New study into shared parental workload shows cooperation makes a huge difference to nestling survival
Parent birds timed their arrival and departure at the nest over 67% of the time
This produced a reduction in nest disturbance by 36%
This is the first time a study into parental behaviour during nesting has been carried out and tested the hypothesis that mates synchronize their behaviours to decrease total activity at the nest, which is known to affect predation rate in birds.
It examined if parents synchronise their feeding trips more when nestlings are at the poikilothermic (http://bit.ly/2J2IXMx) stage, and they may be more vulnerable to nest predation due to their inability to escape and survive outside the nest without parental brooding.
It also investigated the alternation of feeding trips by parents and showed that parents synchronise the majority of their feeding trips during the whole nestling period, and the level of parental synchrony is higher before nestlings develop endothermy (http://bit.ly/2x26bNF).
The study showed the alternation of male and female feeding trips was much higher than would be expected by chance and was positively related to parental synchrony.
It demonstrated that synchronisation of parental feeding trips significantly decreased parental activity at the nest, and nest survival time increased with the synchrony of parental feeding trips.
Hedgehog hotels and bird-friendly bricks: the new homes that are helping creatures to flourish
The air is rich with the scent of wild flowers. Butterflies and bees fly around and the sound of birdsong rings out. This bucolic scene is not deep in the countryside, but is instead on a rather ordinary housing development.
Some housebuilders have started to build homes for the small creatures who live nearby too, to help struggling communities of critters flourish. Almost two thirds of species in the UK have declined over the past 50 years, according to the People’s Trust For Endangered Species, and there is growing pressure to stop this.
Among developers, there is an increasing appreciation for natural life, with an acknowledgement of the benefits it brings to residents. It’s quite a change, as many housebuilders’ efforts to get on site have been stymied by the existence of rare animals, such as great-crested newts and dormice, which must be protected in the planning process.
In sites of new housing across the UK there are hedgehogs snuffling along wildlife tunnels (and through carefully planned, hedgehog-friendly gaps in fencing), and birds and bats flitting around specially made bat boxes and roosts.
“Bird boxes, hedgehog highways and other wildlife features are things which planners like, and so developers are very quick to offer them,” says Nick Ashe of buying agency Property Vision.
Some of this change is being driven by the government’s 25-year environment plan. One aim of the scheme is to ensure there is a net environmental gain when new housing is created, with the hope that biodiversity and habitats for wildlife will improve as a result of the builders moving in.
Councils are increasingly reinforcing this: Alsager Town Council in Stoke-on-Trent wants wildlife tunnels for hedgehogs and other animals in all newly built solid boundaries, including housing fences. Exeter City and neighbouring district councils have developed rules to protect wildlife where new housing is built, and Bury Council in Greater Manchester wants new homes to be fitted with nesting bricks for swifts.
The birds, which migrate to the UK from Africa to breed, have fallen from 150,000 pairs two decades ago, to fewer than 90,000 now, according to the RSPB. Swift bricks have already been included in some of the homes in the Kingsbrook development on the outskirts of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
The scheme, a partnership between Barratt and David Wilson Homes and the RSPB, includes a specially designed brick incorporated into external walls. It provides a home for the nesting birds without damaging the house.
Visit by a rare green heron creates a major attraction in Llanmill, Pembrokeshire
Local MP for Pembrokeshire Simon Hart and his wife Abi opened their garden to over 500 visitors across 8 days at the end of April this year after a rare American Green Heron chose their garden in Wales as a stopover!
Mr Hart said, “Living in west Wales I’m used to the odd visitor. Eight years ago a purple heron looked in for a week, an Osprey once spent an afternoon annoying the rest of the bird population and, if the weather is right, the variety of wildfowl can be outstanding.
But as I trundled around the garden on the back of the mower the one thing I wasn’t expecting was a green heron. Partly because I didn’t know there was such a thing, and partly because this is a west Wales garden, not a Costa Rican swamp!”
After consulting his bird identification book and drawing a blank he enlisted the help of local friends who were keen birdwatchers and able to identify the rare breed.
Mr Hart continued, “When something quite so out of place appears it’s time to take action. The curious bird took to the air just a few feet away from the mower, flew across the lake and then sat in a reed bed on the opposite bank. Bigger than a moorhen, smaller than most herons and waders and a beautiful chestnut red and slate grey-green. I knew there was only one thing to do. Get off the mower, try and get a photo and dig out the bird book. There was one flaw. My excellent Collins bird guide only covers the UK and Europe so once we had ruled out a Little Bittern (the only thing even faintly resembling our new addition) I knew it was a job for Kevin and his son, Toby Phelps (tobysbirdingblog.blogspot.co.uk), near neighbours, friends and most importantly the best bird people I know. Fortunately, the heron had posed cooperatively in the April sun and we had a couple of decent pics. Within seconds of the email, Kevin was on the phone and I knew he was excited. In the meantime, Toby, already south of Bristol (2 hours away) en route to Cornwall, was exiting the southbound M5 and returning home”
Realising the excitement the heron was creating, the Harts decided to open their garden for visiting birdwatchers hoping to catch a glimpse of the eye-catching creature, and it proved highly popular, with over 500 visitors from all over the UK across 8 days.
Said Mr Hart, “We are lucky here that our garden is predominantly quite wild, with two ponds we put in some years back with habitat in mind. So for visiting birdwatchers, (and the first arrived from Loch Lomond at 5.45am on the first day), it’s a case of setting up on the lawn outside the kitchen window. And, thank goodness, “our” bird has performed, seemingly unconcerned by the attention, devouring several rudd and generally giving the enthusiasts who have come here a memorable entry in their albums.”
The Earl of Caithness discusses SongBird Survival research in the Lords Grand Committee
Debate on the welfare of animals (10th May 2018)
“I congratulate my noble friend on bringing forward this debate. I declare my interest as a former cat and dog owner. Promoting and improving the welfare of domestic animals has a simple solution—and the solution is us human beings. We class ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, but the evidence does not prove that. If one studies the PAW report of 2017—a very good document indeed—one will find that a significant minority of animal owners are thoughtless, irresponsible and inconsiderate.
People are thoughtless, in that 98% of cat owners have no idea of the costs of keeping a cat before they have one, which should be a primary consideration. Nearly one-fifth of dogs in the UK are left for five hours or more in a typical weekday; 93,000 dogs are never walked at all. They are irresponsible, in that animals are not receiving primary vaccination courses; 36% of cats are not receiving them, up from 28% in 2011. Some 25% of dogs are not receiving them, up from 18% in 2011, and 55% of rabbits are not receiving them.
People are inconsiderate to their animals—in their diet, as my noble friend mentioned, and in their lack of knowledge of animal laws. Some 15% of owners have not registered their pets with a vet. They are inconsiderate to their neighbours, because poor care of an animal leads to behaviour problems. Some 66% of dog owners would like to change their animal’s behaviour, but they had better change their behaviour first before they can change their animal’s behaviour. They are also inconsiderate to other animals: free-ranging and feral cats kill about 55 million wild birds and a further 220 million small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year. Cat predation is a national problem. It is estimated that UK cats kill songbirds at 10 times the rate that illegal hunters in the Mediterranean kill migratory species. Researchers at the Universities of Reading and Exeter have reported on the widespread ignorance of that fact by many cat owners—and it is difficult for charities such as the RSPB, because they rely on legacies from cat owners. However, SongBird Survival is working with the University of Exeter and cat owners to get better information and to minimise the adverse effect of pet cats on native wildlife while enhancing cat welfare. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help that project—and if they are not helping, why not?
I have some quick questions for my noble friend. What steps are the Government taking to minimise the adverse effect of cat owners’ pets on native wildlife? Will they press the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to include provisions in planning policy so that, as urban areas grow, a buffer zone of 400 metres is imposed around any new development to help to mitigate the adverse ecological consequences of cat predation, where species of conservation concern nest? Will my noble friend give domestic cats the same legal status as dogs?”
If the island of South Georgia can eradicate rats we should be able to do the same with grey squirrels and urban foxes
On the shores of the Serpentine a tragedy unfolded. A mother duck was shepherding her six newly hatched chicks to the water, while being dive-bombed by crows. Five, four, three, two — despite her frantic clucks and flaps, the predators struck repeatedly. Bystanders hurried to help, but were too late. With her sole surviving duckling only inches from safety, a corvid swooped one more time and we watched helplessly as it carried its prey to its doom, tiny webbed feet flapping, until we lost sight of it high in the trees.
It is a more cheerful story in South Georgia, where an unchecked rat population (introduced through human carelessness) was overwhelming the albatrosses, petrels, prions, pipits and other rare and beautiful species. These ground-nesting birds — there are no trees at those latitudes — are defenceless against these predators, which feast on their eggs and eat the chicks alive. This week a conservation charity reported that a five-year extermination programme had been successful: not a single rodent remains on the island and the bird populations are already rebounding.
The question is not whether we intervene, but how. Scaring away crows from baby ducklings is stressful and inefficient, as I found out last year. Other protection methods work better. Some involve no pain at all: we can build houses with “swift bricks” for crevice-nesting birds. We can make our gardens hedgehog-friendly too — except in the Outer Hebrides, that is, where our snuffly pals are a menace. Since 2002, conservationists have removed some 1,600 hedgehogs from the Scottish isles to protect ground-nesting birds there.
These dilemmas and paradoxes are unavoidable. We successfully exterminated feral cats from St Helena, with the result that rat numbers have mushroomed. We may have to deal with them next. Sometimes our thinking is deeply muddled: probably the biggest threat to our beloved songbirds is the equally beloved domestic cat. Badgers have no natural predators, but we prefer to see them die invisibly of hunger and disease rather than accept any need to cull them.
But we also need a clearer ethical framework. One pillar of this should be to undo or mitigate the damage we have done already. New Zealand is taking a particularly robust stance on invasive species in order to preserve its unique flightless birds. The government there aims to eradicate every rat, stoat, possum and feral cat by 2050. That goes beyond biodiversity: some species are so destructive that they have to be wiped out, not just managed.
The reality is that, as the dominant species on the planet, we are in effect its zoo-keepers. Sitting back and doing nothing is as reckless as opening all the cages and letting the lions eat everything else and then each other, before starving to death. We can run the zoo well or badly, but the responsibility is ours.
Nature lovers who put food out for wild birds are inadvertently helping non-native grey squirrels thrive, a new study has shown
Scientists at the University of Reading measured for the first time how grey squirrels compete with garden birds for nuts and seeds provided by the public. They found that, at the sites monitored, almost half of the time feeders were used, it was by squirrels rather than birds.
With 43% of UK households collectively spending over £210m per year on feeding birds*, the findings means that tens of millions of pounds is potentially being spent subsidising what is considered to be an invasive species, which can potentially harm birds.
Professor Mark Fellowes, School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading, said: “Grey squirrels can polarise opinions. They are viewed as charismatic and cheeky, and loved by many, but at the same time they are the leading threat to our native red squirrels, can be a major pest in orchards and forestry, and they also raid bird nests.
“By using uncaged feeders, much of the food we provide may be going to unintended recipients. It’s not only that birds lose out on a source of food, but we are supporting a species that can harm the ones we intend to help.”
Grey squirrels were introduced to England from America in the 19th century and spread rapidly through the country. There are now thought to be 2.5 million in Britain and they are officially classified as a problem invasive alien species not only due to their contribution to the displacement of Britain’s native red squirrels, – largely through competition for food and space and transmission of squirrelpox – but also because of the significant damage they inflict on hardwood forestry plantations. There is also evidence that they can have an adverse impact on woodland nesting birds.
In the study, published in Landscape and Urban Planning, automated cameras were used to record more than 33,000 visits to bird feeders in suburban gardens in Reading by birds and squirrels. This provided unprecedented insight into what happens to the food put out for birds in gardens. The researchers found that when a squirrel was on a feeder no birds would come near. In gardens where squirrels dominated, feeders in gardens were visited less often by birds even when squirrels were not present.
Lead researcher Dr Hugh Hanmer, now of the British Trust for Ornithology, said: “Squirrels don’t just simply push birds off feeders, those birds change their behaviour. We found that some species even change the timing of their visits when grey squirrels are common.” The team found that cages around feeders were effective in stopping squirrels from stealing food intended for birds.
Dr Becky Thomas, of Royal Holloway University of London, said: “The work shows that putting up caged feeders does work to an extent. In our study, cages around seed feeders reduced grey squirrel visits to almost none, and cages halved visits to peanut feeders. If you want to ensure that the food you put out goes to your garden birds, then this work shows that there are some simple solutions.”
Robert Middleditch, Chairman of SongBird Survival, said that the Charity was delighted to have commissioned this project and very grateful to Gillian Duckworth for funding it through the first Keith Duckworth scholarship.
He said: “Previous research has highlighted the adverse impact grey squirrels can have on songbirds, through predation of their eggs and young and exclusion from garden bird feeders. What was not known was the likely scale of supplementary food being taken by squirrels, resulting in significant costs being borne by bird lovers who enjoy feeding song birds in their gardens. These findings greatly add to our understanding of the significant economic and environmental damage that non-native grey squirrels cause. The good news is that by using simple solutions we can help make sure that the food goes to our garden birds, and may even help us save money in the process.”
*The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, the leading trade body for the UK pet food industry, estimates that £210m per year is spent by the UK public on feeding birds. This is the equivalent of 150,000 tonnes. https://www.pfma.org.uk/_assets/docs/annual-reports/PFMA-Pet-Data-Report-2018.pdf. In Reading, around 55% of households feed birds: Orros, M.E. & Fellowes, M.D.E. 2015 Wild bird feeding in a large UK urban area: intensity, economics and individuals supported. Acta Ornithologica 50, 53-68. https://doi.org/10.3161/00016454AO2015.50.1.006
Full citation: Hanmer, H.J., Thomas, R.L. & Fellowes, M.D.E. (2018). ‘Introduced grey squirrels subvert supplementary feeding of suburban wild birds’. Landscape and Urban Planning. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2018.04.004
International Dawn Chorus Day 2018 was loud, live and tremendous with people all around the globe taking part and enjoying the sounds of day breaking on their patch
With a live broadcast from around the globe on http://soundtent.org/ as well as numerous events to attend in person we were well served to enjoy every scrap of today’s glorious morning since the weather has treated us so well
Still trying to shift my cold, I opted to enjoy the morning from my own garden and I sat, cuppa in hand and revelled in the sounds of the birds and other creatures waking to herald the day. The sun crept over the roof tops and blazed a trail of light and sound across the landscape.
My pictures were pretty poor – the birds kept themselves hidden away – but you can hear one of the sounds I recorded here:
Warmer springs create a mismatch where hungry chicks hatch too late to feast on abundant caterpillars, new research shows
With continued spring warming expected due to climate change, scientists say hatching of forest birds will be increasingly mismatched with peaks in caterpillar numbers.
The researchers, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the universities of Sheffield, Exeter, and Edinburgh, used data collected across the UK – largely by citizen scientists – to study spring emergence of oak tree leaves and caterpillars, and timing of nesting by three bird species: blue tits, great tits and pied flycatchers.
Dr Karl Evans, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: “Our work suggests that as springs warm in the future, less food is likely to be available for the chicks of insectivorous (insect eating) woodland birds, unless evolution changes their timing of breeding.”
Globally, Snow Bunting has a circumpolar distribution, breeding commonly from Scandinavia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland.
Weighing no more than a golf ball, it is a familiar sight around Britain’s coasts in the winter months, but a small breeding population can also be found on the highest peaks of Scotland.
During June 2011, a team of scientists and volunteers led by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage scaled mountains in the Cairngorms and the Highlands, such as Ben Nevis and Ben Alder, to listen out for singing males.
The survey involved searching 58 sites, covering an impressive 12,000 ha – the equivalent of more than 14,800 football pitches – and the results, published this month in the journal Bird Study, estimate Britain’s breeding population of Snow Buntings at 60 pairs.