Family life with the birds

PUBLISHED: 15:49 03 December 2010 | UPDATED: 17:04 20 February 2013

Family life with the birds

Family life with the birds

Natalie Boxshall of the RSPB sings the praises of the bird world's super siblings

Happy families

Natalie Boxshall of the RSPB sings the praises of the bird worlds super siblings

With flowers emerging, summer is not far from our minds and there are some heart-warming scenes unravelling in the garden soap opera. Tulips, bluebells and apple blossom are all in bloom, while the resident avian couples are learning to cope with their clutch of hatchlings.

With parents working to feed their young, the skies are buzzing with action. Many couples work in co-operation to provide food for their offspring. What is surprising and touching, is that the parents are not always the only individuals involved in raising a family.

Several species, such as swallows and house martins will have more than one brood each season. What is more remarkable than this, is that there is a tradition for members of the first brood to help in feeding the young of the second or third. Moorhens have also been observed displaying this superb-sibling behaviour and how wonderful to see this altruism between brothers and sisters.

Long-tailed tits are the ultimate example of the happy family. Come spring, the previously established flocks, in which they spend the winter, disband into couples to make a nesting attempt. It is a fact of life that not all these nesting attempts will be successful. If it is too late in the season to make a second attempt then they will do a most unusual thing. The couple will split up and each will go to help one of their own blood relatives make their nest.

The helpers presence at the nest of a sibling has a dramatic effect on the survival of their nephews and nieces. This teamwork allows the amount of food brought in to increase, and reduces the amount of stress on the parent birds. But why do the helper birds behave in this wonderfual way?

By helping at a siblings nest, the long-tailed tit is earning his or her place in the winter flock which is key to surviving as roosting alone throughout the harsh winter is an uncomfortable option so there are mutual benefits to the solidarity between siblings.

Evolutionarily speaking, there is another reason for lending a helping hand (or wing?). By assisting with their brother or sisters brood, they are ensuring that some of their genetic make-up is passed on to the next generation. In short, they are leaving a family nest egg for the species.

So as we dream of a balmy summer, we can also be amazed at the couples, trios, and even quartets that are raising this years hatchlings. Isnt it lovely to see such affable family relations in the ever-changing story of our gardens?

You can read all about the RSPBs work in Shropshire here: www.rspb.org.uk/shropshire

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