I am writing these notes on Saint Valentine’s Day. Although now the date has been taken over by cards and chocolate, traditionally it was the day birds (of the feathered kind) chose their mates. It seems rather early in the year – nesting doesn’t really get underway till late March/April, but I’ve always believed that there’s a seed of truth in these old attributions, and my observations recently have confirmed this.
First – the robins. Robins are usually fiercely territorial, solitary birds – defending their patch against all comers. This week I’ve observed two robins amicably sharing the same bush while waiting a turn on the seed feeder. They’ve even indulged in a little low-key flirting, bobbing and tail flicking. A male and female bullfinch have visited the feeders together all winter, though occasionally joined by two or three other males or females. It makes me think that these, mainly sedentary, birds must keep the pair bond going from one season to the next. Tits are a different matter. They congregate in large mixed flocks using the advantage of many sharp eyes to help in the endless foraging and predator awareness necessary to survive the winter.
Perhaps the most gregarious are the delightful little long-tailed tits. They always arrive in a gang, flitting through the trees together, keeping up a continuous silvery web of contact calls and landing several at a time on the fat balls. Then last Friday two of them arrived together and unaccompanied by the mob: the urge to mate and reproduce had suddenly become even stronger than the instinct to flock. They do need to start early as their nest, a beautiful structure of moss, cobwebs and feathers, takes a long time to build. They probably won’t be laying eggs until April, by which time their pair bond will have been strengthened by weeks of shared enterprise.
All these birds have been visiting the garden all winter; now their habits are changing. But there was an extra surprise. Suddenly two nuthatches arrived, and definitely together. They hustled everyone else off the feeders, then, before flying away had a good look into the nest-box. This is usually the property of great or blue tits but I remembered a friend describing how her nest-box, already in use by a pair of great tits, was rudely gazumped by nuthatches who partially blocked the entrance with mud and raised a family there. We shall see!