to get into because at first it looks like a badly-made home video of a couple of people having technical difficulty with a slide show. But stay with it, they hit their stride, and there is interesting film footage. There are many things to like here, but what I found the most compelling is actual research focussing on female behaviour (and not just as recipients of male attentions).
Oh, and you will find an explanation of the title of this post in the video. A little hint: it has to do with bird ‘language.’
(Cornell Ornithology Lab)