The love lives of the birds you love
Ever wondered about the love lives of your neighbours? Your feathery neighbours of course, the ones lurking in your shrubbery or frolicking in your local park. From the frisky to the fancy to the faithful – their amorous antics are enough to get even the most casual twitcher’s curtains twitching.
The dunnock may look like an unassuming and shy bird but its love life is the stuff of legend. Both the males and the females want to parent as many healthy chicks as possible… and so begins a series of storylines Hollyoaks would be proud of. Females are known to mate with more than one male, in the hope a team of males will help raise her young, giving them the best start in life. This often works, and with no DNA tests available, the males remain blissfully unaware of whether the chicks they are feeding are theirs or not.
It doesn’t stop there – male dunnocks are also looking to mate with the masses to increase their number of chicks. They can often be seen spending spring and summer busily flitting between multiple nests with food for the various broods. But with so many males and females having multiple partners, feathery foursomes, fivesomes and who knows what else could be happening within a few metres of your finest roses, with each individual quietly confident they have the upper hand in the mating game.
This tiny bird also has a lot of love to give. At the beginning of the mating season the male builds multiple nests around his territory which he fiercely defends from male rivals. But the females, they are warmly welcomed and treated to swooning songs of desire. If the females are suitably impressed, she will move in and together they will raise one or two broods over the summer.
But this story has a twist… some males can’t resist the other females who flutter into his patch, eyeing up the spare nests. So much so it that it has been known for one male wren to mate with up to four different females, hugely increasing the number of young he can raise in a season. It makes us feel very tired, but being such a small bird, it makes complete sense. Wrens are badly hit in severe winters so by increasing the number of his young, it improves the odds of some of them making it through the cold and dark days ahead.
Starlings can come across as confident, loud and brash, stomping around in their shiny suits like little bird bouncers. But the males do have a softer side and know very well that a strong relationship is built on compromise and teamwork. As with the wren, it is the male that builds the nest, from dry grass and leaves and then sings from perches close to the nest entrance. But rather than finish the nest completely, he leaves it for the female to come in and apply the final touches, lining it with fine grasses, moss, feathers and possibly the odd cushion. With a happy home, the pair usually remain faithful throughout the breeding season and often make very good parents – with 70 per cent of chicks making it to the age where they leave the nest.
Put down those truffles. Forget the champagne. The real food of love are juicy earthworms, beetles and bugs. Well, for a robin anyway. The male robin may not break out the candles or run a warm bath, but he does know that a good meal can help form a strong bond with his new partner. Once he has impressed her with his sensational singing and fine physique the pair will mate. The female will build the nest and while she is doing this, and later while she is incubating the eggs, the male will bring food for the female, sometimes giving us as much as a third of her daily needs. You can spot this courtship feeding in early spring, with the female shouting “FEED ME” in the form of a short sharp call and then quivering excitedly in anticipation.
This extra food can make a big difference, with the female often laying more eggs if she has been well catered for by her partner.
We know birds have some serious moves – check out our Strictly Come Dancing contestants – but some of our more common birds can also strut with the best of them, including the goldfinch.
These dapper dancers certainly dress the part and the males use this in their routine, gently swaying from side to side while showing off the striking yellow on their wings.
The goldfinch are usually a little later to the mating game party than other garden birds, with egg laying extending form late April through August, with some young still in the nest in September. The young aren’t born with a red face, this comes later in life, we like to think once they have witnessed their dads’ dancing.
Long tailed tit
Long-tailed tits love a project and look for a partner who feels the same. Couples usually form in late winter so they have the time to dedicate to their nest, which when finished is worthy of an appearance on the bird edition of George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces. The male and female work flat out for up to three weeks on their bottle shaped masterpiece, using moss and hair intricately stitched together with cobwebs. They camouflage it with lichen and line it with as many as 1,500 feathers to keep their young cosey.
The hard work doesn’t stop there - as many as 15 eggs can be laid, with each chick needing a lot of food. But the family bond of long tailed tits is strong, with the brothers and sisters of the parents coming to help with the supermarket shop or dropping in the odd takeaway pizza*, if their own nests have failed. This makes a huge difference to the survival rates of the chicks who hopefully will go on to create their own nifty nests one day.
*This is more likely to be insects or caterpillars…
Wood pigeons are the touchy feely type. Some pairs mate for life but re-enforce their bond by taking it in turns to preen and canoodle with each other, not caring one jot for us embarrassed onlookers. In a routine we can all relate to, the male will also occasionally start showing off, with a little dance, chest all puffed out, just to show he’s still got it.
All this effort spent fluttering and flirting means there is little time for nest building, with most nests looking like a selection of twigs dropped by a toddler. Still, it seems to be a successful strategy, with wood pigeons, or clatter doves as they are sometimes known, increasing in number around the UK.
The house sparrow loves to settle down. Like the wood pigeon it often mates for life, but will also remain in the same home, using it throughout the year. The birds are very social and live in large groups if they can, busily chatting away, probably about those frisky dunnocks.
They usually nest between April and August, using hair, feathers, string and paper as building materials. When feathers are in short supply sparrows have been known to pluck them from live pigeons, probably while they are too busy canoodling.
Swifts are in it for the long-haul. Unlike most of our resident garden birds, the swift can live for many years, with the oldest ringed bird living until 21. They often pair up in their first year and like most young couples can be seen practicing their nesting skills, if they can find a suitable property within budget. It is not until they’re four that most swifts successfully nest, with the male and female sharing equally all the parenting duties.
When the summer days drift away the swifts leave, going back down to sub-Saharan Africa. But each couple will reunite again at the same nest site the following year, ready for some more summer loving.