Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Signs of the times: Spring #14

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

“I love spring anywhere but, if I could choose, I would always greet it in a garden.”

Ruth Stout

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

In Spring picture 15, we see three little vignettes involving birds – a bold-as-brass male cuckoo calling from a washing-pole, a song thrush incubating eggs in its nest hidden in a bush, and a pair of jackdaws sitting by their nest (in a chimney pot). The other features in the garden are a cherry tree and a flowering currant bush, both in full blossom, and a hawthorn bush in new leaf. I’d prefer to write about the hawthorn in a few pictures time when it is shown in full blossom.

It isn’t made clear what species of cherry tree is shown but, from its relatively large size, I’d guess it isn’t a bird cherry, a relatively small native cherry largely found in northern Britain. From its profuse white blossom, it could be a wild cherry (Prunus avium) (or a cultivar of this) which is, according to the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, both widely distributed naturally in Britain, as well as extensively planted as an ornamental or fruit tree in gardens and parks. Also, according to the Atlas, its distribution has not changed since 1962 when the original Atlas was published, although it is also widely planted as an ornamental tree. Richard Mabey, in Flora Britannica, describes the wild cherry, rather charmingly, with its “drifts of delicate white blossom” in Spring and its “fiery mix of yellow and crimson” Autumn leaves, as “arguably the most ornamental of our native woodland trees.” Cherry trees produce a beautiful red wood which is lovely to work with – I’ve turned a bowl from cherry wood. And, of course, it also produces cherries (varying in colour between yellow and red) that are perfectly edible - we pick and eat cherries from wild cherry trees planted in the park near my parents. Apparently they can be used to make cherry brandy in much the same way as sloes are used to make sloe gin (author thinks “hmm!”) But I’m getting unseasonably ahead of myself.

I’m not really minded to spend much time or space on the pink-blossomed flowering currant (Ribes sangineum) as it is not a native species, being introduced to Britain in 1826 as a garden plant and ornamental hedge, and established in the wild by 1916. The New Atlas says it is hard to record any trend in its distribution since 1962 but that it is “probably increasing”.

On to the birds! Most obviously, the picture features a male cuckoo (Latin name: Cuculus canorus) calling from a washing pole. A real sign of Spring, and probably the most onomatopoeic bird call ever. You can hear various recordings here on that great "xeno-canto" birdcall website I've referred to before - amusing to set several cuckoo recordings running at once (I don't get out much)! But for all its importance as a much-anticipated Spring-time arrival (there is serious competition every year to be the first person to inform "The Times" newspaper of the first cuckoo heard), and its role as an inspiration for many old folk traditions, poems, music, and so on, the poor old cuckoo hasn't fared too well in the 50 years since the Ladybird books were written. In particular, since the early 1980s, cuckoo abundance has been in steep decline as shown in the UK graph to the left below, although the right-hand graph shows that there has been an apparent increase of 14% in Scotland since the mid 1990s. The British Trust for Ornithology collates a number of possible causes of decline: "Cuckoo numbers may have fallen because the populations of some key host species, such as Dunnock and Meadow Pipit, have declined"; "Decreases among certain British moths may have reduced food supplies for returning adults, and the species may also be suffering difficulties on migration or in winter" and "Cuckoos increased significantly during 1994–2006 in lowland semi-natural grass, heath and bog but decreased in almost all other habitat types", suggesting that host bird species are faring differently in different habitats. Its decline in abundance has led to its conservation status sliding from green to amber in 2002 and more recently on to the red list of most conservation concern.

As well as for its famous call, the cuckoo is perhaps best-known for its parasitic mode of reproduction, through laying its eggs in the nests of a range of other, much smaller bird species (e.g. hedge-sparrows, robins, wagtails and pipits are all identified in the text for the picture), and its large chick then pushing out the eggs laid by the host birds. The (non-cuckoo) host parent birds then raise the cuckoo chick as their own, despite the massive difference in size once the cuckoo starts to grow. It is definitely a summer visitor. As a child, I was taught a short rhyme by my Dad to remember the timing of its visit:

"The cuckoo comes in April,
He sings his song in May,
In the middle of June, he changes his tune,
In July, he flies away." 

There is some evidence of a slight effect of a warmer climate bringing cuckoos to Scotland earlier by an average of about a day earlier per decade, and predicted to be about a day earlier for every 1 degree rise in average temperature.

The song thrush (Turdus philomelos), tucked away on its nest in the hawthorn bush at the bottom of the picture, is another species with mixed fortunes over the 50 years since the Ladybird book was produced. Song thrush abundance in the UK declined by 49% between 1967 and 2007, with a slight increase again in the final years of that period.

Although the environmental causes are not known, the BTO suggests a number of possible causes for this calamitous decline, including changes in farming practices, land drainage, pesticides and predators as possible contributors, along with possible poor management and deer over-grazing of woodland habitats. It is a little ironic that the song thrush is shown here nesting in a garden environment as it is possible that good quality garden habitat has helped to offset the decline in rural and agricultural habitats for this species. I enjoy watching song thrushes in my own garden. The song thrush is famous for eating snails (and hence is a beneficial species to the gardener), using stone and rock surfaces as "anvils" on which they tap-tap-tap the snail to break the shell. In my garden, song thrushes have taken to pulling ramshorn watersnails out of my pond and using the slab stepping stones as their anvil. Hopefully, things have turned round for the song thrush again, with an increasing population but, according to BTO, but "population levels remain relatively low."

Finally, the jackdaws on the chimney pot. I do love the crows, as readers of earlier posts may recall.  And crows don't come much more likeable than the jackdaw (Corvus monedula), one of the smallest British crow species. Without beating about the bush, the jackdaw is doing pretty well in the UK, its population doubling between 1967 and 2007:

According to the BTO, as with Magpie, Rook and Carrion Crow, "the increase has been associated with improvements in breeding performance and probably reflects the species' generalist feeding habits, which allow it to exploit diverse and ephemeral food resources."

On the behaviour of jackdaws, if I can quote from my beloved old "AA Book of  Birds" from 1969 (1973 reprint): "Most crows are robbers, but none is a bigger thief than the jackdaw. It not only steals eggs and chicks when it gets the chance, but it will sometimes pick up useless inedible objects and hide them away. It will perch on horses and sheep and pluck out tufts of hair to line its nest; and occasionally it even steals a home, making a cranny for itself in the base of the pile of sticks forming a rook's nest". I might take issue with the description of its predation of eggs and chicks as "stealing", which is personifying its predatory behaviour, but this text does capture the relentless poking and pulling you see when you watch jackdaws. I love their obvious curiosity and it is easy to fall into the habit of personifying of their behaviour as "cheeky".

My wunderkind terrier Ella is in a constant state of alert for the jackdaws in our garden and the park, but she can't even get close...

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