As the museum is closed for lockdown 2, I have spent this week photographing and researching the local songbirds around Porthcurno valley for the Kids in Museums Takeover Day.
To link with PK Porthcurno’s focus on global communications I have been comparing the different ways that birds choose to communicate with each other. From different types of song and chatter, to brightly coloured warning signs and displaying postures, the structure of their language was far more complex than I anticipated! The focus of the week ended up being the bluetit and the robin, which I found to be two of the most prevalent and regularly spotted birds in the valley (as well as the loudest!) However, their ways of communicating have a stark contrast.
This bluetit (pictured above), which was spotted in the gardens of PK Porthcurno Museum of Global Communications, has many notable and complex forms of communication itself. One of the most frequent being the “contact call”, which put simply is a set of short calls used to share their whereabouts with each other. There are likely many different types of contact calls that humans do not yet understand, but one that is instantly recognisable is the “alarm call” of the bluetit. This is a high pitched ‘cheep’ followed by an agitated chattering sound that can signify the presence of a bird of prey, a cat, or any other form of danger. Upon hearing this, fully fledged birds and chicks alike will remain quiet and still to mask themselves from danger. Many other species of birds also recognise the bluetit’s alarm call and will respond similarly upon hearing it. A similar noise is also used in moments of aggression and conflict, either to win a fight, or protect their food from potential competition. The harshness of the call is effective in intimidating and scaring away potential threats and unwanted visitors.
By contrast, Britain’s most loved bird, the European robin has a very different set of calls to the bluetit. They even change in tune and meaning with the coming of different seasons. Their spring song is usually strong and cheery, with a focus on attracting a mate, whereas their autumnal song is slightly more mellow and territorial, aiming to protect their property and warn off interlopers. Robins are one of the first birds to start singing in the day, often sitting still, high up in exposed tree branches where they can be spotted by potential mates. Due to their ability to thrive in poor lighting conditions, in which they forage for their insect dinner, they are also one of the last birds to finish singing in the evenings. The presence of artificial lights, such as streetlamps, are also known to trigger another set of songs from this bird.
However, the wily robin does not only use its calls to communicate. Its distinctive red breast a literal ‘red flag’ which warns other robins to not mess with them or encroach into their territory. The red patch expands each year of the robin’s life, getting progressively more impressive and effective in warding off competition.
My experience photographing these birds was challenging when it came to the bluetits. Their movements are often so quick and seemingly erratic, making it very hard to pinpoint when and where they were going to stop to rest or feed. They also seemed to be hyper aware of my presence in their surroundings, so it took a couple of days to learn their behaviour and figure out a location and a strategy for shooting images, so they notice me as little possible. I found this to be easiest under an archway of trees, where if I stayed very still, they would happily fly overhead and rest on the branches above me. On the other hand, the bolder robin was relatively easy to capture, due to their habit of sitting on exposed branches. With a telephoto lens I was able to get photos of them singing in detail, with little to no obstructions from branches and leaves. Their bright colouration also made them very easy to spot amongst the almost bare tree branches and they did not seem bothered by my company.
Overall, following these songbirds around Porthcurno valley, was a very interesting experience and was eye opening to the sheer complexity and diversity of communication that these animals have, far more than people yet understand.
Maeve Cushla, Young Curator, PK Porthcurno
Bird calls: their potential for behavioural neurobiology the academy of New York sciences, Peter Marler
The various calls of the bluetit Esteban Rivas
Bluetit alarm call British-birdsongs.uk
why do birds sing at night? rspb.org.uk
Why do robins have red breasts? BBC science focus magazine