Wheatear Politics

Taken through the back windscreen of a dirty car – but look at the cock’s posture and his offered gift of grass!

I fall in love with wheatears every spring, and yet as summer progresses they become so commonplace that my eye is led elsewhere and the fascinating little migrants fall out of focus. At this time of year, they are at a peak of industry and enthusiasm, and they offer so much more to the quiet observer than many comparable birds.

I watched a pair of wheatears this morning for over an hour around sunrise as they went through an extraordinary range of different emotions and behaviours, from arid, scratchy little song flights to strange begging rituals in which the male would present the female with all manner of gifts. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise these various transactions, but when the birds finally settled down to the serious business of foraging for food, I felt as if I had been spying on two complex, intelligent little characters.

Now and again, a neighbouring cock bird (who fortunately had a missing tail feather to aid with identification) would be drawn in by the incessant calling of the hen, and there would be an almighty skirmish between the little blue warriors. Feathers would fly, and then equilibrium would be resumed after a determined pursuit of the routed enemy. It was interesting to see that the hen was as keen on displaying as the cock, and she would often fan her tail and puff herself up in encouragement, clicking all the while like two dry stones knocked together.

I bought a copy of Peter Conder’s excellent monograph on wheatears two years ago during a burst of enthusiasm, and despite a 5am start to the hill, it will form the thrust of this evening’s entertainment. I’ve just typed up 2,000 words on all these two birds got up to, and this blog is the condensed essence of so much more material which will probably never see the light of day – still, it seemed too important to risk forgetting it.

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