Friday 18 January 2019

Country Matters: Eviction shock for ping-pong birds

HARDY: The long-tailed tits continue to breed successfully despite habitat changes
HARDY: The long-tailed tits continue to breed successfully despite habitat changes

Joe Kennedy

Sheltering songbirds in a public park were scattered to the winds when council operatives moved in with power-saws.

There had been a meeting with local residents who expressed concerns that dense, bushy undergrowth in the park provided lurking places for 'undesirables' who, they said, were a cause of discomfort and a perceived threat to park users.

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Not everybody approved of the council's actions. Birders were particularly upset. Dense bush growth was cut to ground level, tree cover was trimmed to make the park vista, pathways and seating clearly visible from an adjoining road. All appears open and indeed, welcoming, leading to a pond and ancient weeping willows.

But what has happened to the birds?

One birder-reader, a regular visitor with binoculars, is concerned about the scattering of robins, finches, blackbirds and tits, especially the tiny long-tailed ones which need thick cover in the winter months. She is despairing of their future.

She relates meeting a parks officer on site who was sympathetic but outlined the considerable local pressure there had been to "clean up" the place in the light of anti-social activity in similar public places.

The reader, LT of Dublin 6W, is philosophical and hopes the evicted birds will have found new shelter in nearby gardens, but hard winter weather could have a devastating effect on the long-tailed tits wherever their new hiding place might be.

These delightful birds' entire lives are centred on the jungle growth of thick, thorny hedging and dense landscaped bushes common in park areas.

Aegithalos caudatus are like whirring sticks attached to ping-pong balls making soft, bubbling contact noises as they go about in groups. They operate in a follow-the-leader routine; when one takes off, the others follow.

They are tiny and delicate like goldcrests and survive on a diet of minute insects, although in recent years they have broadened their interests to bird table seeds. But severe weather can be devastating. Like wrens, they huddle together for warmth in a roost, their protruding long tails from an interior clump of feathers looking like a spiked ball.

The tits are tribal for survival with various 'aunts' and 'uncles' helping to raise young. The nest is an oval dome sited in a dense thorny bush, an ingenious purse-shaped structure of moss, spider webs and lichens lined with lots of feathers with a side entrance. It is an elastic structure which expands with the growth of the youngsters within.

Long-tailed tits may be found around the globe. The Irish and British bird has a broad dark band above the eye to join a black nape. There is a white-headed race in Scandinavia and occasional wanderers may be seen in Scotland.

Of birders' fears at the park clean-up, experts say the tits can quickly recover from such 'disasters'.

The species continues to breed successfully despite habitat changes, says the RSPB, and, challenging the weather and man's activities, the tiny ones will re-appear in spring and lift hearts once again.

Sunday Independent

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