Forget the Olympics - this has to be The Greatest…
Someone once said that if Man had to pass his day as a bird does, at the end of it he would be beyond exhaustion. The term bird covers, mostly, feathered flying creatures, but within that group there are many subgroups which strive a life so many different ways. So consider the song bird.
Having survived the night, food must be the first consideration. Here they differ, some specialise in insects, some in seeds or herbage, and have evolved the anatomy to suit. The specialisation in this field is amazing. Different foods peak at different times and places, so we come to migration both horizontal and vertical, for some. Others stick it out at one place and adapt. They must programme their life, travel, procreation, and even fun, to take advantage of peaks of supply of their favourite food. This search for food is a continuous pressing urgency of the day, and may even involve dashing home with as much food as can be carried, and all the time looking over his shoulder for predators determined to make him part of their daily diet. Think of this and you have part of the picture, and if he is a songbird never mind about enemies, he has enough on his hands keeping his own kind away and carving out a territory of his own.
They manage according to their lifestyles. Some are solitary feeders, creeping under foliage like the wren, others feed in groups and either rely on one of their number to spot danger or appoint a lookout who has a vocabulary indicating levels of danger; at the top warning all make a run for it. Even this has its risks, for the sentinel on a high branch is vulnerable; and certain wily birds, often Corvids or Parrots, learn to mimic the top call and, when everyone scarpers, calmly hop down to pick up the flocks’ leavings. Different times provide different foods, but whatever the season, come glut or famine, there is no easy time. Even times of plenty bring the need to larder food away for the hard times. Some birds have been known to hide away several hundred items of food and subsequently recall 80-90% of them. There are other birds who watch them and dig up their booty, so they have a good look round before any burial or even carry out a false burial or sneak back and re-bury. I tell you it’s everyone for itself out there.
Then there is the business of accessing the food, according to time and place. He must learn when insect stages proliferate or seeds ripen. Yet some foods need preparation. From the crow who takes a hard morsel and dunks it in water, to the gull who, often repeatedly, drops a mollusc from a great height onto a hard rock to crack it open, it is ingenuity all the way. We have all seen the seagull drumming on the grass to imitate rain and trick worms into coming to the surface, but others beat that for ingenuity. Crows have actually used us by placing a hard nut on a pedestrian crossing when lights are red for traffic to crush it and then retrieving it when the red comes round again. In my young days milk bottles with cardboard lids were left on the doorsteps and tom tits soon learned to peck them open and eat the cream, but not the milk which they could not digest. Yet the most macabre is the vultures in Zimbabwe who perch on the fence bordering a minefield and wait for a deer to tread on a landmine, then flying in for the feast.
On top of all this the song bird must practise his song. It is said that nestlings listen to their father’s song from the age of two days and learn. His song is important and must be perfect. But the search for food is the continuous pressing urgency of the day. The bird must eat well to be sexually desirable, to have the vigour to control territory or keep up with the flock, dodge predators, or when the merciless cold of the winter night settles on his roost, to have enough fat on his bones to keep him warm and survive. Then his day will have been a success against all the odds that nature can throw at him. – K. Watson