Monday, 27 March 2017

Woodpigeons calls and displays

Although the woodpigeon is the bird I come across most often and the one I record the most, it is still one of my favourite birds, the species that made me a birdwatcher. I find them truly stunning and very resourceful, feeling at ease in gardens, parks and woodland alike. Despite their reputation as grain guzzlers their diet includes leaves, nuts (acorns and beech mast), buds, flowers and berries, including rowan, ivy, holly, cotoneaster and alder, which they often reach with great acrobatics. Although Woodpigeons have featured often in this blog, here I am compiling and documenting their calls and displays, especially those related to reproductive behaviour. Although in his article on woodpigeon behaviour Cramp says that 'they mark their ownership of a territory primarily by just being there' as indeed 'a Woodpigeon perched in a tree bare of leaves is a large and conspicuous object' Woodpigeons have a simple, but interesting behavioural repertoire.

Advertisement call. A deep, repeated 5 note phrase that serves as a territorial song. This is the well know Woodpigeon song, often heard early in the morning.

Display flight. This is another territorial display most frequent in February and March. The male flies around the territory rising in a broad arc, and then gliding down with wings held stiffly horizontal advertising ownership. They can do the rising and falling a few times before alighting. Although mainly a visual advertising display, as the bird does not call, sometimes the bird will make a clapping noise with its wings at the apex of the arc.

The Bow display. It is a courtship display that territorial males perform when still unpaired and trying to attract a mate and also when the pair bond is becoming cemented. The male approaches the female and with the his neck is enlarged as he calls a 3 note call as he alternatively stretches its neck and then lowers its head, displaying the white and iridescent neck markings, and fanning the tail when it's highest. Check out this wonderful photo by Richard Hawley showing the display when fanning is at its maximum. Females can display some aggressiveness to the courting male, or move away or flee if they are not interested. This display often happens on trees, roofs or aerials, but occasionally on the ground. When on the ground the male will try and get closer and follow the female hopping to bow just in front of her.

Allopreening, billing and mating. Feeding the mate, gentle preening and billing precedes mating. I documented this behaviour in a series of photos here.

Slightly opened wings is a threat posture.
Fighting. Woodpigeons have very powerful chest muscles, which power their explosive take off and fast flight, and they also use their wings in territorial fights. Males will fly towards intruders landing in their territory and land adopting an aggressive stance, with neck stretched, flattened plumage and semi-open wings, and often this is enough to drive the intruder away. Occasionally, this develops into a fights, which sometimes occur in the depths of a tree. The pigeons will land near each other, alight their bodies and flap trying to hit each other (above).      
                                           
Nest calling. This is a call by the male signalling to his partner a suitable nest site. I've covered this on other posts (here and here) and it is described in detail in the article by Cramp cited below. The call is harsh, and guttural composed of two notes, here is a recording of the call. I want to share here a video I took this morning, in which I got a good angle. You can see pecking or nodding movements to the nest floor in between calls:




More information
Cramp, S. Territorial and other Behaviour of the Woodpigeon. Bird Study 5, 55–66 (1958). here.

Monday, 20 March 2017

A drop-catch game sequence

A caught a short clip of a young Herring Gull playing drop-catch today at a local nature reserve. The gull carried on for quite a while dropping and catching the item.

via GIPHY

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Moorhens mating

This week the local pair of Moorhens have been mating. Females in Moorhens and Coots, and presumably other rails, have a curious way of inviting their partners to mate: They bury their heads down into their chests.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Carrion crows dropping mussels

Today at Sewerby beach I was intrigued by a Carrion Crow, part of a large winter flock, appeared to drop something onto the rocks at the top of the beach, then come down to eat. Sometimes the crow would fail and repeat the action. The tide was low, exposing a flat platform of rocks with rich mussel beds, and the objects being dropped were actually mussels that the crows were collecting and carrying up the beach before dropping them on the solid rock to smash them (above).
Dropping potential food items to break them open has been previously documented, and best known in Golden Eagles (breaking open tortoises) and Lammergeiers (bones). Gulls and crows of various species have been recorded dropping intertidal hard-shelled molluscs hard substates, including roads. Intertidal foraging can be an important part of the diet of coastal crows in the winter, when insects are scarce. Crows will scavenge at the tide-line, or feed on small crabs, but some of these intertidal organisms, in particular periwinkles, cockles and mussels, are consumed after smashing them open by dropping onto hard substrates. Controlled observations of wild Carrion and Hooded crows show that crows chose larger mussels, more likely to smash and also providing more food. Shell dropping is not instinctive, young crows appear to perform rather poorly. They need to perfect their technique of dropping so that the height at which the mussels are dropped is the minimum height for them to break at impact, but not much lower. Young crows take more attempts at being successful.
There are three reasons why the minimum height should be used. One, dropping from higher up means wasting more energy flapping up. Also, higher drops means higher bounces and higher chances of the shell being lost. Finally, crows and gulls often steal from each other, a behaviour called kleptoparasitism.  Therefore researchers predicted that crows dropping mussels when other crows or gulls are nearby would be more wary of being robbed, indeed, crows with other crows or gulls nearby dropped their mussels from 2 m lower that lone crows.
Crow and gulls on mussel bed, the crow has already detached a mussel, while one of the gulls is still trying. Although many crows were actually busy either collecting mussels or breaking them up the beach today, I didn't see any gulls doing this.
Mussels are strongly attached to the rock and other mussels by threads, which can be hard to reach, as the mussels cover the rock very densely, not exposing the threads. It is quite a feat the crows manage to detach them
A view of the beach at low tide.

Despite the very bright light I managed a couple of clips here:


More information

Whiteley, J. D., Pritchard, J. S. & Slater, P. J. B. Strategies of mussel dropping by Carrion Crows Corvus c. corone. Bird Study 37, 12–17 (1990).

Davenport, J., O’Callaghan, M. J. A., Davenport, J. L. & Kelly, T. C. Mussel dropping by Carrion and Hooded crows: biomechanical and energetic considerations. J. Field Ornithol. 85, 196–205 (2014).

Berrow, S. D. , T. C. Kelly & A. A. Myers. The diet of coastal breeding Hooded Crows (Corvus corone cornix). Ecography 15, 337–346 (1992).

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Synchronised diving

I watched two drake Goosanders as they dived for food today. As soon as one dived, the other followed suit and they did this repeatedly, it was lovely to watch. Here is a distant clip.

 I then remembered a line of five fishing female Goosanders last year in a Swiss lake, swimming and diving in an orderly line along the shallows. They were behaving as if they were fishing cooperatively: by rounding up fish they would increase each of the individuals success rate. This cooperative fishing has also been observed in Cormorants and in the close relative of the Goosander, the Red-breasted Merganser.
The five female Goosanders fishing in a line, the individual at the far end peers under the water.

More information
Des Lauriers, J. R., & Brattstrom, B. H. (1965) Cooperative feeding behavior in Red-breasted Mergansers. The Auk, 639-639.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Social play in gulls?

Yesterday, the pond at my local park was almost completely iced over. While the ducks and geese kept to a small ice-free patch, the gulls seem to like walking on ice. A few young Common Gulls were about. One of them, a second winter bird, was carrying and handling (or should I say 'billing'?) a piece of moss. She would drop it, pick it up, shake it. She was being followed at close range by another two younger first winter common gulls. The first one eventually dropped the moss and one of the younger gulls swiftly picked it up and carried it for a while, in a repetition of the sequence. Then this gull found a short stick and she pecked it and picked it up repeatedly. I was pleased to get this sequence in video.


I have anecdotally documented play in gulls since Ralph Hancock drew my attention to this behaviour in his blog. Play has been described in gulls before, but only solitary play. But, was the behaviour I watched social object play?  According to Judy Diamond and Alan Bond, in a review on social play in birds (where gulls are not mentioned) state:
'Social object play occurs when two or more individuals engage in repeated interaction with one or more inanimate objects in the environment without subsequent consummatory behavior. The best evidence of social object play is provided by contests over items that cannot be otherwise turned to useful purposes. Role reversals are common in social object play, and the interaction often ends with the contested item simply being discarded.'
I believe that the sequence I watched fits this description quite well. The gulls respond to one another in which the 'carrier' changes direction to avoid the 'chaser' and the chaser follows the carrier paying attention to what it does and is quick to retrieve the object when dropped. The interaction ends when the item is discarded. The interest in the moss by the second individual is affected by the carriers interest in it, like the object is given a new meaning as a 'toy'. Much evidence on social play in birds is anecdotal, which a few exceptions, notably in Keas and Ravens. However, given how social gulls are, and how opportunistic, with much adult behaviour involving stealing food items from each other, it appears surprising social play hasn't described in gulls. Possibly casual watchers of distant gulls assume food objects being the centre of attention instead of inedible 'toys'. The park's wintering flock is well used to people and allow close approximation, so it is easy to check what the gulls are handling. I should definitely pay more attention in the future to potential play sequences.

For more posts at The Rattling Crow on play in birds click here.

More information

Diamond, J., & Bond, A. B. (2003). A comparative analysis of social play in birds. Behaviour, 140(8), 1091-1115.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A wintering Chiffchaff

Warblers are generally migrant birds and we tend to associate them with warm weather and their songs heralding spring as males settle territories. One of the exceptions is the Blackcap, which I have covered before in the blog, which in the last half a century, has become a regular winter warbler in the UK, with some birds breeding in Germany migrating west to the UK, where they enjoy the food provided in garden feeders and milder temperatures. The other is the Chiffchaff is also a wintering warbler. Although not common, it winters around the coast and estuaries, especially in the South, and also industrial or sewage treatment sites where warm water encourages insects. In contrast to the Blackcap, The Chiffchaff is fully insectivorous through the winter so it doesn't benefit from berries or garden feeders. In the first day of the year I spotted a small bird in the garden and thought it would be a Goldcrest. Its relatively sedated moves (for a Goldcrest!) prompted me to look harder and I saw it was a Chiffchaff. A couple of days ago the bird, presumably the same one, was back I managed the top shot through glass, as it fed on the apple tree, where I've seen it several times. Some of the apple tree branches have an infestation of Woolly Apple Aphids, and this appears to be what the Chiffchaff is eating (you can see some fluffy colonies under the branch that the bird is sitting, to the left).