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16th June 2021 - Bird Self-defence

The wilds of the Solent can be a dangerous place for birds. Luckily, these clever animals have evolved a variety of genius strategies to avoid becoming lunch! These adaptations are noticeable in the way the birds look, in the sounds they make, and in their behaviour.  Perhaps the most widespread strategy is simply being alert. Birds have the largest eyes, in comparison to body size, in the whole animal kingdom, and they use these to look out for predators as well as prey. Another feature that many bird species exhibit is camouflage - sporting shades of plumage that blend into the colours of their environment and make them hard to spot, like this turnstone.

2021_06_15 Golden plover Many waders, ducks, and geese you can find on the Solent, feed and rest in groups. This way of living gives each individual bird the protection of lots of pairs of eyes and ears to detect danger, as well as reducing the chance that they themselves will be attacked instead of one of their group.

Once a bird senses a predator, they will either alert the others indirectly by walking or flying away, or emit a warning call, making the predator aware that they have been detected and have lost their element of surprise. These calls are usually short, sharp chirps repeating in a steady rhythm that sound very urgent, especially when multiple birds join in. Listen out for these kinds of calls next time you're out for a walk - crows and sparrows are particularly noticeable as they're very noisy! Many species also have different warning calls for different threats, for example, a threat from the air and a threat from the ground.   

2021_06_15 WTE and gull  Calls aren't always enough however, and sometimes more drastic action is called for. Gulls are well known for their mobbing behaviour - repeatedly flying at a predator and sometimes making physical contact in an attempt to distract them and drive them away. This behaviour usually starts with one or two individuals but can end up becoming a large group with multiple species joining in. Gulls have even been observed vomiting and defecating on the predator with impressive accuracy!  This charming but effective habit is not only unique to gulls. Chicks of fellow sea bird, the fulmar, also shoot bright orange, extremely bad smelling vomit when they feel threatened.  

Birds don't only make use of these strategies to save themselves from predation but also their young. Ground nesting birds such as nightjar will 'flush' and fly away if a predator gets too close to a nest, and plovers will leave their nests and pretend to brood elsewhere, both attempts to distract the predator. Some wading birds will even fake a broken wing to tempt the predator to pursue them instead! Once they are far enough away from their nest they will quickly fly away.   

It's important to recognise that birds also perceieve us humans (and our furry friends) as a potential predator/threat. Learning about the above behaviours and what it means when a bird is 'alert' is something we can all do to help them. For example at the coast if you notice birds moving away from you, or calling out in alarm, it could mean that you are getting too close, so take a step back and give them space so they don't feel threatened. Simple steps like this can help all of us reduce disturbance and our impact on wildlife.

I for one am very grateful that I can rest and eat in peace most days without having to keep one eye open for danger. It can be a tough life out there for our birds, so let's all do our bit to help them out!

Ranger Miranda (Winter 2020/2021 Seasonal Ranger)