Pecking and drumming

Last week, I was fortunate to witness two characteristic forms of bird behaviour that I was aware of, but had never actually seen before.

The first came on Monday morning. Our friend Bill had stayed with us over the weekend, so I was frying some bacon for his breakfast before he left. I glanced through the window, and saw a pair of dunnocks behaving extremely amorously. The Victorians saw the dunnock as an admirable example of sexual fidelity. They could not have been more wrong. As the BTO website explains:

For many years a peculiar piece of Dunnock behaviour had been noted by many people—vent or cloacal pecking. One Dunnock was seen to peck under the tail of another but there was no explanation of what was happening. A few years ago Nick Davies, working in the Cambridge Botanical Garden, found out the absolutely stunning explanation for this behaviour.

Dunnock breeding behaviour has evolved into an amazing melange of systems, with monogamous pairs, pairs with two males and one female and even pairs with two males and two females. Many males were trying to father chicks with females in other territories, pecking at the female cloaca to displace any sperm from a previous mating before mating themselves. Cloaca pecking was all about the cock bird trying to ensure that he was going to fertilise as many eggs as possible.

I had seen female dunnocks flirting with males before, flapping their wings in what I imagine, from a male dunnock's point of view, was a highly suggestive manner. The wing-flapping was usually accompanied by tail-raising, as the wanton females presented their backsides to the males in open invitation. The males would tend to get rather agitated themselves at this point, flapping their wings along with the females. But, until Monday, I had never witnessed actual cloaca pecking before. It looked rather vicious, going on for a good 30 seconds or so. Then, in quite literally a split-second, the male leapt into the air, slammed his nether-regions against the female's, and flew off, mission accomplished. Dunnocks take the phrase fancy a quicky? extremely literally.

Then, as I was sitting in a heathery hollow on the Moor early on Thursday morning, waiting for the sun to drive away the mist, so that I could begin recording a video (of which, more next week), I heard this weird whirring noise. At first, I wondered whether it was some red grouse call I had never heard before, but then I realised what it was, and looked up to see a pair of snipe flying side-by-side in a choreographed, roller coaster manoeuvre, up and down, with each steep drop being accompanied by the whirring noise. Drumming it's called. As Wikipedia explains:

Drumming (also called bleating or winnowing) is a sound produced by snipe as part of their courtship display flights. The sound is produced mechanically (rather than vocally) by the vibration of the modified outer tail feathers, held out at a wide angle to the body, in the slipstream of a power dive. The display is usually crepuscular, or given throughout moonlit nights.

Crepuscular: a favourite word! I had seen snipe on the Moor before, but not often. And I had certainly never witnessed drumming before. But I've seldom been on the Moor so early in the morning before, so perhaps I've been missing a trick. Over the next hour or so, I saw several pairs of snipe drumming for extended periods of time. They were too far away to photograph, unfortunately, but it was a magical experience.

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