February sees winter’s survivors on the move in search of food, while the fittest birds flaunt their superiority with courtship displays.
If a small bird has survived the winter up to now, it has done well. February birds have proved themselves resilient and resourceful, and are three quarters of the way to entering the forthcoming breeding season alive.
But this second month of the year does not reach out and shake these high achievers by the hand. Far from it – the last and most insidious threat to their welfare only now begins to bite. At this time of year, on top of the pressure wrought by long, freezing nights and unreliable days, food supplies in the wild begin to run out.
A tough time for birds
The problem is that many bird species, including tits, thrushes and finches, have effectively spent the last few months subsisting on the fruits of autumn. But such supplies of nuts, seeds and berries are, of course, finite – winter sees a little setting of seeds, but not much.
So, in retail parlance, gradually fewer and fewer shops remain open, and each day sees a dwindling of goods on the shelves. The result is that food is now a limiting factor, and the losers succumb; the winter cull goes on.
Of course, each bird won’t meekly surrender; most probably it will take its chances and seek out new possibilities further afield. The late winter sees a great deal of moving about from district to district, by flocks and by individuals, shifting about like panic-buying motorists in search of fuel-stocked petrol stations.
Many of these travellers find their way into gardens, and the months of February and March often unveil exotic visitors to our much-loved patches of ground. Almost inevitably these will include redwings and fieldfares, the so-called ‘winter thrushes’. These are nomads that have a habit of turning up overnight in new locations to plunder the remaining berries.
They come in flocks and often make themselves unpopular with the resident birds, especially mistle thrushes, who will have earmarked certain supplies for their own stomachs. But when it comes to the showdown, it’s numbers that win out, and the fought-over berry-clad bushes can be denuded by the visitors in minutes.
Both winter thrushes are strikingly handsome. The fieldfare, larger than a blackbird, is boldly ash-grey, velvet and ochre, with smart-looking chevrons on its breast; the smaller redwing is song thrush-like, but gives the impression of having spent hours in front of the mirror that morning, making its face up with a bold eyebrow line. A flush of intense reddish-brown bleeds from the underside of each wing onto its belly, and gives the bird its name.
Siskins love seeds
Another much smaller visitor will probably also find its way to the garden in February, and investigate the hanging feeders for peanuts or black sunflower seeds. It’s the siskin, a small green and yellow member of the finch family.
Siskins once roamed the wetter parts of the countryside in search of their specialised winter dish of alder seeds. But ever since the 1960s they have taken the unexpected leap of becoming regular in gardens.
It has been suggested that the habit started when siskins mistook the red-mesh peanut bags that were in vogue at the time for giant alder catkins, and found them equally nourishing! It’s unlikely to be the true explanation, but it’s a colourful theory for this quiet green revolution.
Spot your siskins
It’s easy to identify a siskin because, though it’s a finch, it acts like, and is shaped like, a blue tit. Both species are tiny, dumpy and acrobatic, often hanging upside down from twigs. Their tails are of a similar length, but the siskin’s is characteristically sharply forked.
There is no obvious relationship between the two but, interestingly, the blue tit often ventures far from gardens on to the siskin’s home patch, to feed high in the dense network of alder and birch twigs above lake shores and riversides.
February launches the first great spring burst of buds and blossoms on the trees, and these attract another wayfarer, the bullfinch. This boldly marked, soft-feathered beauty is not universally loved by its landlords, despite the male’s stunning crimson coloration on the breast. Instead, its liking for the buds of fruit trees and other delicacies makes some gardeners dislike it enough to see red twice over when it drops in.
Their irritation is well founded: the bullfinch can indeed be destructive, gobbling up to 45 buds a minute and stripping a whole branch at one sitting, enough to impair slightly a later fruiting of a precious tree. But this bird is a protected species, and its visits are fleeting and necessary: it will often only descend on gardens when the low supplies of its favourite wild foods, such as ash seeds, determine that it must.
The survival of the fittest
February, as mentioned before, fine-tunes winter’s refinement of bird populations. Weak individuals are already long gone, and now, with food shortages, many very strong and fit birds also perish.
Only the most exceptional thrive, and these birds, for whom late winter is such a breeze, might well take the time to drive the point home to their inferiors by indulging in early spring courtship displays. They are making a forceful point to all around, saying: ‘I’m healthy enough to show off and look ahead, while many about me can barely survive.’
It’s surprisingly easy to miss some of these audacious advertising displays.
A magpie, for example, might simply sit on an elevated perch on a tree and perhaps flirt its tail, reminding all around that ‘I’m still here, and I’m in possession.’ The bird might not say anything, but its presence says enough.
A robin might subtly switch from singing under cover of branches to broadcasting from higher, more exposed song-posts. And a greenfinch might suddenly switch from normal flight to song-flight, describing circles around tops of Leylandii bushes and trilling spiritedly as it goes.
Blue tits begin displaying
Another common, but easily overlooked sign of spring is a change in the behaviour of blue tits. They are already singing heartily by February, and during this month they add to their repertoire some pleasingly choreographed display flights.
These performances are understated: the birds might fly just a few metres, from one branch to another, as they would every day, but with an adapted form of flight. Sometimes they simply glide from take off post to landing site, and at other times they travel with bursts of very rapid and shallow wing-beats. Either flight is special and meaningful, though we may barely notice it.
In a sense, these display-flights make a statement about the present and the future. Without feeling well fed and healthy, a bird will simply not undertake such routines; its ability to display underlines its present condition.
As for the future, a blue tit flight begins at any ordinary perch but is usually directed towards a potential nest-hole. And breeding is its intended target in the next few months.
Surviving, of course, is one goal, and breeding quite another, with a new set of challenges to face. And after winter’s bruising, the competition will be hot, with only the best competing against the best. But if a blue tit is still displaying around the blossom-festooned bushes by month’s end, it will at least have thrown its hat into a new ring, with the worst of the winter now past.