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Hats Off To The Rule Breakers

  • Mon 22nd Apr, 2019

Only three things certain in life; birth, change and death. If change is so certain, why do we create labels for species? The robin nests in low bushes, the swallow nests in barns. Well, one thing’s for sure; it’s fascinating watching wildlife break the rules we give them.

I have spent my whole life watching birds, excited to see which adapt quickest, inspired to see how species change and the kind of habitats they change to.

Yellowhammer (male) © Richard BainesYellowhammer (male) © Richard Baines

Yellowhammers fascinate me. Look out for them in farmland, on hedges, say both old and new bird guides. But if you venture into the Great Yorkshire Forest in the North York Moors National Park and listen carefully in the forest clearings you will hear many renditions of their famous song ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’.

Yellowhammer feeding juvenile, House Sparrow & Tree Sparrow © Richard BainesYellowhammer feeding juvenile, House Sparrow & Tree Sparrow © Richard Baines

Yellowhammers have been forest clearing birds for a long time, maybe thousands or millions of years.  They love open habitats with scrub or low thicket stage tree growth. They have only adapted to hedgerows since we have had hedgerows which is a very, very short time in the evolution of the species.

Common Linnet (male) © Richard BainesCommon Linnet (male) © Richard Baines

Where there is a good range of scrub and/or gorse look out for another forest clearing bird often labelled in the farmland suite; the common linnet.  In the spring male linnets are a fine sight with their rose-pink chest and grey head.

Both of these birds broke out of forest clearings and into farmland when a new opportunity arose. Hedges were first planted systematically in the 13th century but we don’t know how long it took yellowhammers and linnets to adapt. I would guess fairly quickly.

Another big habitat adaptation which appears to have taken place in my lifetime, is by the big sunshine bird, the impressive yellow wagtail.  Yellow wagtails were historically labelled as nesting in water meadows or wet grassland. In our eastern part of Yorkshire, I regularly see them breaking those rules by singing and carrying food into arable crops such as winter wheat and occasionally spring beans.

Yellow Wagtail (male) © Richard BainesYellow Wagtail (male) © Richard Baines

This adaptation must surely be due to the dramatic loss of wet grasslands and water meadows, it’s the usual case of adapt or die out. Now the problem is how can they find enough insect food in a pesticide ridden arable crop to make this new change work? In many cases I suspect they depend on nearby grassland with livestock, puddles on farm tracks or muck and water in farmyards to find their food. It would be very sad to see yellow wagtails vanish. A male yellow wagtail dropped in front of my group on the 20th April, at point blank range on our Yorkshire Birding Day. It felt like a piece of the sun or a jewel from Africa had landed, a real wow moment.

The next time you’re in a book shop, old or new, pick up a bird book and see if you can find some of these defunct habitat labels and then seek out the rule breakers!

Richard Baines YCN