Garden Gladiators

For the last three mornings my garden has been frequented by numerous blackbirds (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), at least four; two males, two females and possibly others. I couldn’t tell the females apart because they looked very similar but the males were identifiable. One was a typical black blackbird with a striking yellow beak and the other was very slightly smaller, slightly more brown and had a dark tinge to the end of his beak so he has been named ‘Blacktip’.


The second male blackbird, henceforth referred to as ‘The Arch Rival’

And one of the ladies

The initial skirmishes of the Histon Blackbird Wars started in my garden on Friday but I didn’t have a chance to study it what with getting the children to school and myself to work. The real gladiatorial action took place yesterday morning and commenced with the males and the two females chasing each other around at high speed on the ground and in the air. I’ve never noticed before but when blackbirds compete on the ground they actually run rather than hop, which from the human perspective lends the whole drama a comic angle. I imagine they can move alot faster when running and are therefore more intimidating to any rivals.

The Arch Rival perched threateningly atop the rabbit run

The females departed fairly early on in the proceedings leaving the two boys to battle it out, and it turned into an amazing spectacle which was very entertaining to watch. The Arch Rival occupied a battle station on top of the rabbit run from where he would walk round the edge and look down at Blacktip on the ground, and from where he would launch the occasional strike and chase Blacktip  around for a minute or two before resuming his vantage point on the rabbit run. This behaviour led me to think the The Arch Rival was possibly the dominant male as he seemed to hold the advantage all along and it went on for probably half an hour or so before the real battle commenced:

Aerial hostilities break out
The dogfight slowly gains more and more altitude, toe to toe and beak to beak
Higher still, now around 4-5m off the ground
And then they separated and descended to draw breath in the wisteria.

This was followed by The Arch Rival resuming his place on the rabbit run which he circled around for several minutes before dropping to the ground and walking and running around the same route for a further few minutes whilst Blacktip remained on the ground. this cycle of events was repeated several times over the next hour.

The Arch Rival back on the rabbit run, Blacktip was lurking on the ground

This activity eventually petered out and Blacktip was left on his own to recuperate under cover of the buddleia bush. Leaving me to think that he was the apparent victor…

Blacktip in the cover of the buddleia foliage

…Or was he?

This morning Blacktip appeared with a lady and seemed to be performing a courtship ritual where he was running around on the ground calling and she was following. That went on for around half an hour and they seemed to be getting along famously. And then The Arch Rival arrived back on the scene and 20 minutes or so of aerial combat ensued. the dynamic was different this time though. The female and Blacktip seemed to be chasing The Arch Rival, not Blacktip on his own.

As I go to press the action has ceased and all the blackbirds have disappeared although both the males have made short forays back into the garden looking for some breakfast, but the female hasn’t returned. Incidentally while this was taking place, all the other birds: goldfinch, dunnock, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, starling, collared dove and wood pigeon were using the feeders as normal, completely unperturbed by the battle taking place. My back window is like a 75 inch 3D HD TV showing nature documentaries all day, to which I can add my own commentary. As I write a pair of fieldfare are flying over and the blackbirds have been replaced by three dunnock.

And now… all three blackbirds are back and fighting again, so I’m going to sign off and watch them and I’ll report back with further developments.

36 responses to “Garden Gladiators

  1. Pingback: Snug as a bug | The Naturephile

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  4. As a curious observer of Pigeon Wars myself, this was a fantastic account of the War! Thoroughly enjoyed the narrative with the photographs vividly chiming in for company. I absolutely admire the mid-air shots, shows patience, skill (and passion) for the art!

  5. The photos are just downright awesome, especially the captures of flight!

  6. These are brilliant Finn, we love the one of them in the air by the wall.

  7. I love the story and the good photos. Blackbirds haven’t started the fight here yet, but when they do I will remember to have my camera ready. Your fight photo is amazing. 3D windows, so true. The real interesting things are just in front of us.

  8. theenvironmentor

    Great pictures! My favorite is of the two birds mid-action. Neat!

    • Thanks Molly, I’m glad you like my blackbirds, they’re really good fun at the moment. I haven’t seen any sparring action since Tuesday so I think they’ve stopped now, but they were fighting for a good four days.

  9. I’m sorry I’m messing up your comments page here, but that’s very interesting about the airport scanners, I didn’t know that, and I had no idea they were used so widely.

  10. This is an incredibly good series! I loved it!

    • Thanks Montucky, I was very happy with the results, and it was great fun to watch. They were back again yesterday too, but this morning it’s all quiet on the Histon Front so hopefully they’ve paired off without damaging each other and are now busy nest building.

  11. Great details…and wonderful captures of them together in mid-air.

  12. Pingback: Blackbird battles in Spain | everyday nature trails

  13. Great post and amazingly clear photographs, it is always interesting to see the less ‘cute’ aspects of bird behaviour and remind ourselves what a tough environment they live in. I hope you don’t mind that I re-blogged a similar post of mine from my Spanish blog that is on a similar theme.

    • They can be quite fearsome. I’ve always loved blackbirds for their feistiness though and they make good company whilst pottering around the garden. Thanks for mentioning my blackbirds on your blog.

  14. And do you work as a biochemist now?

    • I do. I’m a protein mass spectrometrist working in drug discovery. Mainly, but not solely, cancer drugs.

      • Very interesting. I have a friend who uses mass spectrometry for analysing rock samples (he’s a geologist) and I’ve occasionally helped to prepare the little sample dishes. It’s quite an amazing piece of kit.

      • I think MS is an amazing technology. It was invented early in the 20th century to analyse radioactive isotopes and since then it’s been on space probes to Mars for extraterrestrial geology, and the handheld machine the security man waves at your bags at the airport is a very small MS. They’re all over the place – in hospitals, drug companies, forensics and environmental analysts, food analysts etc etc. Cool technology, in my very biased opinion.

  15. The photos in flight are astonishing! I’m afraid I don’t remember much about the project (it was 16 years ago and I probably wasn’t paying much attention even back then), all I really remember is sitting on the grass in the sunshine watching blackbirds and making notes. I did it with a couple of friends and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I chose that project just so that I could sit outside on sunny afternoons. I do recall we had to categorise their behaviour (e.g. pecking, running, looking, etc.) and estimate how much time they spent on each activity, but what it actually led to I’m not sure. The course was called ‘Behavioural Ecology’ and I think the point of it was to introduce us to the idea of observing how animals interacted with each other and their surroundings. I should have paid more attention, but I’ve always been more prone to daydreaming than making proper scientific observations.

  16. These shots are outstanding! I’m very fond of blackbirds and these are probably the best photos of them I’ve ever seen. I did a project on them at university (for a zoology course, which was part of an ecology degree) and I know I enjoyed watching their behaviour so I can quite understand your interest in this drama going on in your garden. The Arch Rival is such a character, your photos of him really made me laugh! If you don’t mind, I’m going to pop one of them on my next blog post because it’s just so brilliant.

    • Thankyou very much for your comments, I’m really pleased you like the photographs, catching them in flight is always tricky and I’m pretty happy with the way they came out. What was your project about? It would be great to get some professional insight into their behaviour to augment my limited observational musings.

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