How to tell a male robin from a female robin

Robin's NestAt every garden I visit just now, I am attended by one or two robins (Erithacus rubecula). They look and behave so much alike that, when there is just the one robin in attendance, it almost feels like the same bird is following me about from one garden to another. You read that male and female robins are identical, but this is not the case – there is a difference, but it is slight and because robins often stand side-on when they’re watching us, it isn’t easy to see. The difference is seen in what can be described as the ‘hairline’ and is clearly shown in the linked photographs here; the female bird’s hairline is ‘V’ shaped and the male’s is ‘U’ shaped. You can make out the ‘V’ in the picture below (taken with a zoom lens from some distance away). Since the eggs are incubated by the female only, this makes the distinction clear.

During late winter and early spring, robins form pairs and this makes it easier to tell male and female apart. It was only a week ago, when a pair of mated robins were bold enough to stand facing me for some minutes, just a metre away from where I was kneeling, that the difference became truly obvious. One robin had a distinct ‘V’ hairline and the other had a much flatter ‘U’ hairline. The two birds watched every move I made as I weeded through a rockery, darting forward to pick up worms and insects and then moving back to keep their vigil a short distance away.

The habit robins have of following gardeners is age old and at one time, when there were fewer humans, they more often followed wild pigs to find the food unearthed by the pigs’ foraging snouts. This is called ‘commensal feeding’, with humans being the ‘beaters’ and robins being the ‘attendants’. It isn’t confined to robins, either; think of the gulls and crows that follow the farmer’s plough. Blackbirds do it as well – there have been many occasions when I’ve dug a planting hole, gone to pick up the plant and returned to find a blackbird in the hole, busy finding worms.

Robins are extremely territorial and their behaviour towards each other outside the mating season is hostile, sometimes resulting in fights to the death, but during late winter and spring they make charming company for gardeners. Some are restless, flitting from branch to ground, others will sit in a nearby shrub and sing their quiet, wistful sub-song. The reason for sub-song is probably that they are singing to themselves, but it is easy to hold the impression that it is sung for us alone, for surely no other bird could hear it.

From ‘Address to a Robin’

Come, sweetest of the feathered throng,
And soothe me with thy plaintive song;
Come to my cot, devoid of fear,
No danger shall await thee here…

Hop o’er my cheering hearth, and be
One of my peaceful family
Then soothe me with thy plaintive song,
Thou sweetest of the feathered throng.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823)

SOURCE – RHS

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EU Proposes to Ban Insecticides Linked to Bee Decline

Damian on bees : Bees flys over a sunflower in a sunflower field in Lopburi provinceInsecticides linked to serious harm in bees could be banned from use on flowering crops in Europe as early as July, under proposals set out by the European commission on Thursday, branded “hugely significant” by environmentalists. The move marks remarkably rapid action after evidence has mounted in recent months that the pesticides are contributing to the decline in insects that pollinate a third of all food.

Three neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used insecticides, which earn billions of pounds a year for their manufacturers, would be forbidden from use on corn, oil seed rape, sunflowers and other crops across the continent for two years.

It was time for “swift and decisive action”, said Tonio Borg, commissioner for health and consumer policy, who added that the proposals were “ambitious but proportionate”.

The proposals will enter EU law on 25 February if a majority of Europe’s member states vote in favour. France and the Netherlands are supportive but the UK and Germany are reported to be reluctant.

“It’s important that we take action based upon scientific evidence rather than making knee-jerk decisions that could have significant knock-on impacts,” said the environment secretary, Owen Paterson. “That’s why we are carrying out our own detailed field research to ensure we can make a decision about neonicotinoids based on the most up-to-date and complete evidence available.”

Luis Morago, at campaign group Avaaz which took an anti-neonicotinoid petition of 2.2m signatures to Brussels, said: “This is the first time that the EU has recognised that the demise of bees has a perpetrator: pesticides. The suspension could mark a tipping point in the battle to stop the chemical armageddon for bees, but it does not go far enough. Over 2.2 million people want the European commission to face-down spurious German and British opposition and push for comprehensive ban of neonicotinoid pesticides.”

Keith Taylor, Green party MEP for South East England MEP, said: “For too long the threat to bees from neonicotinoids has been dismissed, minimised or ignored. It is, therefore, good to see the European commission finally waking up. Bees have enormous economic value as pollinators and are vital to farmers. Let us hope that we’re not too late in halting the dramatic decline in their population.”

Scientific evidence has mounted rapidly since March 2012, when two high-profile studies found that bees consuming neonicotinoids suffered an 85% loss in the number of queens their nests produced and showed a doubling in “disappeared” bees who got lost while foraging. Neonicotinoids have been fiercely defended by their manufacturers, who claim there is no proof of harm in field conditions and by farming lobbies who say crop yields could fall without pesticide protection. Some neonicotinoid uses have been banned in the past in France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany, but no action has yet been taken in the UK. A parliamentary committee is currently investigating the impact of neonicotinoids on all pollinators and found evidence raising “serious questions about the integrity, transparency and effectiveness of EU pesticides regulation”.

On 16 January, the European Food Safety Authority, official advisers to the EC, labelled the three neonicotinoids an unacceptable danger to bees feeding on flowering crops and this prompted the proposal produced on Thursday. If approved by experts from member states on 25 February, it would suspend the use imidacloprid and clothianidin, made by Bayer, and thiamethoxam, made by Syngenta, on crops that attract bees. Winter cereals would be excluded, because bees are not active at that time, and the suspension would be reviewed after two years. The European commission is also considering banning gardeners from using these neonicotinoids, although B&Q, Homebase and Wickes have already withdrawn such products from their garden centres in the UK.

“This hugely significant proposal promises a first, important step on the road to turning around the decline on our bees,” said Friends of the Earth’s head of campaigns Andrew Pendleton. “The UK government must throw its weight behind it. The evidence linking neonicotinoid chemicals to declining bee populations is growing. It is time to put farmers and nature before pesticide company profits. Ministers must act quickly to support safe and effective alternatives to chemical insecticides.”

Source – The Guardian

Birds Come Down to Earth in the Year of the Slug

Getty the SlugSome British birds and butterflies had disastrous breeding seasons in the sodden weather of 2012, it is now clear, while other wildlife also struggled in the wettest summer for a century.

Breeding productivity tumbled in birds such as the chaffinch, and butterflies such as the common blue, as nests were washed out and insects were unable to fly to find mates and lay their eggs.

“Virtually everything was hit,” said Paul Stancliffe of the British Trust for Ornithology, while Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation said that, for butterflies and moths, “it was an awful year”.

In fact, the wildlife year began promisingly with one of the warmest and driest Marches on record, which meant that early-breeding birds, residents such as the long-tailed tit, did comparatively well. It came at the end of a second successive dry winter, amid fears of a major drought.

But no sooner had water restrictions been imposed in southern England in early April than the heavens opened and a record wet April followed, which was followed in turn by a record wet June, and then the wettest summer as a whole since 1912. The big winner amid the soggy conditions were slugs – including the giant Spanish super slug which was reported to be invading gardens.

But the rain meant the number of fledglings birds could produce dropped alarmingly in many cases: chaffinch chicks were nearly 60 per cent down on their average, according to the BTO, with reed warbler productivity more than 35 per cent down, and large drops in other warbler species such as blackcap, whitethroat and chiffchaff.

Among butterflies, common blues had a disastrous breeding season, and there were poor performances from the holly blue and the whites. But many plants, such as wild orchids, did well.

“In general, plants and slugs were the big winners and insects the losers,” said Matthew Oates, resident naturalist at the National Trust. “This has been a highly polarised year, with wildlife in the places we look after doing either remarkably well or incredibly badly.” Orchids had a fantastic year almost everywhere.

But, according to the Trust, the April downpours had a detrimental impact on fruit harvests in the autumn as the spring rains washed away the blossom, resulting in a very bad year for English apples, and fruits and berries such as sloes and holly berries.

It was a also a bad summer for the insect pollinators: bees and hoverflies suffered setbacks, although the good news for picnickers this year was that there were very few wasps. In its end-of-year assessment, the Trust says: “Mammals have had a mixed year, with bats having an especially difficult time. Water mammals have also suffered greatly, with water vole holes being washed away in the floods. Animal sanctuaries are now inundated with underfed hedgehogs, and dormice also had a poor breeding season.”

Flora and fauna: 2012’s ups and downs

January Earliest recorded flowering magnolia appears in Lanhydrock, Cornwall, on New Year’s Day; snowdrops and crocuses also flower earlier than normal in the mild winter weather.

February Survey of 50 National Trust gardens on Valentine’s Day finds a 19 per cent increase in flowers in bloom compared to 2011; rooks begin building nests earlier than typical.

March Drought orders put in place across swathes of England after a second successive dry March; supposedly extinct large tortoiseshell butterflies, right, seen on the Isle of Wight, but the unseasonally warm weather hits badgers, as they struggle to find food in dry soil.

April Snow and the wettest April ever recorded fail to shift widespread hosepipe bans; heavy rains means kingfisher holes and water-vole burrows are drowned by floods; a short bluebell season adds a splash of colour.

May Continued wet weather leads to the widespread failure of spring fruit blossom; cuckoos fail to breed at Wicken Fen for the first time; insect populations partially recover towards the end of the month; a very rare cream-coloured courser is spotted in Herefordshire – the twitch of the year

June Orchids flourish with spectacular displays at Blakeney on the Norfolk coast and Stackpole Warren in Pembrokeshire, and hundreds of fly orchids on Dunstable Downs; large blue butterflies emerge in good numbers, laying a record number of eggs at the National Trust’s Collard Hill in Somerset; breeding success for sandwich terns and little terns at Blakeney Point.

July Over 150 per cent of normal rainfall – the arrival of Spanish super-killer slugs makes the headlines; a good year too for dragonflies, with 22 species recorded at Scotney Castle, Kent.

August A terrible summer for bee-keepers with bees at the National Trust’s Attingham Park, West Midlands, having to be fed; wasp numbers are also very low and swifts depart after a very poor breeding season.

September Improving weather fails to boost apple crops, with a 90 per cent drop in Dorset affecting cider production; signs of a second-spring effect with the bogbean flowering at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales (which normally flowers in April).

October Massive landfall of thrushes from Scandinavia at Blakeney Point, Orford Ness and Farne Isles on the east coast; pheasant feeder bins emptying much faster than usual, due to unusually hungry birds, mice and other mammals

November More floods strike the South-west and then the north of England; there is a reasonably good show of waxcap fungi in Lake District and Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion; seal pups break the 1,000-barrier at Farne Isles and Blakeney Point

December Consequences of a wet spring are felt with low numbers of holly berries; there is an invasion of the normally rare migrant bird, the waxwing.

Source – http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/birds-come-down-to-earth-in-the-year-of-the-slug-8431684.html