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Subject: ‘Birds’

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Victorian milliners almost killed off the Great Crested Grebe

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Great Crested Grebe,  picture, image, illustration
Great Crested Grebe by R B Davis

With so many of our native birds declining in numbers and some even disappearing altogether, it is good to know that at least one species is on the increase. One hundred years ago the Great Crested Grebe was in danger of extinction, chiefly because it was the fashion in Victorian times for ladies to wear hats that had been trimmed with grebe “fur.” Towards the end of the last century the number of breeding pairs of these birds was estimated at less than 50. Today, nearly every large sheet of fresh water supports at least one pair of these attractive birds.

Grebes are expert divers and can stay underwater for a considerable time while they feed on small fish, weed and water insects. The courtship display of these birds is unusual. Sometimes a pair face each other, with “ears” held erect and ruffs spread out, and then solemnly shake their heads from side to side or rise up in the water breast to breast and present each other with bits of water weed. This kind of courtship takes place at most times of the year but, in spring, leads to the building of a nest, a floating mound of dead reeds and water plants among the reeds in shallow water.

The three to five eggs laid from April onwards, are white, but on leaving the nest the parents cover them with weeds and this makes them a dirty colour. The chicks have attractive black and white stripes and are often carried on the backs of their parents, sometimes concealed among the feathers with only their heads poking out.

The Common heron goes fishing in garden ponds

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the heron first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Common heron,  picture, image, illustration
Common Heron

It is estimated that there are about 10,000 herons in England and Wales and you will have been rather unlucky if you have not seen one flying overhead at one time or another. In flight the heron has a heavy, slow-flapping appearance with legs stretched straight out behind and with the long neck drawn in. You might see one on some stretch of river, wading in shallow water on the look-out for eels, frogs and small fish. It will also take small mammals, young birds and even goldfish from garden ponds!

The heron, it seems, is a cunning bird, for one has been seen to carry a piece of bread to the water, drop it in and then wait for small fish to come and nibble the bait so it can gulp them up one by one.

The nest of the heron is a large, untidy affair made of small branches and sticks in which smaller birds like sparrows, sometimes become squatters by moving into the “basement flat” and making their own nests. Two to six eggs are laid in early spring but the rather comical-looking crew-cut chicks are unable to fly until they are two months old.

The Swift is nature’s peerless master of the skies

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Swift,  picture, image, illustration
The Swift by R B Davis

Great Britain can always expect a large influx of bird visitors in the summer, and the swift is always one of the last to arrive. It usually reaches us from Central and Southern Africa in May.

The swift has an unrivalled mastery of the air, for its small, streamlined body with long tapering wings enables it to fly at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. For swifts the air is as natural a living space as the ground is to us – they feed, mate and even sleep up there.

As you watch the swifts scream and manoeuvre high in the air on a summer evening, you might notice that just before dusk they soar higher and higher until they are out of sight. Radar observations have shown that they spend the night at altitudes of around 9,000 feet.

The nest of the swift is made of feathers, leaves, and any other light material like paper, which gets carried up into the air where the swift collects it. The swift cements these pieces together with saliva and makes its nest under rafters or in a gap in the brickwork of buildings.

Although similar in general appearance, swallows and martins are not related to swifts. The swift is all black except for a light patch under the chin, while the swallow is dark blue on the upper parts with a blue band on the chest, a red throat and forehead, and white underparts. The house-martin is steel blue above with a white rump and white underparts. Its cousin the sand martin is brown above and white underneath, with a narrow brown band across its chest.

The Greater Spotted Woodpecker is plagued by starlings

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 594 published on 2 June 1973.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker,  picture, image, illustration
Greater Spotted Woodpecker

If you take a walk in the woods and keep very quiet, you may be able to eavesdrop on a strange and secret conversation. As you pause among the trees, you may hear a tapping sound made so rapidly that it seems like a roll of drums.

This will be the Pied Woodpecker, or Greater Spotted Woodpecker as it is also known, communicating with another woodpecker, who may be a considerable distance away. This bush telegraph is worked by the bird’s striking the trunk of a tree with its beak with great rapidity.

This shy bird also uses its beak to chisel out a nest hole. But then comes trouble. As often as not, once the hole is completed it will be taken over by starlings. And the poor woodpecker has to go away and make another hole somewhere else. Because of this, it is often late in June before the hen can begin bringing up her family.

Grubs and wood-boring insects make up the food of these birds, who dig out the wood with their beaks or extract the insects with their extremely long tongues.

In winter, they rely on nuts, acorns, berries and pine cone seeds to augment their diet when insects are harder to find. At this time, you may attract them to a bird table with pieces of cheese or a large bone. They will hammer vigorously at the bone with their powerful beaks to get at the marrow inside.

Pied woodpeckers are black and white birds about the size of a blackbird, with a patch of scarlet on their undersides. The males and young birds also have a red patch on the nape of the neck.

Britain also has two other members of this bird family. These are the Green Woodpecker and the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Willow Warblers fly thousands of miles for an English summer

Posted in Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 593 published on 26 May 1973.

Willow warbler,  picture, image, illustration
Willow Warbler

The Willow Warbler or Willow Wren as it is sometimes called is not very well named for it shows no particular preference for willow trees. It is just as likely to be found on any well-wooded heath or common, or in a shrubbery or large garden.

All members of the Warbler family are slightly-built birds with the typical thin, pointed beaks of insect eaters. The plumage of the Willow Warbler is greenish grey with pale yellow underparts and its sweet but rather plaintive song of descending notes is one of those most often heard in the woods at this time of year.

This bird is a summer visitor, usually arriving sometime in April. It comes to us from southern Europe and Africa but some of its relations cover much greater distances. One bird, which spends summer in Eastern Siberia travels all the way from its winter quarters in East Africa, a journey of 7,000 miles – quite a jaunt for such a small bird.

The nest of the Willow Warbler is made from dry grass lined with moss. It is nearly always sited on the ground but the bird takes great care to camouflage it with a dome of grass stems. Six to eight speckled eggs are laid in May and the young keep both parents very busy, demanding to be fed, mostly on a diet of insects and young caterpillars.

The Nuthatch leads a life full of ups and downs

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 17 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 591 published on 12 May 1973.

Nuthatch,  picture, image, illustration

The handsome Nuthatch, with its slate grey coat, chestnut underparts and black eyestreak, is a familiar resident in parks and woodlands all over Britain. It can often be seen moving up and down the trunks of large trees in search of food and if you have difficulty in identifying it remember, it is the only one of our birds which habitually hops head first down a tree trunk. No other bird is quite so acrobatic.

In summer it feeds mostly on insects but it is also fond of nuts. In autumn you might be lucky enough to find a broken hazel shell jammed into the bark of a tree and this is the work of the Nuthatch. When it finds a nut it jams it into a suitable crevice in the bark and then hammers at it with its sharp, powerful beak, cracking the outer shell to get at the kernel inside. You can make use of its passion for nuts by enticing it to the bird table with a plentiful supply of peanuts.

The Nuthatch shows equal ingenuity in its nesting habits. It first selects a hole in a tree in a situation it likes. If the hole is too small it will enlarge it by chiselling away at the surrounding wood with its beak. If the entrance is too large then it plasters round it with wet clay or mud until it is just big enough for it to enter comfortably.

The eggs, four to nine in number, are usually laid early in May, in a nest lined with grass and dead leaves. Both parents feed the young with caterpillars and insects.

The Cuckoo is a familiar summer resident in Britain’s countryside

Posted in Animals, Birds, British Countryside, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about the Cuckoo first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 590 published on 5 May 1973.

Cuckoo,  picture, image, illustration

One of Britain’s best-known summer visitors is the Cuckoo. This bird arrives from its winter quarters in tropical and south Africa sometime in April.

It has a bad reputation which is certainly well-deserved. Too lazy to build a nest and to bring up its young, the cuckoo victimises small birds such as reed warblers, hedge sparrows and robins, by removing an egg from their nests and replacing it with one of her own. When it hatches the young cuckoo is very sensitive to touch and will kick and jerk if the rightful occupants of the nest touch it. One by one, the young nestlings are kicked out of their home until only the cuckoo is left. In this way the gluttonous baby receives all the food that would have been given to the other birds. This makes it grow at an alarming rate, but it still clamours for food from its unfortunate foster parents, even after it has left the nest.

The cuckoo is unique among British birds in another way because the adults start the migration journey back to their winter quarters in Africa in late July or early August, some weeks before their youngsters are ready to fly.

It remains a mystery how these young birds, completely neglected by their real parents and therefore, having no contact with them at all, are able to make the long and difficult journey to Africa over sea and land entirely unaided.

A parliament of rooks passes judgement on its weakest members

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 12 March 2014

This edited article about the Rook first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Rooks with nest, picture, image, illustration
Rooks' nest

The months of March and April are busy times in a rookery. Activity starts early in the year but it is not until these months that the eggs are laid. Male rooks are very considerate husbands and fathers. They are responsible for building the nest and for feeding the hen during the 16 days when she incubates her eggs. The males also help to feed the young when they are hatched.

You may sometimes see a most mysterious display of rook behaviour which is the ‘rook parliament’. This is when a group of rooks encircle an individual and after much cawing and apparent discussion set upon the unfortunate victim and peck it to death. On the face of it, this looks very much like trial and punishment, but when the dead bird has been examined it has been found to be diseased or sick. So, perhaps, this is just another example of the survival of the fittest for the good of the race.

Rooks, carrion crows, and ravens are sometimes confused because they look so alike. But as a general rule, if you see a flock of large black birds in a field they are probably rooks. If only one or two are seen together they are more likely to be crows. Ravens are much larger birds with more powerful beaks and are usually seen only in wild, hilly country.

The genius of Alfred Russel Wallace has been dimmed by Darwin’s

Posted in Birds, Historical articles, History, Nature, Plants, Wildlife on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about Alfred Russel Wallace first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 581 published on 3 March 1973.

Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace,  picture, image, illustration
Loaded with their exotic catches, Bates and Wallace trudged home while their neighbours relaxed in their hammocks by Severino Baraldi

He was a thin, bespectacled, diffident young man, a land survey or by profession, and a botanist by inclination, who was most happy when he was pottering around the English hedgerows and country lanes, looking for specimens. Looking at him, you would never have thought of him as being a robust man, capable of enduring all sorts of hardships. If anything, you would have put him down as being rather a weakling. Which makes the story of Alfred Russel Wallace, all the more incredible.

It is quite possible that Wallace might well have led an obscure and uneventful life if he had not had the good fortune to meet and become the friend of a well known naturalist of the time, known as H. W. Bates. Wallace had an abrupt manner and a withdrawn nature, but there was something about Bates that broke down all his reserve. More than that, the friendship seems to have changed him overnight from an earnest but dull naturalist, into an adventurer who was to risk his life daily in a distant primeval jungle.

His imagination suddenly fired by some books of South American travel he had been reading, Wallace decided that he would like to go there in order to search for specimens. He approached his friend Bates, and put the proposition to him. Would he like to accompany Wallace on a scientific expedition along the banks of the Amazon? Bates agreed to accompany him, and in the April of 1848, the two friends set off on their journey.

Reaching the town of Para, at the mouth of the river Amazon, they rented themselves a house which they used as a base for their early expeditions into the forest. At first Wallace was only conscious of the luxuriant foliage and the immense size of the trees, which often rose to more than eighty feet before they spread out their branches like a vast canopy over everything below. The reckless extravagance of colour that Nature used for her plant life also astonished him as he trod daily along jungle paths bordered by rare orchids and mimosa growing as plentifully as weeds.

But this, as he was soon to learn, was only one aspect of the jungle. The other was ugly and cruel. In holes, only a little way off from the footpaths, great bird-catching spiders lurked. Snakes were everywhere, ready to strike out at the intruder’s legs. Hornets and wasps abounded, and crocodiles lurked on the river banks.

In the night the air was filled with venomous insects which penetrated the muslin sleeping nets and inflicted bites which turned into ugly sores. Most loathsome of all were the vampire bats, which settled on the horses and fed on their blood.

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Natural life in the racing torrents and waterfalls

Posted in Animals, Birds, Fish, Nature, Wildlife on Monday, 24 February 2014

This edited article about wildlife first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 563 published on 28 October 1972.

Salmon leaping falls,
Salmon leaping torrents and waterfalls

In the hilly and mountainous parts of the country the streams are torrents which come tumbling downhill, splashing over rocks and pouring over waterfalls. The movement of the water is eye-catching in what is often an otherwise desolate scene. Over the years, the streams have carved gullies and ravines in the hillsides for small trees and bushes to find shelter from the wind. Waterfalls are especially spectacular, where a wall of foaming water crashes in to a pool at the bottom.

These streams and waterfalls may look pretty but they do not appear at first sight to be good places for animals to live. A paddle in the water shows up the disadvantages. The water is icy cold and quickly numbs the feet, while the current is often strong enough to make standing difficult. In the fiercest mountain streams the boulders may be dislodged and hurled down-stream.

Yet, as in other inhospitable places, from hot volcanic springs to the ocean bed, there are certain animals which make a living in torrents. There are some advantages for small animals. The foaming water is full of oxygen for breathing and the water carries food which only needs to be picked up as it goes past. Two things are needed, however. Torrent animals must be able to withstand cold and they must be able to cling tightly to the rocks by means of claws or suckers so that they do not get swept away.

In the British Isles there are several small animals which live in fast-flowing streams. They are mostly the larvae of insects. The adults do not live in the streams but they come there to lay their eggs.

Mayflies are common insects which can be seen flying near water. They lay their eggs in the water and these hatch into larvae called nymphs. The nymphs have three “tails” at the tip of the abdomen, as do the adults, and there are two rows of feathery gills on the sides of the body. Mayfly nymphs can be found in many ponds and streams. Some burrow in mud near the bank, others creep amongst the water weed, but a few can be seen in fast streams. Nymphs of the mayfly called Ecdyonurus have broad, flat bodies and cling to stones so that the water rushes past them. The legs are also flattened and are held at an angle so that the force of the water pushes them against the stone. A relative of Ecdyonurus, called Rhithrogena, has turned one of its pairs of gills into a sucker to help it cling to stones.

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