How do birds survive particularly harsh winters?

2010-12-18 00:00

MY happy musings over exciting Kruger National Park birds have been interrupted by a flying visit to the United Kingdom, where I spent 10 days in an exceptionally chilly London — how could I let a bit of snow and ice come between me and my precious granddaughter? I am sure that the birds in the park adjoining my son’s flat have seen it all before, but to my untrained eye they seemed very put out indeed by this covering of nasty cold white stuff.

The only birds I saw in the first two days were the usual flocks of feral pigeons and the majestic Wood Pigeons, who really didn’t seem to take much notice of the snow. They were totally unfazed by the crowded pavements and waddled in-between pedestrians’ legs, feasting greedily on whatever food they could find. But I saw nothing of the other usual suspects for those two days.

If you think about it, even two centimetres of snow is more than the average little bird, with its skinny legs, can hop or walk through. They are not used to tunnelling or shovelling snow aside to find deep-frozen tidbits.

For the insectivores there would be no insects, for frugivores even the berries had turned to mush. After two days the blackbirds and robins were back again, seemingly unscathed by starvation, but I wonder what they do when times are really tough?

A visit to a local park showed another side of the freezing problem — ducks and gulls slithering and sliding about on what is normally a benign and comfortable lake, now made up of this shiny, slippery stuff that they could neither feed in nor swim on. Luckily there were plenty of tourists with lots of free handouts — maybe not the healthiest of meals, but certainly good enough to keep the wolf from the door.

The Isle of Wight was our next port of call, where my “birdy” relations live. Here I learnt that the tiny Wren battles to keep itself warm in freezing weather, let alone find enough food. Wrens are said to cuddle up together in a cosy corner and help each other to cope with the cold. How dear is that? By the time we got to the island the worst of the snow had melted, so it was sort of back to normal. I really enjoyed the antics of a Green Woodpecker as it bounced around on the lawn, eating ants. It is sort of the UK equivalent of our Ground Woodpecker.

Robins, Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits were drawn to the many feeders my cousin dutifully fills with nuts and raisins. We sat inside in front of a lovely fake log fire (wonderful invention!) from where great picture windows allowed us to enjoy all the garden activity. At night, from the same vantage point, we watched in awe as a family of badgers enjoyed bread and peanut butter, along with heaps of giant peanuts.

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