Blackbird from William Lewin's Birds of Great Britain, 1789.
The willows are humming with bees; the raucous calls of the peacocks echo around the Valley in the stillness before sunrise and after sunset; and the blackbirds are once again involved in their border wars; spring is here.
Every morning now for the last two or three weeks a couple of cock, magnificently black, blackbirds have been busy trying to define the boundaries of their territories. The border of their territories is somewhere around a Taiwan cherry tree, growing by the railed fence around the garden. Every morning they are there, stalking each other along the railing, tails spread out like fans and heads raised up aggressively as they dash back and forwards, encroaching on each other’s space. One of the birds then descends to the ground and there they start all over again, rushing at each, dodging around the bushes, kicking over the leaves and then scurrying off, until it all gets a bit much for them and they fly up breast to breast and beak to beak, trying to deliver the coup de grace. However, it is all very ritualistic, very much like a game. One would wish that all territorial struggles were so amicable.
It was not until the 1920s that Eliot Howard, an obscure English bird watcher, introduced the word territory to zoology and challenged the time honoured notion that the male has little on his mind but females. Classical biology, from Darwin down, saw natural selection in terms of male competition for the female. Eliot Howard observed throughout a lifetime of bird watching that cocks seldom quarrel over hens; what they quarrel over is real estate and status. With infinite detail and patience, he observed the pattern of bird competition which he published in a booked called Territory in Bird Life. A superb naturalist, Eliot Howard studied species after species, migratory birds and resident birds, land birds and sea birds and always there was the same conclusion, that a cock who has acquired territory will have small problems in gaining or holding a mate. The cock seizes a territory, defines his boundaries by the pugnacity of his individual nature and warns off all others by his song. On this territory will he mate and breed but the seizure and struggle take place before the coming of the hen and without consciousness of sexual significance.
By marking out an area of land and defending it against cocks of its own species, a bird can gain monopoly access to food, nesting material and nest sites. A system of territory holding means that birds are dispersed more widely in suitable habitats than if the population is crowded in without restraint. It is within territory that social order is developed and defined. It is a survival mechanism which has evolved to reduce competition for resources. As an evolutionary strategy, a bird able to hold a territory is better able to pass on his genes.
Most territorial species have a definite code of conduct with the territory owner showing aggression within its own defended territory and fleeing when it is discovered trespassing in another bird’s territory. Rival birds seldom resort to physical combat — the risk of real injury to both is too great to make this a practical way of settling a dispute. Instead they have evolved patterns of behaviour which achieve results without exposing them to danger. Their territorial songs, like their elaborate threat displays, are battles of nerves, each bird working out the tension built up by two conflicting impulses — the impulse to fight and the impulse to flight.
Fights are usually brief and bloodless. Among the exceptions are the spectacular battles between two mute swan cobs. The birds fight breast to breast in the water, necks intertwined, beating each other with their powerful wings. These battles may last until the both birds are exhausted although their ultimate object is to push the rivals head under water to enforce submission and retreat.
Most birds hold territory for the breeding season only but some birds such as well established pairs of blackbirds may stay in their breeding territory over winter. There are the odd species where the female chooses the territory and attracts a mate.
It is not just birds which have a passion for a place of their own. After Eliot Howard’s book, naturalists began to follow his lead of studying the behaviour of animals in their natural environment in the wild rather than in zoos. Naturalists such as Konrad Lorenz and Eugene Marais went further than studying just territory, although territory goes a long way towards defining social relationships, and looked at animal society in general, studies which included hominoids or primates. Edward O. Wilson first coined the term sociobiology, a term which has come to cover the whole spectrum of biological investigations between organisms, in pairs, groups, herds, colonies and nations. Sociobiologists study the relations among termites in a mound, cuckoo hatchlings and their duped adoptive parents, the members of matriarchal groups of elephants, bands of monkeys, elephant-seal bulls and their harems and human couples, families, tribes and nations.
These studies have become of enormous importance in helping us to understand our place in the scheme of things, to comprehending our biological inheritance. Let us hope these studies will lead us to better appreciate that we are sharing this planet, this territory, with a host of other species and that we have no right to crowd them out, to deprive them of their ecological niche, a place of their own.
Narena Olliver — Waiotahi Valley, Opotiki, 1998.
Blackbird from Eleazar ALBIN's The Natural History of Birds, 1735-50.
Black ouzel, woozel, merle, chucket, gottling, Turdus vulgaris.
25 cm, 90g; adult male, black with bright orange bill; adult female, dark brown with pale throat and mottled breast, bill brown and dull orange; juveniles, rust brown with mottled breast, bill dark brown; immature males have brown wings against a brown body, patches of black; bill dark.
Widespread and common.
LINK to the Blackbird Nest Page
The Woozel–cock so black of hue With orange–tawny bill.
— William Shakespeare
You should not have come to my doorstep
With your begging bowl and bold gypsy eyes.
Mischief had befallen you.
Most blackbirds are streetsmart and savvy,
Alert to cats and dogs and men.
They background merge
Or shrill alarum scarum
To draw the attention of all
To a man standing in lonely shadow.
But not this young female,
Breast speckled like a muted thrush,
Who watched me dig,
Appraised me with obsidian eye
And decided somehow I was safe.
She would appear and flutter down
Almost under my boot or spade.
Yesterday she flew into the house
And perched on my bed.
I had no choice but to gently clasp her
In praying hands and place her
Outside my door.
She trembled and lay still on her side
And guilt washed over me.
But she came to, from her brief
Departure from this world,
Hopped on the lawn and ate the crumbs
I had scattered there.
Who are you really crystal singer,
And why have you come
So wantonly into my shadow,
My dark nightingale?
— Arthur Bennett
Lewin, William, Birds of Great Britain, 1789.
Eleazar ALBIN, The Natural History of Birds, 1735-50.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Howard, Eliot, Territory in Bird Life, 1948.