Thursday 17 January 2019

Country Matters: The patient lives of birds and ants

HARD WORKING: Leaf cutters
HARD WORKING: Leaf cutters

Joe Kennedy

Where an echo of the sea crashing on a rocky coast may be heard to break the silence of early morning, swallows are bustling builders in all the daylight hours.

They twitter and flutter to and fro with tiny beakfuls of mud and wisps of dead grass, adding centimetres to the grey lip of an old nest - the base part of which has been cemented to a cottage porch recess for decades.

The birds seem unperturbed by occasional human activity below. That this is sporadic, with breaks of relative peace, probably helps give an impression of abandonment, boosting birds' confidence in refurbishing their old home where generations were hatched and fledged (and, at least once, mummified - from a late brood caught out when the call of migration proved overwhelming).

In a shed nearby, where two swallow families came and went through a broken window, starlings have occupied four nooks in a surprise take-over. This place of peace and security from the elements is a great discovery for them, thwarted by roof soffits and frustrations of contemporary house-building and other habitat depletions.

Although I have not considered myself to be a 'birder' or 'twitcher' (a poor descriptive of someone who tries to glimpse sightings of rare birds and thankfully a phrase falling out of favour), I admire the enthusiasm of those who are and share information. With the advent of the phone camera and ancillary social media, such sharing is easier - though at times it seems overwhelming, encompassing districts and counties with endless information and pictures. It can be a long litany delivered with the unbridled enthusiasm usually exhibited by followers of contact sports.

Tranquility may be sought looking at the behaviour of insects such as ants; or contemplating the still pool manoeuvrings of lesser water boatmen and pond skaters; or (in the field, as it were) the fascinating workings of sexton beetles as male and female busily dig beneath the carcass of a small mammal to bury it for larval food.

I have looked at the processionary activity of ants (leaf-cutters in Portugal) and marvelled at their horticultural and organisational skills (of which more later). And I have learned of African Matabele ants saving wounded compatriots on the termite battlefields, if they can stand on one leg, when they will be carried off and have their wounds cared for by triage doctors and nurses so as to fight another day. Poor prone belligerents, however, are left where they fall. Stand up and fight, or bells will toll for thee, is the maxim.

The leaf-cutters carry their harvested greens in long lines into their underground formicaries and set forth again in an endless cycle keeping their gardens producing fungi, on which they live. If they encounter a toxic leaf they move to another source. These 'leaf-men' enslave other ants and post look-outs along their collecting route to ensure they themselves are not enslaved! All this, along with the home-building of the birds, is just a part of our biosphere of which we humans, comprising 0.01pc of all life, play a destructive and selfish part, continuing to eradicate most other living things.

Sunday Independent

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