November is dreary in the garden. The sitooterie is bare and rain-swept; the annuals have gone to the tip, the geraniums to the conservatory and the empty pots to the frost-free haven of the garage. It’s time to sort out the bird feeders and stock up with nuts and seeds. The hungry hoards must have been waiting for, within minutes of the grub being served, there was a multitude of titmice, robins and dunnocks. These birds have been with us, though less obvious, all summer. Later when it gets colder the siskins will come to feed upside down and the great spotted woodpeckers will compete with the red squirrels on the bird table.
Sorting out the nut feeders I found one had lost its top. It didn’t seem to matter but I hung it in place of a basket of bacopa under the eaves of the conservatory where the endless rain would not rot the peanuts. This was so close that, sitting among the geraniums, we were very near to feeding birds; mostly great, blue and coal tits.
Blue tits are the cheekiest, great tits are the bullies and the nervous little coals, though frightened and wary of the other birds tolerate humans best. So it was that these sombre little creatures with their badgery heads were  feeding happily only inches from us on the outer side of the double-glazed window. The only thing that phased them into flight was the white tilt of our raised post prandial coffee cups.

Learned Behaviour
It was here I learnt something new about avian behaviour. The wire mesh nut holder has exactly the same diameter as a coal tit. When the feeder was two thirds empty I watched a coalie perched on its rim. The bird lurched tentatively, like an uncertain bather psyching himself up for a plunge. The brave little bird launched himself headfirst into the feeder to land with a bump on the nuts descending like a plunger in a syringe. He was standing on his head. I was alarmed for him, for surely he was trapped.
Seizing a whole nut the bird calmly walked backwards up the mesh of the feeder. I have never before seen this remarkable action as the wire-like legs slowly but steadily pushed its body out of the close-fitting tube. He did this over and over again. But of the dozens of feeding coal tits only one had learned to do this. As I watched I got the distinct impression that this bird waited till there was nobody else at the feeder and did not want to share his new-found skill.
Wondering how the bird had learned to do this, I refilled the feeder. Then it was easy for, perching on its rim he merely had to lean forward to lift the uppermost nut. The other tits only succeeded in getting a small fragment of nut through the mesh of the feeder. When the other birds had nearly emptied the feeder again he had no option, if he were to get a whole nut, but to do his syringe-plunger trick again.
All this goes to show the learning capacity of wild creatures and to demonstrate how Darwin’s theory comes about. Luck confers a skill upon an animal which gives it an advantage over others, so providing the fitness for purpose that means survival.
Or perhaps the Goons were right: there is advantage in walking backwards to Christmas!

Robin Hull

 

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