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Friday, 5 May 2017

The Birds of Lochranza Campsite

A hooded crow, a common bird with uncommon ability

Spring truly arrives here at the end of April in an explosion of yellow whin blossom (whin is also known as gorse). Did you ever play the children’s game in which someone holds a buttercup under your chin to see if you like butter? The bright yellow of the flower reflects on your skin and you are told you like butter. The whin blossom reminds me of this because the butter-coloured bushes illuminate the hills above them at this time of year. Birdsong is a soundtrack that doesn’t cease in the hours of daylight; the cuckoo calls hopefully to prospective mates, and the lambs have become confident enough to leave their mothers and join up as gangs that chase wildly round the bunkers.

In Lochranza we keep having a quick look upwards throughout the day to see the golden eagles soaring serenely above the glen. However, the birds we get to know best are the ones who make a choice to share life on the campsite. Every year we watch for the swallows’ return to their old nests in our sheds (they’ve just arrived as I write this) as well as the starling that nests in a hole in the big tree stump, sticking out its scruffy black head now and then like a wee chimney sweep. Our most familiar bird is the hooded crow who probably knows much more about us than we know about her or him. She/ he is a large and impressive-looking member of the crow family with a glossy black head and an intelligent expression, a black bib, elegant steel grey plumage and dark grey wings, tail and legs. She is in the habit of sitting on our balcony looking at us through the window. If I put meat scraps out for her she croaks three times (always three!) and then four other members of the family appear and all get a bit of food; this might not be language but it’s certainly a communication system. She strides jerkily and flies a bit like an aircraft carrier, low and slow, but mainly she spends her time keeping campsite life under surveillance. In fact, as tough, clever and adaptable birds, ‘hoodies’ are renowned for their problem-solving abilities. According to the 2016 Arran Bird Report the crow family is ‘considered to be the most intelligent of the birds’ with a ‘brain-to-body mass ratio equal to that of great apes’.

The Bird Report explains how hooded crows and carrion crows are closely related. In the last Ice Age they developed plumage differences during their occupation of two ice free areas: one in the Balkans and one in the Iberian Peninsula. Today, their European distribution reveals hoodies in the east and the all black carrion crow in the west EXCEPT in a narrow zone of overlap which includes Arran and where interbreeding takes place which can produce fertile hybrids – look out for these birds with their variable amounts of black and grey plumage.

There are a lot of jackdaws to be seen around the campsite too. They are sometimes confused with hoodies because of their dark heads. However, jackdaws are smaller than hoodies and usually operate in large groups, sometimes landing on sheep and deer to peck off parasites, a service the animals seem to appreciate. For recognising the differences between similar birds take a look at: www.bto.org/about-birds/bird-id

The Arran Bird Report is full of interesting records and information and this year’s copy (Arran Bird Report 2016) is now available in shops round the island.