THE LETTER FROM Nigel Hewston (below, left) touches on a subject I’d thought about, but really shied away from: that of “stress” in the life of birds. With people, stress gets a bad press: it’s linked to all manner of life-shortening conditions. But where, with people, does healthy stimulation end and unhealthy stress begin? It’s not necessarily easy to decide. Still less so, perhaps, with birds.

Nigel cites the example of a turaco family that took an undeniably stressful “house move” in their stride. That got me thinking about a personal experience. In the Omani desert, two Septembers ago, I visited an artificially irrigated farm, extremely remote, where migrant birds stop off to eat and drink. There, I saw numerous birds such as wheatears and shrikes “cowering” in tiny strips of shade behind water pipes, mandibles wide as they “panted” in the merciless heat. They looked “on the point of expiring”. Yet I didn’t find a single feathered corpse and, disturbing as it seemed at first sight, I had to conclude that the open-billed “panting” was not a sign of imminent death, but a “normal” self-cooling technique similar to that used by many animals in hot climates. Come nightfall, those birds would be on the wing again, resuming their migration. What seemed to me like life-threatening stress was the robust adaptation
of healthy birds to their environment.

None of that, of course, gives us the slightest excuse to neglect our own birds. Their health and fate are in our hands, at every moment, and we must never forget it. The lesson for me was that we should be very careful about using our own standards to interpret bird behaviour. These frail little creatures are, in many respects, immensely tougher than we are – and they know what they are doing.

  • Interesting think-piece about breed-and-release schemes by David Alderton on page 14. Should we be prioritising the reintroduction of “trophy” birds such as white storks over the conservation of smaller species such as turtle doves? One possible “pro-stork” argument is that in recent years these huge birds have adapted eagerly in parts of their range to nesting on structures such as telecoms pylons. In Morocco, the record is 25 stork nests on one pylon – and let’s face it, we’ve got lots of pylons, haven’t we?

Have a cooler week with your birds.


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