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Assorted Wildlife, Beekeeping, Birds, Blackbirds, Robins, Varroa etc

Non Semper Erit Aestas

or  “It will not always be summer.” (be prepared for hard times)

taken from Stone, J. R. (2005). The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations: The Illiterati’s Guide to Latin Maxims, Mottoes, Proverbs and Sayings, Routledge.

Yes, the arrival of autumn, the precursor of winter, as well as winter itself signals hard times to come for the wee beasties. But, really, summer is pretty hard on them as well. Food may be more plentiful, but they all have hungry mouths to feed and territory to defend. So, at summer’s end, here are a few random observations on how they comport themselves.

British people, sparrows are not nice birds

Cute, aren't they?

Cute, aren’t they?

In fact, they are a pretty ruthless pack of marauders. They look all cute and fluffy, but they’ll shake down another bird, whether its a baby robin or an adult blackbird, for food in the blink of an eye. The more experienced blackbirds will gather as many worms as they can for their young, and then run over to the nearest bush, out of eyeshot of their appointed stalker sparrow, so that they can drop the worms, sort through them to make sure that they are dead and of an edible size, before gathering them and flying off to feed their own little insatiables. Those blackbirds less experienced who drop their worms where they have gathered them are instantly surrounded by a gang of thieves who will steal them from the blackbird’s beak if necessary, never mind carry off anything before it can even hit the ground.

I have witnessed a new blackbird with tiny nestlings shaken down by these bandits. How do I know she is a new mother of nestlings? Firstly, because she will top and tail every worm and run it through her beak a good few times so that they are edible and digestible for very little ones. This takes a very long time, even longer when each one she drops is stolen by a sparrow, so that she needs to gather more worms and start all over again. It’s exhausting just watching her. She soon learns that she cannot do this in full view of sparrows. Or else those young’uns will never be fed.

Everyone in the pool!

I have to admit, though, that sparrows are engaging little birds. They hang out in large groups and share pretty much every waking moment of their lives with a crowd of others.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at bath time. Although sharing a bath is not just confined to the babies, they are the ones who will usually be seen ten to a bird bath (I’ve seen it in one of the shallow bowls I leave around the yard) with a few hanging around the sides trying to muscle in. They are also the baby bird most likely to hang around the pool trying to get in when other adult birds are bathing, especially blackbirds (Note: I would still like to get to the bottom of this sparrow/blackbird relationship). I have also seen them trying to muscle in on starlings who are trying to muscle in on other starlings (another social bird) taking a bath. They are really not afraid of imposing on any bird.

Speaking of communal bath time, I have noted this among other babies-blackbirds, starlings, chaffinches, great tits, blue tits. Often, different types of baby birds will bathe with each other. There is always a crowd around the dishes. And, babies new to bathing, will often sit next to bowl and catch the splashes from other birds before being brave enough to attempt it themselves.

And they don’t even seem to mind the clagginess of the water from bread having been dunked in it. Sometimes, they’ll be swimming about in between pieces of floating bread. Left by whom, you ask? Why by the magpies, who dunk bread, live worms, dry worms, anything really…

Ah yes, the magpies

 We call our current family ‘the Asbos’ (for those not British, this is an acronym which stands for ‘Anti-Social Behaviour Order.’ Pretty self-explanatory but if you want more info, see this Wikipedia entry). Not only have we caught them right at the center of birds sending out warning calls, in other words invading territory, not only do they make flash raids on our conservatory with their kids in tow when they think we are not around, but they have attracted the approbation of our resident collared doves. No one would believe me when I first told them, but I have witnessed on more than one occasion, a dove chasing a magpie through the trees, chasing it when it is on the ground. In fact, I have seen the magpie land in the garden, only to take off in a flash as soon as a dove touches down, and then be followed by the dove into the trees. If the dove is already on the ground, and the magpie is foolish enough to touchdown, all the dove has to do is hunker down, dipping its beak and head towards the magpie to get it to move along.

The only explanation we can think of is that the magpie was being a bad neighbor again, but picked on the wrong bird this time. Who’d a thunk it would be a dove all up in its beak?

But getting back to those blackbirds

The Boss just before his big boy feathers come in. A dad twice over, though.

The Boss just before his big boy feathers come in. A dad twice over, though.

 You’ll remember Bossy, our resident male blackbird who has been raiding the conservatory right under our noses since last summer when he was a pre-teen? You’ll remember from other posts that he got himself a mate and had his first brood. It is not uncommon for birds who have a number of broods to change nesting sites, and Bossy and his gal pal were no different.

In fact, we caught her in the act of building her nest, and it was fascinating to watch. First, she caught our attention with twig gathering. She would select a few and then fly off to her new nest sight (more on that anon). We even tried to help her out by putting a few choice twigs in her path. At a certain point, she stopped gathering her twigs. And then things really began to get interesting (well for us anyway, yes we are sad). For she started collecting mud. It dawned on us when we would see her run from one of the water bowls on a particularly mucky site (the birds had made it mucky with all the splashing) across the yard to the rock pool, which also had some muddy patches. She would collect up some mud at the end of her beak, and then go off to her nest. Again, we tried to help her by pouring some water onto the clumpy dirt at each site, just enough to make it a consistency so she could carry it away. She must have been at it about two days before she was finally finished.

The thing we find extraordinary about all this is that as a baby blackbird she would not have had training from her mother in building a nest–the right amount of twigs, the right amount of mud. I’m not sure how much nest building she would observe among other blackbirds. Blackbirds are not communal in the same way starlings and sparrows are. They may roost together, but they certainly do not build their nests in proximity, being quite territorial during breeding. How does she know how to do it? I know not every attempt at nest building is successful. But they must be more successful than not. A real mystery and a wonder.

And where was he, the Boss man, while all this work was going on? He stuck with her every step of the way, not doing any of the heavy lifting mind, but making sure she was not harassed by any other bird. It was really interesting to watch: we have a bench near one of the choice mud sites. So while she was gathering the mud, he would perch on the bench watching over her. And would accompany her back to the nest. It was actually quite sweet to see how attentive and protective he was. I mean, we’d known him from when he was a pushy, stress-head baby.

No, not some reject from a string cheese commercial, just a forsythia we were prevented from trimming....

No, not some reject from a string cheese commercial, just a forsythia we were prevented from trimming….

And the nest site–let’s just say we had to get our mail very quietly, and take care where we parked the cars. I’m sure the Boss man had a say in the choice of this site, because it was as close to moving into the house as he could get. When sitting in the living room, we had constant sight of them going in and out of the forsythia bush at the back gate near the mailbox.

The choice of nest site was strategic: the front garden, with us, the cars, the noise from the road, is the best place to avoid predators as they are not likely to be hanging around in the trees there. They were probably safer there than in the wood, amongst the eagles, sparrowhawks, magpies, jackdaws, jays, squirrels, etc. In fact, post-nesting season, the Bossies, boy and girl, have taken to hanging around in the front while they are molting. Curious that they are still together. I’m not sure if blackbirds stick with the same mate from season to season, but they seem to have an ongoing agreeable companionship.

We knew when the fledging had occured because we no longer saw them going in and out. And they appeared with two little ones at the conservatory for their worms.  This was left behind though, again not uncommon in broods:

Bossy blackbird egg. Behind, some wren eggs we found last summer, surrounded by old bottle we have unearthed in the garden.

Bossy blackbird egg. Behind, some wren eggs we found last summer, surrounded by old bottle we have unearthed in the garden.

And the Best-Dressed Award goes to….

By the end of summer, all the adults are beginning to look a little moth-eaten. The system of molting seems totally arbitrary–some will lose all the the feathers on their head, looking like the Phantom of the Opera (the male magpie, a few male blackbirds, a few robins). Some will lose tail feathers. Birds coming up to their first birthday, especially male blackbirds like Bossy, will lose their brown baby feather to be replaced by glossy black ones.  Their beaks will take on that striking yellow color and they will get that familiar yellow circle around their eyes.

But the award for Best ‘Un-dressed’ goes to this little lady who spent most of the summer looking like a burst cushion:

No, not a cushion with its stuffing falling out, but a molting female black bird....

No, not a cushion with its stuffing falling out, but a molting female black bird….

She seemed to be in this condition for most of the summer, and appears not to have mated. Does the physical appearance of a female blackbird have anything to do with her attracting a mate?

Robin diaper disposal

Robins don’t exactly molt the earliest, but they lose feathers early on, sporting bald patches and loose feathers, from early nesting and brooding:

Robin in fine fettle and feathers...

Robin in fine fettle and feathers…

And not so fine feathers…

You lookin' at me?

You lookin’ at me?

The feather skirt is all the rage, dontchaknow?

The feather skirt is all the rage, dontchaknow?

Being a robin parent is a rough life, what with all the brooding, feeding, and especially the diaper disposal. Some of our trees have been dotted with the little fecal sacs that the robins surreptitiously leave behind. “What? Me leave a pile of poop on your beautiful tree? Never!”

And the insects

We were a little late doing some of our bee chores what with weather and work. We finally got around to moving our nuc’d bees into a brood box. I’d like to think they were grateful, but slapping a piece of card slathered with varroa treatment on top of them probably canceled the warm feelings they might have had for their new home.  They have now had both treatments, and so next week we will start the pre-winter bulking up–sugar feed–which the nuc bees, regardless of their industry, will require.

And what the heck is this? Caught it crashing around the conservatory. You cannot tell from this crap photo (well it was hard to capture) that it had a ridged body that was a burnt autumn orange in color only visible when it spread its wings. When I got it to calm down in the jar for a bit, it fixed me with the beadiest of stares. I know it must be a moth of a sort…

You would not be faulted in thinking my hand the focus of this photo. But look to the right a bit at the monster attempting to escape the jar....

You would not be faulted in thinking my hand the focus of this photo. But look to the right a bit at the monster attempting to escape the jar….

Photo (dis)credits

All the beautiful bird photos are, of course, not my own work but that of Tony John’s. The rest, well, you know….


8 thoughts on “Non Semper Erit Aestas

  1. Always a pleasure to read your posts!! So fun, this one and so much good information. I’m so glad that you think sparrows are cute and engaging, but terrible bullies. They’re invasive here and while I often smile at their chattering and social ways, they are a tad difficult with the other birds. Those and starlings–ugh. Love the blackbird tales and your robins are very fetching birds.

    Posted by Tina | September 7, 2015, 11:39 pm
    • Thanks for the compliment! Yes, sparrows and starlings, nothing more efficient at stripping a yard of bird food because they always go in with plenty of muscle. British robins are quite different to American robins-solitary bruisers (usually combative just to other robins), also believed by British people to be cute. They are the favorite Christmas card bird here. However, as my co-workers, they show quite a different side….

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 8, 2015, 1:12 pm
  2. Bird’s eggs are actually beautiful; you never think about that until you see pictures of them. Funny about robins being competitive–and, yes, I have seen them on British Christmas cards, covered in glitter. Americans think of them only as symbols of spring!

    Posted by annabelletroy | September 9, 2015, 2:30 am
    • I know, sometimes I am surprised by the eggs in a variety of hues these ladies produce. Regarding British robins, they are territorial year-round. Whereas other birds calm down a bit and co-exist grudgingly after the mating season, robins will continue to fight for territory. They are outside my door bickering right now, just as if it were spring. I still have a soft-spot for the little anti-social things.

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 9, 2015, 2:21 pm
  3. I haven’t noticed sparrow aggression down here, they only seem to be interested in one thing – breeding and very successful breeding!
    I remember having my British Christmas Card prejudices challenged when I once saw a film about how aggressive robins were and how they would quite happily kill one another.

    Posted by philipstrange | September 9, 2015, 2:12 pm
    • Yes, we have a lot of sparrow babies around here, criss-crossing the garden in pursuit of the adults, or lounging on the roof and door of the greenhouse trying to catch some rays. ‘Quite happily kill’ about sums it up. The only thing stopping them is their fear of being killed first. So, they do have a little dance which involves a few steps before the actual grappling begins….

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 9, 2015, 2:24 pm
  4. Our american robins are bossy too as are the house sparrows..lots of boss in the yard..Michelle

    Posted by Rambling Woods | September 15, 2015, 4:30 am
    • Yes, I think American robins are in the same family as UK blackbirds. I have observed that they are extremely bossy during mating/nesting, but more mildly argumentative during winter months. UK robins are in a different bossy league all year round. But I agree, a lot of bosses in the yard….

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 15, 2015, 2:31 pm

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