Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 17.11.22 in Articles category

I am walking through a pine wood in Portugal and I hear the unmistakeable call of a Golden Oriole. Brilliant! For me it’s an especially exotic sound that has on occasion given me ‘goosebumps’ from the pleasure I experience on hearing it. Yet the date of this audio encounter doesn’t make any sense. It is 10 November and orioles have long gone south to Africa this late in the autumn. Then I realise. It might sound like an oriole, but the bird making the call is a resident Spotless Starling mimicking a singing oriole. Starlings are renowned for their mimicry.

Our resident starling species, the European Starling, is well known for its abilities to mimic car alarms or phone ringtones, and many people have a tale to tell about their bafflement hearing such ‘mechanical’ sounds coming from a bird. However, one of my favourite personal stories about starling mimicry was again an incident of a bird mimicking another kind of bird. It also involved a walk in November, but on this occasion I was much closer to home in the Northumbrian village of Rothbury. Walking along the river Coquet I could clearly hear a singing Sedge Warbler. I knew straightaway that my ears were deceiving me as there wouldn’t be any, given that these warblers are summer migrants to Britain and I would only expect to hear one between late April and August. I didn’t see the songster at first, but sure enough a Starling popped into view.

Other kinds of bird mimic too. Remember the episode of BBC Winterwatch from January 2016 when a Jay was filmed mimicking a Buzzard as it hopped towards a Red Deer carcass? In that instance it seemed clear that the mimic intended to scare off other birds to eat the carrion meat without attracting competition. Yet sometimes the reasons for avian mimicry are less obvious. My neighbour has dogs that play with a squeaky ball, and I often hear them playing when I am out in the garden. Typically, I hear the combined noise of dogs barking and toy ball squeaks, but this summer I was surprised on several occasions to hear the squeaky ball unaccompanied, and I couldn’t think how. It took me a couple of weeks to realise that the sound was not coming from a pet’s toy but instead from a resident male Blackbird. To me it sounded ‘pitch perfect’ and I couldn’t tell it was being made by a bird. Indeed, I wouldn’t have made the link except that I kept seeing that Blackbird immediately after hearing the toy ball in the same vicinity and I also noted that he was singing. I found it all fascinating, but also perplexing. Why was the Blackbird mimicking the squeaky ball? I can only presume the Blackbird was mimicking the toy because he could, incorporating the mimicked sound as part of his song’s repertoire and showing off his singing skills either to attract a mate or announce his prowess to male competitors.

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