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Dunlin in flight

Ranger Dawn tells us exactly why she thinks birds are much more talented than they’re often given credit for.

She shines a spotlight on their record-breaking feats, their inspiration to human flight, their mimicry and engineering skills, and their ability to overcome the toughest challenges to survive – and thrive.

Ranger Dawn
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I adore birds, yet, strange as it seems, I know that for some people birds are just a little bit dull.

Perhaps it’s familiarity: they’re just there, in the garden, the park, the street, hopping around and not really doing much other than pecking at crumbs or pinching our chips.

But, when you delve a little deeper, nothing could be further from the truth.

Birds are absolute masters – their myriad of accomplishments truly mind blowing. I can think of no other group of animals that excel in such a wide variety of skills.

If you thought we homo sapiens – thanks to our big brains – were a sophisticated bunch, then prepare to be amazed.

Even tiny brains can rock this world.

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Record breakers

It comes as no surprise to say that most of them fly. But boy – how do they fly!

Some fly at record breaking speeds – how about the red-breasted merganser, the world’s fastest duck which reaches speeds of 80 miles per hour (and some claim even faster)?

Or bar-headed geese which fly at 29,000 feet as they pass over the Himalayas on their migratory path?

And I have to mention the mind-boggling distances travelled by arctic tern: over 55,000 miles each year.

Not forgetting the non-stop flights of the common swift that only land to breed.

Swifts flying in a flock
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Flying aces

Humans have tried to fly since time began, and often taking their inspiration from the birds.

Jet aircraft face similar air stream problems to birds of prey: they travel so fast that air hits a wall of resistance and flows around the engine – or the falcon’s head – rather than through it.

To overcome this problem, falcons’ nostrils have a small protruding cone which ‘baffles’ the speed of the wind, just like the metallic cones at the opening of jet engines developed by engineers. There you go, nature did it first.

Peregrine falcon
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Migration – a true wonder of the natural world

At least 4,000 species of birds migrate to escape harsh winters and a scarcity of food – that’s about 40% of the world’s total.

For some the distances are vast and for all, the challenges are many.

It’s an arduous task even preparing for such an ordeal since birds may lose up to 60% of their body weight during the journey.

This bi-annual movement of many millions of birds has to be one of the true wonders of the natural world, but how do they do it?

Some travel in family groups, many in flocks, but most remarkably, the first year birds of numerous species actually go it alone.

How?  Well, other than that they seem to have an innate knowledge of the direction and distance that they should travel, no-one really knows.

A four-month-old bar-tailed godwit has recently smashed the previous known record of a tagged bird, with an epic 11 day non-stop flight of 8425 miles from Alaska to Tasmania and that was long after the adult birds had left their youngsters to fly south.

Bar tailed godwit

Bird navigation is in itself a marvel yet to be fully understood.  Scientists suspect that birds probably use the stars and the sun as well as landmarks, the earth’s magnetic field and possibly even smell, though as yet nobody is really quite sure.

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Vocal masters

Birds vocalise, many sing and those that don’t still have a rich repertoire of calls.

You may have been awoken by the crescendo of a dawn chorus or enchanted by avian evensong and you certainly don’t have to go looking for nightingales to be serenaded: robins do a pretty good job as do blackbirds with their husky melodic tones.

marsh warbler
Starling

For mimicry, look no further than the marsh warbler.

Though diminutive in size (slightly smaller than a sparrow) they have been recorded as imitating as many as 200 different bird calls.

I’m sure a few of you have been in the street and wondered whose phone is ringing only to discover it was another maestro of impersonation: the starling.

Chicks learn to sing from their fathers, or male tutors, they then go on to practice, often adding their own twists and turns, though for some species, their entire vocabulary remains the same and is just handed down from generation to generation.

Of course, whilst melodious to our ear, birdsong isn’t a song at all, rather a complex range of calls used for many different reasons.  Put simply, birds have the most complex vocalisations in all the animal kingdom.  How cool is that?

 

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Virtuoso designers and engineers

From the tiny intricate cocoon of a long-tailed tit to the enormous eyrie of an eagle; from the perfectly formed nest cup of the barn swallow, to the floating raft of a grebe, birds are truly masters of design and engineering.

Seemingly untaught, it’s purely instinct that drives them to create their often elaborate and ingenious ‘egg boxes’. Though practice does make perfect and more experienced birds often produce more offspring.

The materials used are as varied as the designs themselves, spiders’ silk, mud, moss and feathers, twigs and pine needles to name but a few.

Any dog owner will tell you if you brush your pet outside during nesting time, the fur will soon be eagerly collected.

It can take anywhere from two days to two weeks to build a nest. And remember: no hands, it’s all done by beak.

Impressed yet?

Blue tit collecting nest material
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Tough challenges

Some birds excel at swimming, indeed for some their migration is a walk across many hundreds of miles – on ice with bare feet – and some can comfortably run the equivalent of a marathon in about 40 minutes.

Some use tools, occasionally even making their own, while others have saved many lives and even been awarded medals for doing so.

Yet despite such amazing abilities, life for most birds is very tough.

Sanderling

Flying can be exhausting, particularly for many of the smaller birds who need to eat around half of their own body weight every single day to survive. Climate change and habitat loss are taking their inevitable toll and let’s not forget that birds spend most of their time trying to avoid predation.

Birds deserve our admiration and respect.

Their value to us is immeasurable, not just in the ecological sense, but, as is now widely acknowledged, for our wellbeing too.

You don’t need to know the name of the singer to appreciate the song, you just need to listen.

Find out why Ranger Tony says birdwatching is good for the soul.