6 July 2021

Questions

Two magpies

It seems that on our journeys through life, we are forever trying to make sense of things. Questions shuffle across our mindscreens about big and little things. From fairly insignificant personal stuff to enormous questions about the nature of the universe.

For the past forty years I have been a regular feeder of birds in every season and this extended experience has thrown up a whole bunch of questions...

  • Why don't magpies whistle  - instead of cackling like the three witches in "Macbeth"?
  • Can different species of bird communicate with each other?
  • Why do pigeons seem so stupid when their navigation skills are so brilliant?
  • How exactly do swallows make their way to Yorkshire from Africa each year?
  • Having never seen goldfinches in our garden how come two arrived on the very morning I put up a new feeder containing niger seeds?
  • Why do many gun crazy men in Malta and some other Mediterranean islands think it is okay to shoot birds, helping to drive them to extinction?
  • Where do birds go when it is raining?
  • How do all the other birds know to disappear when there's a sparrowhawk in our garden?
  • Why are rooks such nervous birds when they are on the ground?
  • Why have robins got red breasts?

I have asked God Google all of these questions but the answers have characteristically been unsatisfactory or inconclusive. Besides, even though the questions have arisen,  there is a sense in which I do not really want to know most of the answers.  The mystery of what is unknown can be very appealing.

Robin - I took this picture in the wintertime

36 comments:

  1. I'll wager that different species can understand each other. I'm basing that on the fact a Mockingbird (my state bird) imitates the calls of other birds. Or maybe they're just repeating what they hear without knowing what it means. I've known people like that.

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    1. Nature must have a reason why mockingbirds are able to imitate other birds. I note that the mockingbird is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas!

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  2. I would venture to suggest only one answer; to the question about the goldfinches, I put out a bird feeder with Niger seed and about a dozen goldfinches appeared on a regular basis. But I would only have recognized a couple of them - the females have very little yellow colouring. So maybe yours have been there all along, but well concealed. They do eat dandelion seeds and the like, so they could be existing happily, just not showing themselves. But now the buffet is out, they will appear regularly and spread the word.

    On another note, here we are encouraged not to feed birds, finches in particular, in the seasons when they can find food themselves; in other words, we start to feed them in late fall and stop in spring. The reason is that there is a very bad respiratory disease that spreads among finches and is made worse by birds gathering at feeders. It is horrible to watch an affected bird. They cannot eat but their instinct is to feed, so they just sit at the feeder and die. You could Google to see if there is such a disease among your native birds.

    That little robin is so different from what ours look like. We have the American robin here, a much larger and quite coldblooded hunter. They schloop up worms with obvious relish.

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    1. Our two goldfinches only visited us that one time. I have never seen them since that morning several years ago. We don't normally see finches in our garden. We see wood pigeons, magpies, thrushes, blue tits, long-tailed tits, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, rooks, turtle doves, robins, jays, thrushes and little else. Yes our robin is very different from the American robin.

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  3. Your parents must have been permanently exhausted.

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    1. Well, when you create four sons with two miscarried babes that is understandable. It's not something I like to think about.

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  4. Those are excellent questions; I wish I had the answers.

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    1. The more I think about it, the more I realise I don't need to know those things Margaret.

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  5. The mystery of the unknown can be so much better than reality in many ways.

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    1. I agree with that Andrew. Humans are so restless. We seem to want to know everything.

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  6. I think you've just given yourself a big homework assignment. Now that you asked the questions I need you to tell me the answers

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    1. Hey, you are the ornithologist birder guy! You should know some of the answers!

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  7. We have just been asked to stop feeding the birds here in Pennsylvania. There is a unknown disease killing off songbirds. Things like this bother me a lot.

    Our gold finches lose their yellow in the winter, becoming khaki colored.

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    1. I wonder if they are the same as our goldfinches. That's another question!

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  8. Hello, I arrived here via Graham's blog. I think there are some questions that are best left unanswered. Some answers just destroy the beauty of the mystery.

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    1. Hello Pauline. Having created this blogpost I tend to agree with you.

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  9. Magpies can drive me mad with their cackling - they are such beautiful, intelligent birds, but the racket they can make is quite the opposite of beautiful.
    I believe there is communication between the species of birds. Part of it is vocally, for instance when a jay warns everyone in the woods of an approaching human or other perceived danger. Part of it is visually; when birds spot other birds gathering at a certain spot, maybe crows around a dead animal, they come to check out what's up and whether there is something for them to be had, too.
    Blackbirds incorporating elements of other birds' songs into their own songs is, as far as I am aware, just sampling; they do the same with mobile phone ringtones and other sounds they hear, not for communication.
    Oh, sorry - you didn't want to know the answers!

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    1. Ha-ha! Well you didn't give me ALL the answers Professor Riley.

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  10. Well pondering on unanswerable questions probably keeps you quiet for a bit to the relief of your wife ;)

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    1. Why didn't I empty the dishwasher? Why didn't I strip the bed? Why did I forget orange juice when I went shopping?

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  11. Take a look at the books by Tom Birkhead, especially his brilliant Bird Sense - what it's like to be a bird. There's a review somewhere on my blog of you search it. It is truly fascinating covering, how birds smell, how far some can see, can they 'taste' and how we know that some birds including Robins literally 'see' magnetic lines. He writes superbly and easily too. I think he's from Sheffield university

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    1. If it's not too academic I think I would like that book. Thanks for the heads up Mark.

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  12. I too, have wondered why gun-crazy Europeans relish shooting tiny birds. It happens here, in the valley below me, and I could weep for the loss of so many little feathered creatures. It strikes me as being such a heartless way to behave, and probably because the birds can't shoot back.
    As to your other questions - I'm surprised Google hasn't come up with something more positive, but then it can't know everything, can it! Though I can tell you that when it rains here, birds shelter in amongst the foliage in trees and large leaved shrubs, and sometimes sit on the table under our pergola!
    When we first came here, I fed the birds, but within minutes of putting food out, rats appeared and threatened to over-run us, and their numbers became a hazard. Some well meaning neighbours put rat poison down, which killed off other wildlife too, and I despaired at finding dead birds and squirrels when out walking.

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    1. Not many women get involved in the mass killing of small birds. It's always men but I see nothing inherently masculine about such persecution. Sorry to hear about your rats. Couldn't you feed birds from a ratproof hanging feeding station?

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  13. I think the swallows follow northern racing pigeons back up north and if they get tired they use Ryanair like the rest of us do.

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    1. Ah-ha! Now I understand. Thank you Dave.

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  14. I take exception with your remark about pigeons. I like pigeons. They are smart birds, they can see colour and have an amazing sense of smell. They are also altruistic and share they food. I like that about them.

    Your photos are lovely and as I've gotten older, I appreciate birds more and more.

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    1. I am so sorry Pixie Lily. I had no idea that you had lost your heart to pigeons.

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    2. Apology accepted:)

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  15. In a topical/tropical related vein- where do birds go during hurricanes?
    Having watched my chickens for a long time now I can attest that they have different and distinct calls for things like predators and within those, differing calls for ground predators versus predators from the sky. I see no reason why the wild birds wouldn't be the same. And I agree with Librarian in that different species of birds can most likely understand the warning calls of other species.
    Birds ARE very mysterious but why in the world would knowing all of the answers make things less interesting? Often the science of things is far more amazing than we could imagine.

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    1. Maybe knowing the answers would simply engender a whole lot more questions.

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  16. This post led me to have a good discussion with Gregg about whether or not different species of birds can communicate with each other. We think that it definitely happens, depending on the species. Why, just look at Marco and all of his capabilities--I'm sure he'd be able to interpret some bird calls and to communicate back with them. And crows are amazingly intelligent.

    All of these were good questions, and very thought provoking!

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    1. I hope that you and Gregg did not end up in a fight.

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  17. Isn't there a running joke in Monty Python's "The Holy Grail" about swallows and their migration? Something about carrying a coconut?

    I agree -- it's sometimes better to wonder at the mysteries of nature without knowing all the specifics!

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  18. I had no idea that Australian and English magpies were so different. The magpies in Oz don’t cackle, they warble beautifully. In case you’re interested it sounds like this:
    https://youtu.be/kKtbmSVktCY

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    1. How interesting Curly Club! Thanks for that. They look similar but they are clearly very different birds.

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