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).

Friday, 13 January 2017

A lucky front shot of a male Mute Swan on a local park. He was with his polish variety partner, and ringed and approached me as I walked around the lake.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Standing pretty

In the low winter sun, this magpie was tree-topping, displaying her contrasting black and white plumage, a typical territory-owner behaviour. They will 'tree-top' on aerials and buildings alike in towns. This one also regularly 'tail-flirted': a quick bow and tail flick, which is very noticeable and draws attention. Magpie's apparently black plumage has structural iridescent colours, blue sheen in the wings and green and purple in the tail tip - as shown in this tail feather - which are shown during displays and aggressive encounters. Breeding, territory-owner magpies have the brighter and greener iridescent hues than non-breeders. Plumage brightness in birds especially in body parts that are displayed during territory defence or during fights, reflects the owner's health and attractiveness, so their display advertises not only territory ownership, but its good body condition, so that potential challengers can assess it, and potentially avoid fights that they might be likely to lose.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

On Magpie marriages

As in other corvids, like Ravens and Carrion Crows, non-breeding magpies flock together. The non-breeders tend to be young birds, while territory holders, which breed, are more likely to be older. There is a hierarchy in the flock, and the dominant birds are more likely to be the next in line in obtaining a territory. Magpies form pairs in the non-breeding flock.
This morning, I witnessed my second ever 'great Magpie marriage', one or the most puzzling Magpie behaviours. A group of seven magpies (top shot) were high on a tree, calling, a short call, 'chak!' and bowing with wings half spread, displaying, pecking the branches, or chasing around the tree, but mostly watching each other.
This is a short clip of the gathering.

This behaviour, which usually takes place in the winter, in sunny mornings (although it was quite dark and cloudy today) was traditionally interpreted as the way Magpies form pairs before nest building starts. Tim Birkhead, in an article for British Birds, quotes this passage from Darwin's book 'The Descent of Man':

The common magpie (Corvus pica, Linn,), as I have been informed by the Rev. W. Darwin Fox, used to assemble from all parts of Delamere Forest, in order to celebrate the "great magpie marriage." [...] They then had the habit of assembling very early in the spring at particular spots, where they could be seen in flocks, chattering, sometimes fighting, bustling and flying about the trees. The whole affair was evidently considered by the birds as one of the highest importance. Shortly after the meeting they all separated, and were then observed by Mr. Fox and others to be paired for the season.

Birkhead's research with the Magpie population of Rivelin's Valley in Sheffield showed that instead of a pair formation congregation, this behaviour, is instead a territorial challenge by the dominant non-breeding pair. The rest of the flock attend to witness the event and, although the territory owners often keep their territory, in some cases they are ousted by the dominant non-breeders.

My first Magpie marriage, on a sunny morning a few years back (9/11/09). Individuals fluffed their white feathers in their displays.

More information
Birkhead, T. R. Studies of West Palearctic birds: Magpie 189. British Birds (1989). 82:583-600. Here.

Birkhead, T.R. 1991. The Magpies. The ecology and behaviour of Black-billed and Yellow-billed Magpies. T&AD Poyser, 270 pp.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Playing herring gulls

This morning at a local park, I noticed a young Herring Gull picking an object, flying off and being chased by another. Then the gull landed on the water and dropped the object and pretended to dive to pick it up repeatedly, as in a lazy drop-catch game. When I saw the object at a better angle I realised it was an empty freshwater mussel shell, which happened to float. Funnily enough, a couple of hours later when I walked past either another or the same young Herring Gull was still playing with it.

The young gull flies off with the freshwater mussel shell.

Later on, with cloudy weather, two gulls handling the shell.