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← Great tits join mobs with neighbours they know

Anvil's Avatar Jump to comment 29 by Anvil

Comment 21 by foundationist

(...) The most scenic air-battle I witnessed up to now was a group of crows ganging up on an eagle who was circling over the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto at dusk.

Wow. I can't match the exotic location, however:

Myself and my partner, Jane (and our two wonderful dogs, Molly the Border Collie and a mongrel Max) have recently moved from a Victorian mid-terraced house - with a yard - situated on the edge of a city centre in the North of England, to a 1930’s semi with a long woodland garden that terraces down to a wooded river-valley or Dene. It is still within walking distance of the city centre, but could easily be a million miles away. It’s beautiful.

Forged by glacial melt, The Dene, as it’s known locally, was once the private garden of a Victorian entrepreneur, industrialist, inventor and arms-dealer. Fortunately - for the locals at any rate - he gifted the valley to the City in 1883.

We love living here. We have an office in the upstairs rear of the house overlooking the valley and every day brings its own ‘Attenborough Moment’- the best of which have involved wild honey bees swarming, garden clearings supervised by a Tawny Owls, and Molly’s Darwinian discovery of a totally new species of amphibian called Frogs.

However, last autumn’s Attenborough Moment really took the biscuit: I’d watched a 45/60 minute battle in the sky above the garden:

Much earlier that morning I’d glimpsed what I thought was the Tawny Owl at the bottom of the garden amongst the trees: a flash of broad brown tail feathers barred with darker spots. I was soon to learn it was one of a pair of large (female?) Sparrowhawks.

They must have been roosting, waiting for better light maybe, or possibly more activity from the smaller birds? They hunt Songbirds and, apparently, according to the RSPB, have been known to take Collared Doves on the wing.

From the office window, I saw them both take to the air around 11.30am, followed instantly by lots of noise from the Tit/Blackbird/Finch population. They circled at about half the height again of our neighbours rather grand Copper Beech (approx’ 35m). Almost instantly the two Hawks were buzzed by a rather fat Wood Pigeon. One of the Hawks peeled off and chased the Wood Pigeon down through the tree canopy at high speed leaving the remaining circling Hawk, would you believe it, to be attacked by the two resident Rooks.

All the while, from the Tits, a constant screaming, dancing, cacophony.

The Rooks, amazingly, took it in turn to flail at the circling Hawk, then stall and drop, not allowing it to sustain any meaningful aggression to either. It was then that I noticed the Copper Beech was starting to accumulate some very agitated Magpies. First one, then two, then three... all of them screeching madly.

Looking up as the second Hawk returned, the Rooks dropped off, and then, out of the blue, the Pigeon! Alive! Hurrah!

Again it took one of the Hawks into the tree line, and again the Rooks returned to agitate the other!

The noise seemed to get louder, larger, and my attention was drawn back to the Copper Beech where gold, bronze, and green were being replaced at quite an amazing rate with the startling white and iridescent blue/black uniform of these screaming, crazed, Geordie birds.

The stronger branches, already taken, forced newcomers to grasp onto far less substantial outlying twigs which, in the autumnal wind, gave the impression that the tree was waving Magpies!

Once their numbers had increased to about twelve, thirteen, fourteen or more, the Magpies, as one, took to the air, and the Rooks and the solitary fat Wood Pigeon immediately left the scene - their job, seemingly, complete.

What followed was simply stunning. A cloud of Magpies surrounded the Hawks. Harrying them. Battering them with their wings. Every now and again a brave individual would attack a Hawk full on: claws and talons locked, Magpie and Hawk would fall, spinning, through the air, twisting and turning like ice skaters – but without the ice – Air Skaters! Then they’d separate – Magpie, wings held back, screaming vertically towards the earth followed inches away by a Hawk!

The battle raged. On and on, through trees and gardens, out into the Dene, and back again. Every time the cloud dove into a garden I presumed a Magpie killed. It was hard to count the casualties, if any, as the action was so fast, but eventually the Hawks, visibly tired, flew off towards the north.

The Magpies returned to the Copper Beech and spent a good ten minutes crowing about their victory.

Atop the Beech a lone, rather fat, Wood Pigeon. I’d swear he looked proud.

We love living here! What a wonderful planet.



QUESTION: What exactly was I seeing here? For all the world this looked like both inter and intra species altruism/co-operation. Was I seeing patterns that weren’t really there to see? A coincidence? Mere timing? A human desire to anthropomorphise?

Thu, 26 Apr 2012 08:13:18 UTC | #937411