10 amazing facts you didn’t know about Irish birds

Richard Fitzpatrick spent some time with acclaimed bird expert, Anthony McGeehan and was left shocked at how little he knew about our feathered friends

1. Flying like a rocket

The peregrine falcon, which isn’t much bigger than a racing pigeon, can travel at 250m/h. It reaches such a head of steam that the G-forces it encounters would knock a pilot out cold. A tell-tale sign for its presence in the air is the panic it induces in other birds. “Its trick is it has to get above its target,” says birdwatcher and author, Anthony McGeehan. “When it goes into a stoop, it has gravity behind it so it increases its speed several-fold. The bird below it is sunk if the peregrine is on target because it will be going like a rocket.”

2. Crossing the Atlantic in one go

The wheatear is about the size of a robin. It flies across the Atlantic Ocean, from Eastern Canada to Ireland, without stopping, day and night. Its journey usually takes about three to four days. “Before the wheatear leaves, it will put on fat,” says McGeehan. “Some will double their weight. So once it has enough fuel, by way of fat, it can go. Whenever the bird is airborne – which applies to almost all birds on the planet – it doesn’t need water.”

3. Bird brain

When a coal tit sets about storing its food in the autumn its brain size – or its hippocampus, the cerebral region responsible for spatial memory in vertebrates, including humans – increases by 30% so it can remember all the places it stashes its provisions. When spring comes around, and food is aplenty, its brain reverts to its normal size. “Basically,” says McGeehan, “the bird grows an additional hard drive to accommodate a map of winter food depots.”

4. Killer cuckoo chicks

The cuckoo’s duplicity is well known. But did you know what deadly killers its chicks are, while weighing only 3 grams? “If other eggs hatch,” says McGeehan, “the young cuckoo’s instinct is to feel around the vicinity of the nest, and whatever it touches in the nest, be it an egg or another chick, it hunkers down underneath it, lifts it onto the small of its back and heaves it over the side of the nest.”

5. Ménage à trois

The female dunnock has a swell time of it. She will often keep two male lovers on the go, the better to ensure her two chicks are well fed. Surprisingly, it’s the alpha male who will be most stressed out about the ménage à trois arrangement. He will fret his lady is with the other guy when he’s away, which is usually the case. Sex is rapid and frequent among dunnocks. The act might only last a fraction of a second, but it will occur up to 100 times a day.

6. Swallow’s migration

The swallow weighs about the same as a buttered slice of toast, which is a remarkable, given swallows travel 30,000kms on their yearly migratory round trip. A swallow’s heart, which it uses to pump blood continuously to maintain its wing action, is, relatively speaking, four times the size of a human’s.

7. A problem of size

Male kestrels are excellent birds of prey. They are not, however, any good at the front-of-house stuff. Predators need to break up their food into edible morsels for their young. Male kestrels are unable to shred food into little pieces for their chicks. If the mother dies, the chicks will also die because they’re unable to swallow the chunky bits of meat their father finds for them.

8. Bird’s Eye

The reason a lot of birds see so well is because their retina has two foveae. Humans only have one fovea. It means these birds have two focusing spots, either side of their head. “If you think of a blackbird or a budgie in a cage,” says McGeehan, “the eyes aren’t at the front like human eyes; they’re at the side. That means the bird could be looking at the ground a metre away with one eye and at infinity with the other eye. It can switch around randomly, which is extremely useful for hunting fast prey like insects or other birds. You can imagine how fast and agile a swallow or a meadow pipit is to snatch insects out of the air.”

9. A lot to crow about

Jackdaws are Ireland’s smallest members of the crow family, but they have a lot to crow about. They can count for example. A jackdaw has been trained to open eight boxes, find food within some, and count its food hauls as it goes along until it has snagged all five portions of food (some of which were in pairs). Each time it found a food item it nodded to itself, nodding once at the first collection, twice at the second collection, and so on.

10. Talking before being born

While inside their eggs, songbirds’ chicks talk to their siblings. They communicate by clicking to each other. They do this so they can coordinate the right time to hatch.

Birds of the Homeplace: The Lives of Ireland’s Familiar Birds (Anthony McGeehan with Julian Wyllie), The Collins Press. Anthony McGeehan will give an illustrated talk for the Cork and West Cork branches of BirdWatch Ireland, 8pm today (FRIDAY), Cork International Airport Hotel. For more information, visit: www.birdwatchirelandwestcork.ie.

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