Country diary: Birds of different feathers flock together

Otley, West Yorkshire: In this muffled, snowy landscape, there are pleasing signs of cooperation between nuthatch, tits and other birds

With everything smothered in snow, the forested ridge of the Chevin is insulated against ambient noise from the rest of the world, muffling the rush of traffic in the valley below and the rumble of planes above. Fat white snowflakes pour silently through the canopy. Snow-gilded tree limbs bend under the weight and create grotto-like tunnels around the paths. An overladen branch gives way somewhere in the canopy, sending a flurry of snow down the back of my jacket.

A mixed flock of tits busily foraging through a patch of birch and heather provides a small pulse of life. The soft sounds the birds make – their tiny chirping conversation, the minuscule flickers of their wings – are bright and clear in the silence, and even the pale-yellow underside of the coal tits (the Latin name for which, Periparus ater, unjustly suggests the bird is simply “dull black”) shines against the monochrome background.

Snow-muffled woods on the Chevin.
Snow-muffled woods on the Chevin. Photograph: Carey Davies

The tits have company: a nuthatch, flinty-grey on top and orange underneath, comes walking headfirst down a tree trunk (the only British bird that can climb down trees as well as up them), assiduously combing crevices and cracks for food on the way. With their bandit black eye streak, leading to a pronounced dark dagger of a beak, there is a touch of the fugitive about nuthatches, and they can indeed compete aggressively with larger birds for food and territory. But in this case, it’s possible that something other than competition is going on.

Different species of tits live separately during the breeding season, but in winter they come together to form foraging flocks – or “bird waves” – which collaborate to find food and evade predation. Nuthatches, as well as treecreepers and woodpeckers, are known to join these roving winter alliances, which can have complex social dynamics and species-specific roles – some specialising in foraging, for example, and others acting as sentinels to ward off predators.

It is, perhaps, something of a rebuff to the idea that the state of nature is perpetual “red in tooth and claw” warfare; in the case of these cold cooperatives, at least, birds of different feathers flock together.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Carey Davies

The GuardianTramp

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