It has been a bit of a birdy week at the woods this week, having completed a review of our nest boxes (all the hole-fronted ones were used last year, although one of the 26 had an incomplete nest), and got some new kit for photographing birds (a chair hide and gimbal head for my tripod). I set up my hide near the feeders, waiting to the birds to approach, and got to making a few observations about the behaviour of the birds on the feeders.
We have three feeders at the woods, all a short distance from the building (within 15 metres either side). They all have the same feed in – a wild bird seed mix which is the best that I can afford as they get through over 20kg a week. But despite the similarity of the feeders (all have the same perch design), and their contents, it is clear that some birds prefer one or other of the feeders. The great tits prefer the smaller feeder further from the building, near a clump of brambles in which they can perch; the blue tits perfer one of the larger feeders near an elder bush in which they can perch, and the nuthatches and great-spotted woodpeckers prefer the very large feeder which they can approach from the trunk of the adjacent tree. Pheasants, robins and chaffinches are happy to feed underneath any of the feeders.
I also noticed that birds tend to come in waves to the feeders. There can pass minutes when there are no birds, and then there is a huge flurry of birds, fluttering their little wings, bickering about who has first dibs and generally making the area come alive with up to 20 birds all vying for a slot on the feeding perches. Then they disappear and it goes quiet, before it all starts up again. I wondered why that should be. The flurry seems to be a mix of species, rather than all one or another, and I figured it was probably a form of collective defence; safety in numbers, more birds around to sound the sparrowhawk alarm, and more birds to confuse the predator should it appear.
The species also differ greatly in their competence on the feeder; blue tits, coal tits and great tits are pretty good at perching and grabbing seeds, as are nuthatches. Woodpeckers need a little bit of practice, but can manage pretty well. Robins and chaffinches often try but rarely succeed in working out how to perch on the little ring provided to get at the seed. It isn’t a size thing – yellowhammer are hopeless at perching, reed bunting pretty good, both birds pretty much the same size, both in the bunting family, similar beaks – one good, the other useless!
We are all familiar with the pecking-order that occurs within species; our chickens have a complicated but rather rigid pecking-order and wild birds seem to be the same. So, the larger, more dominant great-tits and blue-tits are easily able to see off their rivals, with the males usually seeing off the females at this time of year before pairing-off and looking for nests.
What is interesting, though, is that there seems to be a between-species pecking order too. When the nuthatch or great-spotted woodpecker is on the feeder, nobody else really wants to feed there, although they are waiting patiently in the wings. They are just too aggressive and probably a bit pecky with those sharp beaks – too much of a risk! But it doesn’t always go with size. The blue-tits generally oust the great-tits despite being smaller, probably because the great-tits are a bit more timid. The robins, notoriously aggressive birds, don’t seem to mind other birds being around them at all, and never seem to have a go at them, even though they are competing under the feeders with the chaffinches and pheasants for the fallen scraps. Chaffinches are even more timid relative to their size, flying off at the slightest provocation. But the outstanding winners of aggression-per-gram must go to the coal tits. They are so fast, so active on the feeder and so very tenacious with birds of all sizes when there is competition for a feeding hole. They dart in, grab a seed, and dash off to peck it on a perch, then back in again, taking on all-comers (although I haven’t seen one take on a woodpecker yet…).
Perhaps we get a little bit complacent at witnessing this common sight – little birds at a feeder. But I never tire of watching them. There is always something going on, always a collection of little noises, expressions and body language to watch. I never tire of watching the huge range of expressions that blue-tits seem to be able to summon-up. Feeding the birds is an opportunity to watch and learn about common species and the interaction between them. It is one of my favourite activities at the woods.