A Profusion of Pipits

Meadow pipit Anthus pratensisThe elegant, soaring song flights of larks embellishing a summer morning are celebrated in the the glorious collective term an “elevation of larks”. Alas there is no such epipthet for the Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis). The sound of a male pipit ascending to declare his territory is unlikely to send a poet into raptures, but the parachuting return to earth with wings stiffly spread has a certain unrestrained joie de vivre. Widespread and common, they do not have the cachet of rarity but should be acclaimed as the foster parents of generations of Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus).

These un-remarkable, small, streaky brown birds will never be the super stars of the bird world, but they have charisma. During the last few weeks, my garden and beyond has been invaded by a profusion of young Meadow Pipits. Rotund and still a little fluffy, their soft, warm brown plumage has a pale cream edging. They perch unsteadily on the fences, venture unwisely into the greenhouses, search tirelessly along the window sills for insects and settle among the flowerbeds to preen and doze.

The birds I see chasing around my garden each day, are not the same individuals, they are wave after wave of migrants. They do not move in large flocks, but in small groups, so that we are not aware of anything more dramatic than a gentle passage that delights and fascinates rather than awes. There is not the drama or spectacle of large skeins of geese silhouetted against a wintery sky, or the determined southerly movement of lines of gannets soaring and skimming the waves as they pass the along coast, just a slow and continuous, creeping seepage. More of a trickle than a tsunami.

Where have all these young birds come from and where are they going? The maps of the abundance of Meadow Pipits in the UK produced by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) surveys provide the the first clues. Between the summer and winter there is a clear shift in abundance from the north and west of Britain to the south, suggest that most of our breeding pipits and their offspring move south for the winter. Recoveries of ringed birds show that some of the British breeding Meadow Pipits winter in France, Spain and Portugal and that some of the birds we see in the autumn are from the Icelandic breeding population moving south for the winter.

There may be as many as 2.5 million pairs of Meadow Pipits breeding in the UK,  but the population has declined by 40% in the period from 1970  to 2010, and they are now listed as a species of conservation concern. Many species will benefit from the woodland creation schemes to ameliorate climate change, but the populations of Meadow Pipits and other species which breed in open habitats will continue to decline as more habitat is lost. There may be an apparent profusion of pipits this autumn but perhaps it is time we started to appreciate the charms of these unobtrusive little brown birds before they acquire the cachet of rarity.

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