Peak Bird

This is it. Over the next twelve months there will never be more free-roaming, independent birds at large in the northern hemisphere. Final, last-minute broods are fledged, post-breeding or post-juvenile moults are just about finishing, and the thoughts of a billion bird brains are turning toward winter. Blue and great tits are forming great mixed-species feeding flocks, joined by other tits, finches, robins, goldcrests, warblers – anything that ekes out some benefit from joining the in-crowd. After the relative lull of late summer, it is exhilarating to be out and surrounded by the life, sound and movement of so many birds.

At a small feeding station this past weekend we caught and ringed almost 100 birds, half of them blue tits, all hurrying into good condition by feasting on peanuts before the weather really closes in. It’s amazing how many hours can go by whilst yet more new arrivals come in. The turnaround at the average bird feeder is astonishing. It’s only through tagging individual birds in this way that you begin to realise just how many there are. That’s not to say that all is well in bird world. We may have reached peak bird for the year, but the peak bird point of history is long since past.

Times are hard for birds right across the world, particularly migratory species, depending as they do on conditions in both summer and winter grounds and all stop-offs in between. As I write they’re still pouring out of these temperate zones by the million, some carefully logged by birders but the bulk of them – despite the jokes about the position of every bird in Britain being constantly logged – simply melt away unseen, the majority never to return. It’s particularly poignant to hold a chiffchaff at this time of year. An eight-gram scrap of feather and bone made of insects and rainwater, quite possibly about to head off for North Africa. Now they’re in peak condition, but will they ever get back into the shape they need to return in spring?

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