Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 24: Robin

No surprise in the final bird on the advent calendar. Or at least, no surprise for my British readers; robins probably appear on more Christmas cards here than Jesus.

In fact, the robin is so deeply linked to Christmas that it’s slightly surprising to remember other countries don’t have the same association. Some of them have the excuse that they don’t actually have any robins — and no, Americans, your so called ‘robins’ don’t count — but the same applies to other European countries.

It’s not completely clear where the connection came from. It’s relatively recent, as folklore goes; at most back to the eighteenth century, and it became really well established in the nineteenth, as Christmas cards became popular. One suggestion, according to Birds Britannica, is that Robin was a nickname for Victorian postmen, who had red uniforms; so the birds often appeared on Christmas cards carrying envelopes in their beaks. Or perhaps it’s because they sing through the winter.

Christmas aside, they are very popular birds; they are famously tame around people, hanging around gardeners looking for worms. Apparently they actually evolved this behaviour in association with wild boar, which they would follow through the forest in much the same manner. I guess there are worse things to be than a substitute boar.

Happy Christmas, one and all.

The 5th annual Christmas stuffing post

As usual, I’ve made a base of sausagemeat, onion, celery and breadcrumbs, and split it into two batches.

To one I added dried apricots and dried barberries which I reconstituted in champagne (but only because there was half a bottle of flat champagne in the kitchen). Then a pinch of mixed spice.

The second stuffing had pistachios, lots of flat-leaved parsley & a bit of thyme, some chopped green olives, garlic, lemon zest and lemon juice.

Incidentally, my computer problems are back and so the final entry to my advent calendar will have to wait until when and if I get it running again… hopefully at least before midnight.

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Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 23: Partridge

I’ve been baking a ham, wrapping presents, and listening to cheesy Christmas music today, so let’s plough on with the Christmas clichés.

I’ll skip the seven swans a-swimming, the six geese a-laying, four colly-birds, three french hens and two turtle doves; but here’s a partridge:

It’s not in a pear tree because, apart from anything else, it would be very unusual to see a partridge in any kind of tree.

The partridge above is the Grey Partridge, Perdix perdix, which is native to the UK, as well as much of the rest of Europe. So that’s probably the partridge in the song, although according to Wikipedia the song came from France, so perhaps it was about the Red-legged Partridge — which also came from France. The song dates to 1780 in English, and the first breeding record of RLP is 1770, so they could even have been introduced together… though probably not.

People have all sorts of reasons for introducing birds to countries where they aren’t native, but not surprisingly, species which are good for hunting and eating are one popular choice.

The Red-legged Partridge is still known to hunters in the UK as the ‘French Partridge’, and even after 200 years we still think of it as an introduced species. But it’s not the only introduced game animal; the pheasant, the rabbit and the fallow deer are all so well established as to seem like native species, but the (originally Asian) pheasant was brought by the Romans, and the Normans brought us fallow deer and rabbits.

Here’s some good stuff from Wikipedia about variant versions of the song:


In the west of France the piece is known as a song, “La foi de la loi,” and is sung “avec solennite,” the sequence being: a good stuffing without bones, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs’ trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapter of canons, ten full casks, eleven beautiful full-breasted maidens, and twelve musketeers with their swords.


In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, | A popingo-aye [parrot]; | Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were three partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o’ merry corn.

That French version sounds like a recipe for one hell of a Christmas party.

» Photo Credits: Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) is © Tomasz Kulakowski and used under the CC by-nd licence. Partridge in Snow 2 is © Keith Marshall and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.

Mmmm, cured pork products

This is what I have been doing today (well, that and wrapping presents):

The ham is from Sillfield Farm, but I steamed and glazed it myself. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out, although I know it’s not the most flattering photograph.

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Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 22: Spotted Nightjar

I’m going out on the razz this evening and I have things to do; presents to wrap, cats to give pills to, ummm… that might be it. But anyway, here’s a quick one, a lovely picture of a Spotted Nightjar and chick which I found on Flickr:

Cryptic camouflage designed to help birds hide can be just as beautiful as flamboyant plumage used to attract mates.

» Photo Credit: There are two nightjars is © Brent Barrett, and used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 21: Raven

My computer shows signs of being on its last legs, so here’s an avian omen of death. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, in the build-up to a battle, three animals — the eagle, the raven and the wolf — turn up in an ominous foreshadowing of the bloodshed to come.

I’m pretty sure this literary trope didn’t arise from symbolism or metaphor, but from simple observation. Animals don’t need to be that clever to work out that following an army is a way to find meat.*

And ravens are actually pretty smart. Crows and parrots are the cleverest of birds, capable of problem-solving, playful and inquisitive.

Perhaps that’s why Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (‘thought’ and ‘mind’), which flew around the world each day, gathering information for him.

And North American folktales raise the raven even further, into the spirit who created the human world; but also a trickster, capricious and dangerous.

That’s my kind of creator: a raven creating the world out of boredom and mischief. That’s the trouble with Christianity; I guess I can live with a a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful, but does he have to be so damn pious?

* Even when there wasn’t human flesh available, there would be scraps of rubbish to pick at. It has been suggested that dogs were not intentionally domesticated by people; wolves domesticated themselves by switching to a diet of scavenged rubbish and becoming associated with human settlements.

» Photo Credits, from top to bottom: Common Raven (Corvus corax), © Derek Bakken, used under the CC attribution licence; Raven, © Atli Harðarson, used under the by-nd licence; Common Raven, © Paruula, used under the by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 20: Hawfinch

I sometimes dream about birds. Particularly, I dream about rare birds turning up suddenly in my garden.

And my subconscious aims high; I dream about mixed flocks of parrots and hornbills which, in dream-logic, have been caught up in some extraordinary freak weather system and blown from all corners of the world to turn up together in suburban London.

These are nice dreams, I suppose, but they also carry a whiff of anxiety. The panicky feeling of trying to find and positively identify an exciting new bird, which, being a bird, is liable to fly away.

I remember three birds from last night. There was some kind of pipit with a yellow flush along each side of a strongly streaked breast. There was a large, black and white booby which was flying against a window with the mechanical aimlessness of a badly-programmed computer game character that reaches a wall and just keeps walking on the spot. And there was one identifiable species; a hawfinch:

A booby turning up in my garden would be preposterous. A hawfinch would just be staggeringly unlikely; they do breed in Britain, and they clearly come to birdtables in some places:

Look at that beak, big enough to crack open cherry stones. What a bird.

» Hawfinch is © Andreas Øverland and used under the CC Attribution licence. Hawfinch 3 is © Max Westby and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.


Something went wrong with my WordPress upgrade, and I was still trying to sort it out when my computer died, and that took several hours to rescue (and involved reformatting the hard drive, reinstalling the system and restoring my files from a backup)… so I still haven’t sorted this blog yet. I don’t have access to the admin pages. If you’re reading this it means I’ve managed to post via the iPhone app, but the advent calendar is on hold for the moment. What larks.

EDIT: well, the good news is that I can get back into the admin area of the blog, the bad news is that I didn’t wait and check plugin compatibility properly, and one of the key plugins I use, Simple Tags, is currently borked. Hence the error message below. But I think sorting that out can wait until tomorrow.

EDIT: the Simple Tags problem solved! Yay! After about 20 hours of doing my own tech support, I’m almost back to where I was yesterday at lunchtime.

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Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 18: Short-eared Owl

I had to have an owl for one of these entries, because let’s face it, everyone loves owls. So here is the Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus.

The Short-Eared Owl Is one of the most widely distributed species of bird in the world; it’s found on all continents apart from Australia and Antarctica. There are even endemic subspecies on both Hawaii and the Galapagos. These four photos were taken in British Columbia, Iceland, the Galapagos and California respectively.

There’s something slightly mysterious about these species which have incredibly wide natural distributions: Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Mallard. I mean: why them? Obviously they have to be adaptable species, but even that just invites the question: what makes them so much more adaptable than other species?

For example: there are about 30 native duck species in Europe. What is it about the mallard that makes it so much more adaptable, so that while other species are dependent on specialised habitats and need to be the subject of careful conservation programs, the mallard just cheerfully takes up residence on any old bit of urban canal or garden pond?

It’s not surprising that when new, manmade habitats appear, like parks and gardens, some species should be quicker to adapt to them, perhaps because they somewhat resemble some wild habitat; so House Martins, which were once cliff-nesters, adapted easily to nesting on buildings. They were moving into an open niche. But presumably that wasn’t true for the Short-eared Owl. So what’s their secret?

» Photo credits, from top down: Short-eared Owl, © Rick Leche and used under the CC by-nc-nd licence. Fighting Owls, © Árdís and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence. Short-eared owl on Genovesa island, © Petr Kosina and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence. Short Eared Owl (Asio flammeus), © leftrightworld and used under the CC by licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 17: Green-tailed Sunbird

Still on the dinosaur thing, because it is genuinely fascinating, I think. Yesterday I picked a bird that looked like a bit like a dinosaur to illustrate the point, but of course they’re all evolved from dinosaurs, even ones like the Long-tailed Tit, or this Green-tailed Sunbird:

And it’s not a distant relationship, in evolutionary terms; birds fit right into the middle of the family tree of dinosaurs. Here’s something I just learnt from Wikipedia, which I don’t think I’d appreciated before: Velociraptor, the predatory dinosaur made famous by Steven Spielberg, had feathers. Indeed it had stiff, quilled ‘wing feathers’ on its arms, although it didn’t use them for flight. It had hollow bones. It brooded its eggs. Some of the smaller species in the same family probably used their feathers for gliding.

However, the other scary predatory dinosaur in Jurassic Park, the Tyrannosaurus rex, did not have these kind of quilled feathers. Which means that Velociraptor shares a common ancestor with modern birds which it does not share with T rexVelociraptor is more closely related to the Green-tailed Sunbird than it is to Tyrannosaurus.

And Tyrannosaurus, in turn, shares a common ancestor with the sunbird which it does not share with Iguanadon, or Stegosaurus, or Diplodocus.

It’s an extraordinary thought.

» I didn’t want to get too sidetracked because the details are complicated and I’m only getting most of this stuff from Wikipedia myself, but just a couple of pedantic points. Firstly, the velociraptors in the film are much too big, apparently, although there is a larger related species called Deinonychus which is the right sort of size. The real Velociraptor was about turkey sized. Still too big to glide though.

And secondly: it’s true that T rex did not have quilled feathers. But apparently, some of the smaller tyrannosaurids do show signs of having had primitive, downy feathers for insulation. It may be that the only reason T rex doesn’t have these is that it is too big to need insulation, and like elephants, rhinos and hippos, it has lost it. Or maybe the hatchlings were downy but they grew out of it.

Wikipedia has an article about feathered dinosaurs. The whole business is mind-boggling, in the best possible way.

Photo credit: Green-tailed Sunbird (male) – Aethopyga nipalensis is © Mike (NO captive birds) in Thailand and used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 16: Red-legged Seriema

In the comments for the last entry, Tricia said:

Just…look at its DINOSAUR EYE, Harry!


The reason why some birds look, from the right angle, rather dino‑saurian is that they are dinosaurs.

Red-legged Seriema

Many people think that the dinosaurs went extinct. This is NOT TRUE.

They just grew feathers.

» The headshot of the Red-legged Seriema is © Sarah and Iain but used under the CC attribution licence. The other Red-legged Seriema is, as far as I can tell from the Wikimedia information, © James Faraco Amorim and used under the CC by-sa licence.

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Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 14: Wilson’s Storm-petrel

The tubenoses — the petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses — are a wonderful group of birds saddled with a slightly unfortunate name. It’s true that they do have tubular nasal passages on top of their beaks, presumably to help them sniff out food at sea, but it’s not exactly a name full of the romance and mystery of the open ocean.

But then you or I might not look at horses, tapirs and rhinoceroses and feel the most interesting thing about them is that they have odd numbers of toes. That’s taxonomists for you: they concentrate on what’s most distinctive, not what’s most exciting.

And for me, what makes the tubenoses so wonderful is that connection with the sea. They are genuinely sea-birds; to watch a shearwater or an albatross skimming between the waves is to see a bird completely inhabiting a world that we can only visit. The open sea is where they are at ease; for them, dry land is where the danger lies. Most species only come to land to breed, and even that, only at night. I visited Skomer last year, the Welsh island with about 120,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters — 30% of the world’s population — and if it wasn’t for the bodies of those who had fallen prey to the Great Black-backed Gulls, you would never have known they were there at all. To see them, I had to take a boat trip out as night fell, to watch the flocks building up offshore.

But shearwaters and albatrosses, with their stiff-winged, banking flight, have a sort of purposeful quality, a robustness that seems fitting for a life at sea. What’s amazing about the storm-petrels is how completely unsuited to that life they seem. This is a group of Wilson’s Storm-petrels:

They are little, delicate, fluttery birds, and when they are feeding, they flutter along close to the water and patter their little feet on the surface. Supposedly the name, petrel, is a diminutive of Peter because, like St. Peter, they walk on the water.

It’s not so surprising that they feed at sea, perhaps, but the idea that they make their whole lives at sea, that they spend the winter out among the big rolling grey waves of the open ocean, is astonishing.

It’s not just storm-petrels, of course. Puffins, those comical little birds which look like cuddly toys, or earnest, permanently surprised clowns: they overwinter out in the middle of the north Atlantic. Writing this at night in London, with a cold breeze coming from the window, it’s an extraordinary thought, all those little birds sitting out there on the water somewhere in the cold and the dark.

» Both photos of Wilson’s Storm-petrels (1, 2) are © Patrick Coin and used under the CC by-nc-sa licence. Incidentally, check out this hypnotic video I found while looking for photos.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 13: Long-tailed Tit

Familiarity breeds contempt, and it’s hard to get excited about even the most attractive of birds when you see them for the 20,000th time. But there are a few birds which are dirt common but which never fail to give me a little thrill of pleasure every time I see them. Like long-tailed tits:

They are just so adorable, like little feathery lollipops.

They travel around in restless groups, constantly talking to each other with little sree sree noises; outside the breeding season it’s not unusual to see groups of 25, 30, 40 birds, and you can stand in a gap between a couple of trees and see them fly over, one after another, half powder-puff and half tail, and they just keep on coming and coming. If it wasn’t for all that tail, they’d be one of the smallest birds in Europe, and they are Just So Cute. Even their nests look like something a flower fairy would live in.

» Long Tailed Tits is © SteveB!Mésange à longue queue (Aegithalos Caudatus) Long-Tailed tit is © Luciano Giussani. They are both used under the CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 12: Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

This is one of my favourite birds ever, the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla:

Or in a more orthodox portrait:

They have a simple three-note call, and on a birding trip to Venezuela we encountered one individual that consistently got the notes in the wrong order. Which got funnier every time it did it.

» Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, perhaps my favorite blurry shot ever is © Andy Jones, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and used under a CC by-nc-sa licencechestnut-crowned antpitta was originally uploaded to Flickr by jj birder and is © John Jackson.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 11: Red-necked Phalarope

When I read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People, it kind of made me want to visit Iceland. On the one hand, it’s a bleakly pessimistic tale of a man struggling to drag himself out of grinding poverty, only to be crushed underfoot by changing circumstances. On the other hand: phalaropes!

Phalaropes — that’s the Red-necked Phalarope — are related to sandpipers, snipes and suchlike. Apart from being rather beautiful, they have a couple of particular quirks of their own. One is this extraordinary feeding behaviour (Red-necked Phalarope again, this time in winter plumage):

That spinning swirls food up to the water surface where they can pick it up — or at least that’s the assumption; it’s not an easy thing to test, and I don’t know if anyone has tried. Whatever the purpose, it is incredibly endearing watching them spin around like little demented rubber duckies.

The other unusual thing about them is that the female is more brightly coloured, while the drabber male incubates the eggs and raises the young. The rule of thumb in biology, that males are larger, more brightly coloured, and more aggressive, arises in the end from a basic physiological bias: sperm are easy and cheap to produce, eggs are more expensive. Babies are more demanding still. So there’s a general advantage for males to try to mate with as many females as possible — they can always make more sperm, so any chance to reproduce is worth a shot — while females have a different set of incentives: because there is a practical upper limit on the number of offspring they can produce, they need to be more choosy their mates. Which is why, in human societies, ‘polygamy’ actually always means ‘polygyny’; men having many wives is common, wives with many husbands incredibly rare.

That logic does apply to birds as well as mammals: birds’ eggs are still somewhat expensive to produce — more so than sperm, anyway — and in the vast majority of birds the males are the ones with the glamorous plumage. But the imbalance is less dramatic, and if the males can be persuaded to sit on the eggs and do all the rearing, that frees up the females to maintain territories, mate with several males, leave eggs with each of them and bugger off leaving them to bring up the chicks.

This role reversal has happened in a handful of bird species, including the phalaropes, the painted snipes, the dotterel, the jacanas (lily-trotters), and the buttonquails. These birds are all somewhat related, but not especially closely; they are in the same large group that includes waders, gulls, terns and auks. Clearly it is a perfectly functional arrangement, but it still leaves you wondering: why them? What circumstance arose that caused this behaviour to switch? Did they go through a period of raising the young cooperatively before the sexual roles diverged again, this time the other way round? It’s fascinating stuff.

» IMG_8198 is © Bjarni Thorbjornsson and used under a CC by-nc licence. The video is from MIT TechTV.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 10: Sword-billed Hummingbird

When I started this advent calendar I intended to just post picture of a bird each day and leave it at that, but I keep thinking of things I want to add. Today, though, I really am just going to post a picture:

That is a Sword-billed Hummingbird, Ensifera ensifera. Not, sadly, one of the hummingbirds I saw in Ecuador.

» Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) is © David Cook and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 9: Sedge Warbler

You wouldn’t last long as a birder if you weren’t able to find beauty in little brown birds, but they don’t always photograph well, so I was pleased to find this lovely shot of a sedge warbler on Flickr:

The Sedge Warbler, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus, is an archetypal LBJ — Little Brown Job — but is actually quite flashy compared to some of its relatives; with that striking white eyebrow stripe and streaky back, it can look positively glamorous on a sunny day in spring, perched on top of a bush and singing its heart out.

And it’s the song, really, which is the most remarkable thing about them. It’s a bargain that many birds strike with evolution: being small, drab and inconspicuous is great when it comes to avoiding predators, but when it’s time to attract a mate, you need to be a bit less… boring. So they sing. And the finest singers are usually found among the drabbest birds: the warblers, the larks; the nightingale.

These birds are like the anti-peacocks; the peacock has the most extraordinary plumage imaginable, but all it can do is squawk. The song of the nightingale or the skylark is an evolutionary freak as remarkable as the peacock’s tail.

The particular trick of the Acrocephalus warblers is mimicry. Sedge warblers produce a fast, rattling song, full of croaking noises, squeaks and whistles, and in amongst it all you can hear little snatches of other species: tits, finches, wagtails, coot. And apparently, as well as those European species, there are little snatches of African bird calls, learnt while the warblers are overwintering south of the Sahara. The result isn’t perhaps quite as pleasing to the human ear as nightingale song, but it’s still a remarkable thing — and the female sedge warblers seem to like it.

You can hear a selection of sedge warblers on xeno-canto, an excellent database of European birdsong I discovered while writing this post. And also its cousin, the marsh warbler, whose song consists almost entirely of mimicry.

» Sedge Warbler is © Tim Williams and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Harry’s advent calendar of birds, day 8: Swallow-tailed Gull

This is the Swallow-tailed Gull, Creagrus furcatus. It’s endemic to the Galapagos, and as you can see, with that big red eye-ring it’s one of the world’s more striking seagull species.

I use the word ‘seagull’ deliberately because, for some reason, it really winds up a lot of birdwatchers; they insist that the only acceptable term is simply ‘gull’.

This is of course ridiculous. ‘Seagull’ is a perfectly reasonable, normal English word; it’s mildly colloquial, but it’s not actually incorrect, unlike, say, ‘buzzard’ for vulture or ‘hedge sparrow’ for dunnock.  And while gulls aren’t the most pelagic of species — they’re not like albatrosses that only return to land to breed — most species, like this one, are more or less associated with the sea.

But then it’s not really about accuracy: it’s just the linguistic equivalent of pissing in the corners to mark your territory. Insisting that seagull is ‘wrong’ is just a cheap way of asserting your own status as a higher class of birdwatcher than the little old lady who throws bread to the seagulls from Brighton pier. Because if you’re a birder you use the right kind of colloquial words for birds: blackwit, hoodie, sproghawk, bonxie, butterbutt, mipit, sprosser…

Anyway, returning from that detour to our friend the Swallow-tailed Gull (you can see the slightly forked tail in the picture above). The most remarkable thing about the STG? It’s the world’s only nocturnal gull species, which is why it has such big eyes, and it feeds on fish and squid that come to the surface at night.

» swallowtailgull 11 is © zrim/Phil; 090717-F10-8769Swallow-tailed Gull is © Mike Cornwell. They are both used under the CC by-nc-nd licence.