Birds hoover up spilt grain

Despite the fact that August has been quite wet most of the winter cereals around here have been harvested. It’s barley mainly, with a bit of wheat, writes Dick Warner

The big green machines move in, sometimes working late into the night, and in a remarkably short space of time all that’s left is an irregular scatter of large round bales of straw on the stubble.

The machines are very efficient but they don’t harvest absolutely everything. Some ears that have been flattened by the weather are not gathered in and some of the grain gets spilt. So, when the machines move out, a lot of wildlife moves in to clean up the leftovers.

The birds are the most obvious. Great flocks of rooks and jackdaws, smaller ones of wood pigeons, with an occasional collared dove mixed in with them, and sometimes even herring gulls. Wood pigeons don’t really form flocks until the winter because they’re still breeding. They only lay two eggs at a time and compensate for this by having multiple broods all through the summer and into the early autumn.

However, they make an exception for the stubble bonanza and for a couple of weeks band together for safety while they fill their crops with grain. The rooks and jackdaws, on the other hand, normally have only one brood and they get the business done very early in the year, the young being fledged by late April or early May. Their flocks contain many adolescent birds which are learning the art of foraging from adults.

However, it’s not just birds. Rats, mice and, where they occur, bank voles all head for the stubble fields at this time of year. While the birds like the middle of the fields, where they feel safer from ambush, the mammals tend to feed in the margins, using hedgerows and the lush vegetation of the headlands for cover. And they need cover because foxes, stoats and birds of prey also congregate around fresh stubble.

A couple of decades ago the commonest bird of prey in the skies overhead was the kestrel. However, this elegant little falcon which specialises in small mammals and has learnt to hover so it can spot their movements has declined in numbers and is now quite uncommon, at least in the part of the country I live in. Its niche has been taken over by a much larger raptor, the buzzard, which is equally fond of small mammals. Buzzards can’t hover but they can soar, though sometimes they perch on a tree branch or a telephone pole when they’re on the lookout for prey.

Some of the mammals stay underground or in thick cover by day and come out to forage at night. Barn owls and long-eared owls, have learnt to abandon woodland haunts in the second half of August and patrol the margins of the cereal fields during the hours of darkness.


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