Valentine’s Day for the birds

Courting robins dine out
Courting robins dine out

Written by Heather Elvidge

Although temperatures remain stubbornly low the days are getting longer, and when the sun shines there’s a tremendous swell of birdsong.

While food remains the priority, birds take 
advantage of a fine hour or two to prepare for spring. Increasing daylight is the spur for male birds to sing and females to choose a mate.

Winter is no deterrent to the skylark hovering above his territory. A small speck against the sky, he matches his speed to the onrushing wind, and pours out his silvery song.

Blustery winds catch the long tails of magpies as they search for possible nest sites. The old verse begins, “One for sorrow, two for joy,” and it’s as true for the birds as the onlooker. Unless one dies, magpies tend to keep the same mate.

A male goldfinch bounces through the air to land in a treetop. He spends a few moments practising his musical twitters mixed with fairy bells, before rejoining the flock. That wheezing is coming from a greenfinch, but he can be hard to pick out unless the sun happens to catch his green feathers.

Halfway down the tree is a pink-breasted chaffinch, proclaiming his patch with a cheerful run of notes. It ends with a cheeky “whee-oo”, which is the bit you tend to notice.

In winter the male robin won’t tolerate any red-breasted intruders. Now, to his annoyance, there’s one that just won’t go away.

A female robin has heard his song and decided he’s the one. When he flies at her she retreats a little; then she follows him again, persisting until he gives up. Once they’re together he’ll offer her food, and sing from high in a tree while she listens, tucked away among the twigs.

It’s no coincidence that birds are pairing up around the time of our festival of love — it was avian behaviour that made the 14th a day for 

In his poem, “Parlement of The Foules,” written around 1380, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of birds choosing their mates on St Valentine’s Day. He wasn’t the only one to say this, so it could have been contemporary folklore.

During the next half century February 14 became linked with romancing humans, as well as birds. It wasn’t just a poetic notion — there’s plenty of evidence that the idea caught everyone’s imagination. It’s continued to do so for around 600 years.

Fly by

An unusual event on February 15 is the close approach of a large-ish asteroid. As it passes by earth, the asteroid will be within the orbit of our communications satellites. But it will only be visible to the naked eye if it hits one of them, which is most unlikely.

Rising in the east at 19.51, the asteroid will cross the handle of the Plough around 21.45. Good binoculars should spot this faint moving “star”, though it’s probably not worth the bother.

There are other sights worth seeing. Orion and Taurus, high in the southwest, are fascinating constellations. And this month glorious Jupiter lies in Taurus, far outshining every star in the sky. So make the most of any clear nights, before the winter constellations give way to the stars of spring.