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Wild Life in the West Highlands
BIRDS AND THEIR CHANGING HABITS


THE wood pigeon or ring dove is usually and rightly looked upon as a bird of a shy and retiring nature, an inhabitant of woods and forests, although no doubt frequenting more cultivated areas in search of food, of which, by the way, it seems to require an extraordinary amount in proportion to its size. All sportsmen are well aware of its vigilance and alertness, of its keen sight and distrust of man in its normal state. It is true that in the nesting season individual pairs sometimes throw off this natural shyness, and are found nesting in close proximity to dwelling-houses, where they have found themselves unmolested; yet one would have thought the wood pigeon one of the last birds to become a dweller in cities and the busy haunts of man. Such, however, is the case; for the last two or three years the wood pigeon has become an ever-increasing resident and nesting species in the parks and more open spaces of London; and, strange to say, there are well-authenticated instances of this whilom retiring bird nesting within the busy precincts of the city itself.

This extraordinary change of habit is also found elsewhere. The German ornithologist, Friderich, relates that, in 1879, he noticed a wood pigeon consorting regularly with tame pigeons in the town of Stuttgart; that in the North Frisian Islands and in Schleswig-Holstein they were coming 'more and more' into the gardens and suburbs, having apparently lost their fear of man; and that in various towns of the Netherlands, such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leyden, and Leuwarden, the same change was noticeable, as they nested there in the trees surrounding the canals in considerable numbers.

Another addition, in recent times, to the birdlife of London is the so-called black-headed gull; in passing, one may note this persistent misnomer, the head of the bird, when in nuptial plumage, being of a rich brown or chocolate colour, and by no means black. Large flocks of these gulls frequent, of late years, the Thames and the ornamental waters of the parks every winter, although formerly seldom, if ever, to be seen there. Sir Herbert Maxwell accounts for this change as having commenced at the time of the great frost of the winter of 1895. It is to be noted, however, that a German observer, Walters, records that some of this species, together with common gulls, frequented the River Spree at Berlin in the winter of 1879-80, remaining there until the middle of the following April. This is evidently mentioned as a new departure ; and it would be interesting to know whether this visitation has become permanent.

An increasing tendency has recently been observed on the part of gulls to feed on grain, several instances having been recorded to this effect, especially from the Lothians, where they have been found to be acquiring the habit of attacking the ripe grain in the stooks, which seems entirely at variance with their natural and accustomed habits. In course of time we shall be able to see whether this change is an increasing one, as is, indeed, very probable ; for such divagations of habit appear often to be infectious.

Much has been written as to the rook, whether this bird is to be considered a benefactor to the farming interests, or whether its depredations outweigh the good it does by the destruction of noxious grubs and insects. I would suggest that here, as elsewhere, the truth may lie between the two extremes, and that the facts of numbers, locality and opportunity must all be considered. In undue numbers rooks, like other birds and beasts, may well become plague, and all the more when there is no natural enemy left but man to keep their numbers in check. It is, however, no longer the farmer alone who complains of the damage done by rooks ; the sportsman and the gamekeeper have awakened to the fact that these birds have, comparatively recently, developed a new and vicious taste for the eggs and even the young of our game and other birds. This is particularly the case when a long period of cold and arid easterly winds, coinciding with the breeding season, has seriously diminished the natural food supply just when the demands of the young rooks are most clamant; and the bad habit, once established, unfortunately remains even when the original predisposing cause no longer exists.

In the Report of the Committee appointed by the Board of Agriculture to enquire into the great plague of voles which occurred in 1888-go there is an interesting note in the evidence of a well-known naturalist, the late Mr. Robert Service of Maxwelltown, who drew attention to the change in the habits of rooks during the ten years prior to 1892 as having 'developed most marked carnivorous habits, taking eggs, young birds, young poultry, young hares and rabbits to an extent they never did before. In his evidence Mr. Service also stated that: `By far the most effective among the bird and animal enemies of the voles is the common rook'; a fact that should be carefully noted by farmers when weighing the evidence, pro and con, as to the benefit or damage due to the rook from the agriculturists' point of view.

In this connection a very singular, and one thinks, suggestive fact emerges. Young nestling rooks have, as is well known, their faces feathered down to the base of the bill, as is the case with the carrion crow at all ages; these feathers being lost in the case of the rook in a couple of months, leaving the part bare. Of late years, however, there are many instances on record of rooks retaining the feathered mask for twelve months or more; and not only is this the case, but the beak itself shows in these instances a tendency to the more heavily curved type found in the carrion crow. This is a change of outward form as well as of habit; or, shall we say, a reversion? The loss of feathers at the base of the beak in the rook has usually been attributed to abrasion in the soil in the search for food; but Mr. Service in his evidence states that, in his opinion, it results from moulting and not from abrasion.

Much the same story may be told of the starling. The phenomenal increase of this species within living memory is well known, and for long they were regarded as an entirely useful race, destroying, as they doubtless do, vast quantities of 'leather jackets' and other mischievous grubs and insects. They, too, have acquired new and unwelcome habits and tastes, robbing the eggs and young of other birds.

The bullfinch, a beautiful and interesting bird that may certainly be included among those species that are rapidly increasing in number and extending their range, has always been looked upon as of a somewhat shy and retiring nature, more especially at their nesting time, when their well-known call-note is much less frequently heard, and they themselves appear as a rule to avoid observation, creeping in and under copse and bushes rather than flying openly among them as was earlier their wont.

Personal observation, however, detects a seeming change, among some individuals at least. Two years ago a pair built and hatched their young in a low bush not twelve yards from a window of my house. Last spring a pair whether the same or not one cannot tell, showed themselves yet more confiding, building their nest and bringing off their brood in the ivy on the wall close to the front door of the house, the nest being not four feet from a bedroom window. It was a quaint and novel sight to see the cock in all his marital splendour of colouring perched on the roof, or on the gutter after the manner of the common sparrow.

To the instances given above many additions might doubtless be made, as, for example, a case recently brought to my notice where a family of jays were seen following the example of the sea-gull already mentioned, and feeding on the corn-stooks in a field adjacent to the wood where they had been hatched. Or, leaving birds for the moment, one might instance the squirrel, which, like some of the birds we have been considering, has recently been found to be morally on a down-grade and, in the case of individuals at least, acquiring a new and unworthy habit of robbing small birds' nests of their eggs and young.


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