Thursday 22 February 2018

Tragedy of the knitting-needle shore waders

Curlews: BirdWatch Ireland is seeking the public’s help in spotting breeding activity
Curlews: BirdWatch Ireland is seeking the public’s help in spotting breeding activity

Joe Kennedy

Last week the nature charity BirdWatch Ireland voiced concerns about the worrying crash in breeding curlew numbers and I was reminded of a sad story of another long- legged coastal wader species.

Some years back I related, a tale of love and loss of adoptive parents and their estuarine youngsters in Carmel, Israel. The parents were common terns, the youngsters, black-winged stilts. The chicks had different food needs, but managed on their own, but because of physical characteristics, nature closed down their lives.

It is a story of love and tragedy. The parental love was unremitting. The tragedy was that the chicks were programmed to reach for the skies, with the wrong family.

It was a different angle on the cuckoo story - the bigger bird which lays in a small bird's nest and whose youngster is reared at the expense of the natural offspring. In Carmel the site had thousands of ground-nesting birds but in one nest babies on stilts were hatched.

Cross species adoption is not unusual. Some fascinating examples have been recorded. I have mentioned the cat which thought it was a dog because a spaniel mother whose last pup had been weaned took a tiny waif kitten to her bosom. She raised it as a new puppy and the kitten, in time, tried to follow her through the fields.

A boy found and began to feed a woodpigeon squab which eventually followed him to school flying alongside him as he cycled.

The naturalist W H Hudson recorded stories of bird-animal-man friendships including one of a trout's fascination with a swan.

The stilt chicks' adoptive parents were devoted to their odd offspring on a sandbank populated by hundreds of balls of fluff attended by swooping and screeching terns. Of course they were different, like three Paul O'Connells bobbing about among a squad of schoolboys.

As well as drawing attention from other terns, they frustrated their adoptive parents by refusing small fish that had been caught for them - not part of their diet - and went poking about in the mud for invertebrates.

The only sign of a normal family life was at night they huddled in the nest space for cover. But that was not to last. Daily their legs grew longer and each night the parents found it more difficult to keep them from the cold. The adult birds began to stretch their wings to the limit and stand fluttering on their toes. Soon, keeping the youngsters covered became impossible and so one-by-one they succumbed to the freezing night temperatures.

This example of interspecies adoption foundered on the mismatch of physiques. The story apparently began when the tern pair took over an abandoned stilt nest in tern territory, the parent birds having been driven away, for laying eggs in the wrong place.

It ended when the last of the three gangling balls of wool on knitting needles died 10 days after hatching out.

* * *

BIRDWATCH is appealing to the public to watch for possible curlew breeding activity on remote headlands and estuaries.

Since the 1970s Ireland has lost 80pc of curlew breeders, as distinct from birds passing through. It is estimated that there are about 200 breeding pairs remaining. Information welcome at

Sunday Independent

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