Parenting skills on display for all to marvel at

IN RECENT weeks my bird feeders have been dominated by juvenile birds, either being fed by their parents or learning the skills needed to extract the seeds and nuts themselves.

It has been interesting to watch this and I’ve learnt something about the parenting techniques of various species.

The house sparrows seem to have had a very good breeding season. A couple of years ago they were on the brink of extinction locally. Only a very occasional specimen was spotted on or around the feeders and this caused great excitement. Now they’re probably the commonest species, arriving in substantial flocks. I wonder if this is a sign that the national decline in numbers of house sparrows has reversed itself or if it’s just a local phenomenon.

Young house sparrows are well camouflaged in what is basically a dowdier version of the female plumage. They are also rather round in shape and lack the sprightly, upright stance of adults. Mostly they sit around like little brown blobs while an adult bird struggles to extract a sliver of peanut from the wire mesh of the feeder. Then they open their beaks and the morsel is popped in with a kiss-like action.

I have only ever seen male birds feeding the juveniles. This could be because the females are occupied incubating a second (or, more likely, a third) clutch of eggs, or it could be that in the world of house sparrows looking after fledged young is regarded as strictly man’s work. I’d be interested to know if any readers have observed a female house sparrow feeding young after the young have left the nest.

The juvenile goldfinches are quite similar in colouring to the adults except that they lack the spectacular black, white and red markings on the head. As I write an adult is perched at one outlet of the niger seed feeder, busily extracting seeds, shelling them and filling its crop. There’s a juvenile at the outlet on the other side but it seems a bit puzzled. It’s going through the motions, but it hasn’t yet mastered the technique required to get the little black seeds out of the narrow slot and shell them.

The only problem is that the coal tits have recently learnt how to use this feeder. They don’t eat the seed, they just pull it out in rapid crop-fulls, without bothering to shell it, and fly off to deposit it in some secret store to use when times get hard. The trouble is they can transfer the entire contents of the feeder to their version of NAMA in a very short space of time and niger seed is expensive. This means I’m the one contemplating hard times.

But I am delighted by the fact that one pair of greenfinches is visiting the feeders on a regular basis. These big, handsome finches with their massive, nut-cracking beaks were once very common in my garden but have been declining steadily in recent years. It’s good to know they haven’t died out completely.

There are bullfinches in the garden too, even larger and more handsome birds. I’ve never seen one visit the feeders. But a few weeks ago, when the weather was dry, I was sitting on the patio and a magnificent cock bullfinch came down to the pool to drink. Then the weather broke and there were puddles in the lane to offer alternative drinking fountains.

The amount of birds, particularly young birds, using the feeders and the pool has convinced me that the old-fashioned theory that you shouldn’t feed wild birds during the breeding season is incorrect.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie


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