Brood Bonds

Excellent mothering skills from a greyhen on the Chayne
Excellent mothering skills from a greyhen on the Chayne

On the theme of young blackgame, I happened to bump into another brood of young birds yesterday afternoon in the breezy sunshine. The dog put them up one after another, three young blackcock and two greyhen poults, finally followed by the greyhen herself who had run on a few yards. The cocks were perhaps five days or a week behind the bird pictured below, and each one had a 3″ x 1″ black patch of feathers on their flanks to denote their sex. As they flew, I did see that they had longer tails than the greyhens, but they are still straight and brown.

These young birds would have made for appallingly easy shooting, and they loped clumsily for a short distance before plopping down again at all points of the compass with perhaps four hundred yards between them. Part of the ease of shooting them would have been that they sat so tightly that they dog was almost on them before they got up, and they rose with a noisy, ponderous clatter right at my feet. They were actually so slow that I was lucky that the dog didn’t catch any, and I called her off as soon as the birds had dispersed. As the mother took to the air, I heard the familiar, girlish “huk-huk-huk” call, but that had been the only sound of alarm. This in contrast to the poults I put up nearby a fortnight ago, which had yelled with an angry, gargled “threep!, threep!”

Just as an experiment, I backed off and went to sit in the jeep, which was parked overlooking the big grassy pan where I had discovered the brood. The young birds were strong and quite independent, scattered as they were, but I wanted to observe the mothering skills of the greyhen, since she is almost universally despised as a terrible parent by many naturalists and observers.

After twenty minutes, the greyhen reappeared on foot, standing tall on the grass, then dropping down into cover and darting very quickly out of sight to the next vantage point. I worried that the wind would make regrouping difficult, but she was very vigilant and careful. Close examination revealed that she already had at least one poult with her, and it was keeping its head down amongst the mounds of moss and cranberry.

When the wind dropped, I could hear her calling – a strange and totally unexpected sound – monotonous and shrill “wheep, wheep, wheep, wheep”, almost whistling and made as if by a far smaller bird.  It was only by getting a glimpse of her beak snapping open that I was able to make sure that the contact call was hers and that it wasn’t some other sound distorted by distance down in the clearfell half a mile away. When she stood to call, she was almost vertically upright like a meerkat, with her very long snake’s neck stretched straight up in the air. At two hundred yards it was difficult to see much detail, but she was showing off her white “headlamp” armpits for all to see.

She ran back and forth, up and down with tremendous industry, and after a few minutes, four poults appeared together from behind me. They must have gathered themselves together and then run around in a group, got over a tall dyke and come back to where they had been disturbed. She ran towards them and then order was immediately restored almost precisely on the spot where I had put them up. All six birds had come back together and the whole process had taken just 35 minutes from flushing to restoration. According to the old accounts, greyhens are horribly inattentive parents and habitually lose their offspring, but this had been a classic display of mothering instinct by a bird that was well equipped to gather together her young in classic gamebird style. I have seen black grouse at all stages and in all kinds of situations over the past five years, but this had been totally new. I still couldn’t believe the sound she had made, which was totally unlike my experience of black grouse vocabulary.

It would be more than possible that birds at that stage could fend for themselves, but the brood instinct is obviously still very strong and they were as keen to get back as she was to have them. The brood then moved together slowly downwind, with the hen standing like a wine bottle on a tussock watching over them. They moved in a kind of freeform gang, and she made sure that they never got more than twenty five or thirty feet away before dropping off her tussock and racing after them. They busily browsed away with their heads down, and it was easy to lose sight of them when she was on the move. 

They wandered into a rushy hagg, and I left them to it, reflecting on the miraculous effects of a warm, dry summer. In the spring of 2013, there were no blackcock on the farm. I searched relentlessly on my ground and on the neighbouring properties and found nothing. Then we had a good summer and a brood got away somewhere. I started seeing blackcock on the high ground in November, and this spring there were three cocks on the farm with a lek of two where before there had been none. Now there are visible broods which would have seemed like some impossible dream just eighteen months ago. It is an incredible reversal, and testament to the power of the weather when it comes to wild game. 

I have even been seeing wild pheasant broods down on the lower ground, and the general atmosphere is one of extraordinary prosperity, and yet I have been doing nothing different. I have shot no more foxes or crows this year than any other, and the habitat is precisely as it has been. The only change has been a little sunshine, and I am all too aware of what will happen if we get another succession of wet years. Everywhere is wriggling with black grouse this summer; such is the nature of wildlife. But holding on to these birds through good years and bad is the next trick, and will involve a huge amount of hard work.



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