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Why runts?

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Paul Deane Paul Deane | 17:54 UK time, Monday, 28 May 2012

We're privileged this year on Springwatch to be watching a family of nuthatches for the first time - a single mum and 6 nestlings, one of which is the runt.

They've chosen to nest in an RSPB nest box, which is very rare for a nuthatch, who'd usually favour an old woodpecker hole or similar nook in a tree trunk.

You can't even see him (or her) in this feed, lost under the clamour. By our records, the runt of this littler is getting about half the number of feeds of his siblings.

Nuthatch runt

Spot the runt

Most of our small birds will lay around an egg a day, but typically start incubating on the penultimate egg, so the final egg is playing catch-up before it's even laid.

Possible benefits to this strategy include insurance against hatching failure or early partial brood losses.

One of the first thing that our nestlings then develop are their legs, allowing them to reach up above their siblings. So this is, quite literally, the pecking order.

But we like an underdog here in the UK and we're all rooting for this little nuthatch. Our nest watchers are cheering every time he gets a feeds.

You can follow the nuthatch family on the Springwatch webcams, until they fledge.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Can I just say I love the new layout of the webcams and I've been waiting for you to put on a Nuthatch family for years and I'm really enjoying watching them (and the other cams as well of course!). It's nice to see a species which I don't see often but is common elsewhere (I live in eastern Scotland so no Nuthatches up here yet but hopefully soon!). I hope the little one makes it. Shall we have a little name competition for him or her? Can't wait for the show tonight and keep up the great work! ;)

  • Comment number 2.

    Wonderful Programme. We have all noticed that the population of the house sparrow has declined. Well a friend of mine has recently moved to a house in stubbington Hants where they are in abundance to the exclusion of all other birds other than Pigeon, the odd black bird and odd starlings.
    The reason for this domination over even the robin is that all the gardens within sight of my friends house has a bird feeder without exclusion with enable birds to settle and feed, coupled to this each house, all built in the seventies, has a roof which enable safe nesting sights. Between my friends house and the house next door there is an eight foot catoniaster hedge 24 inches thick. This gives the army of sparrows the perfect roost. I enjoy watching birds so you can imagine my disappointment when after 3months I have not seen one bird on my feeding station because the sparrows keep them away.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think you and the vast majority of your viewers are being over sentimental as usual. Using my rough and very rusty O level maths (grade 6) I calculate that if the runt was getting an equal share of food this would result in a nearly 10% reduction in the diet of each of the "healthy" nestlings (assuming they are getting roughly equal shares). That could easily jeopardise the survival of all six of them if we have a few days bad weather or some other problem arises.

    You clearly understand this. You suggest that the runt is an insurance policy against early failure but decline to explain that if it is not required then it is expendable in the same way that we don't get our premiums refunded if we don't need to make a claim. Having said that a generous no claims bonus would be nice and I'd be as happy as anyone else to see it fledge successfully but not at the risk of them all dying.

    I know Springwatch aims to entertain but surely the BBC still has a responsibility to inform as well. You should be explaining the facts much more clearly and emphasising that fledging five out of six would be an amazing achievement by the parent(s) and spend less time worrying about the one who’s survival would be a welcome bonus but could risk the whole brood.

  • Comment number 4.

    Whil many of us do hope that the runts survive perhaps it would be best for one of the presenters to remind the audience occassionally that this is nature at work and that survival rates for young animals can be very low, as Lolo Williams stated in that final piece on te fox family 60% of cubs don't survive the first year. However there are always exceptions so it pays to be realistically optimistic.

    r.e:dbsandal comments on house sparrows
    We also have an abundance of sparrows visiting our garden. They are a very dominant bird in the garden and I usually wake to the sounds of chattering sparrows. At one point during the winter I counted 24 perched in the top of a bush in the garden. Is it possible that many of the sparrows from cities have simply moved to more suburban and rural areas because there are better food sources?

    In addition to the community of sparrows we now have a pair of Goldfinches who have become regular visitors, thanks in part to a feeder of thistle seed.

  • Comment number 5.

    The wecams are compulsive viewing, as always, especially with the inclusion of nuthatches this year! In reply to post 1, we started seeing nuthatches at our garden feeders in the Scottish Borders at the end of 2009 and they are now regular visitors, so depending on how far north you are, you might "get lucky" yet! :-)

  • Comment number 6.

    are the birds later nesting this year

  • Comment number 7.

    has bird numbers gone down this year because before and around this time last year i could have upto 10-15 starlings, 10-15 sparrows, about 4 goldfinches a couple of doves and 5 or 6 blackbirds so i was just wondering if numbers have dropped

  • Comment number 8.

    I just heard Martin mention Runty's brighter, yellower beak than its siblings. Does a chick's beak get darker as it grows? Perhaps a brighter beak might be more likely to catch the attention of a parent and therefore increase its chances of getting fed? Is nature providing a way of helping the parents tell which bird(s) are developing less quickly and need more nutrition?

  • Comment number 9.

    In this day and age is it still allowed to call something or someone a runt, surely 'growth challenged' is more appropriate? More seriously I have bred Budgerigars for many years and have seen that runts are more likely in nests with higher numbers of eggs, to my mind it's either an insurance policy or the quality of the mating deteriorates after a certain level.

  • Comment number 10.

    sorry but 6 ducklings is nothing, we have a small lake near us ( Eastcombe, Stroud, Glos ) called Toadsmore and we saw a Mallard with 14 ducklings, yes 14. Also what is Huge regarding the Pike !! a size length would mean more, is Huge 3 feet, 5 feet what !

    Steve ( Eastcombe )

  • Comment number 11.

    Midges, minute biting devils attracted, I believe, by the carbon dioxide we exhale. What you need is Avon's Skin So Soft Dry Oil Body Spray - its an excellent repellent used apparently by the SAS and the US Army. Get hold of some quick and give it a try.

  • Comment number 12.

    One Nuthatch or two that is the question, Could it be that the female has chosen to nest in a box because she has lost her partner and the hole is ready made, or disregarded him as his DIY mud plastering skills are not required ????.

  • Comment number 13.

    Just a quick thought about the runt's yellow beak. Could this feature, ironically, bring a slight advantage to the runt, in feeding, as its siblings mature? If the yellow beak and gape instinctively entice parents to feed, might the mother be more likely to feed the runt as its siblings' beaks darken? Naturally, I realise that opportunism plays the main part - whoever gets in first gets fed - but might the yellower gape give the runt an edge and therefore increase its chances of survival?
    I've noticed that, quite often in nature, the runt of any litter, as long as it does survive the earliest stages of its life, becomes quite a hardy survivor (whether this is simply because it learns to work harder at survival, because its physiology, under such initial stress, becomes more able to survive through hardship, or for some other reason, I don't know) and, although naturally the better-developed offspring are healthier for the species, stressful conditions seem to be an essential factor in evolution, so maybe, when we see runts surviving and doing well, living till breeding age, we're seeing evolution in action.
    Anyway, just a passing thought. As always, thanks for putting together an excellent and fascinating series (with, very likely, far more hard work behind the scenes than many of us realise) and for being such a great team. Looking forward to catching as much of the rest of the series as I can. Best of luck with every success! :)

  • Comment number 14.

    It was good to hear on last night's show that so long as the weather and the food supply remained good that Runty has a chance.
    I would be interested to hear the teams views on the impact of the cold wet April after the warm dry March on the small bird population.

    I had a pair of dunnocks visiting regularly and fluttering at the window to remind me to feed them at the end of March and early April and now they have disappeared.
    Is this because food is now plentiful elsewhere? Could they have lost an early brood and be starting again? Or worse still succumbed themselves?

  • Comment number 15.

    We are really enjoying the team, I am especially pleased to see Michaela and Chris Packham who I enjoyed seeing when I was very young!
    Has anyone mentioned that Nuthatches walk up trees?
    I didn't realise until my boyfriend gave me this fact - its very interesting and unusal I think!

  • Comment number 16.

    A friend in wraysbury has a nuthatch pair useing the nest box on the front of his house for the second year runing, and this year have also placed mud under the overhanging roof and above the hole. Photo to follow. kevin.

  • Comment number 17.

    Linda Hodgson Lancashire, other birds walk up trees, most obviously the Treecreeper. Nuthatches have the distinction of being the only birds that can walk DOWN trees. Apparently it's to do with their feet being strong enough to support them without the assistance of the tail which other birds need to enable them to walk up.

    I'd be a bit wary of believing what you're told by your boyfriend in future if I were you ;-)

  • Comment number 18.

    Nice to know that Potters Bar is in London...

    I'm only 5' 6" and have lived to be 71.

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi pen-ybont_mike, thank you for clarifying, nuthatches are unusual as they can walk down trees! however, do the rest of the public know this? I think it is very interesting

  • Comment number 20.

    re. nuthatch runt, we had our camera on 7 great tit chicks in our nest box. They hatched 1 per day and grew in progression, the runt remaining smallest, but all flew the nest within 30 minutes. So do not despair for your runt.

  • Comment number 21.

    re. our great tit nest box, i did not get round to clearing out the old nest material and now we have a large bumble bee using it!

  • Comment number 22.

    We have had a pair of nuthatches in our nest box 2 years running. Their brood fledged (while we were away!) last week and they are now regular visitors to the bird table. Parents still feeding 2 young at the table. We have been putting live mealworms out each day for a couple of months now so maybe that's why they fledged earlier than the ones at Springwatch? We also observed one of the adults putting balls of mud all along the join between the front and roof of the nest box. We also saw them hammering furiously around the hole before taking up residence for at least a week. We thought they were widening the hole but they didn't seem to have any trouble getting in and out and the hole seems just the same as before. The hammering was very loud - thought it was a woodpecker! Incidentally we now have a female greater spotted coming to the table regularly.

  • Comment number 23.

    POOR RUNTY! i was watching desperately, begging the other birds to lay off him. But the poor thing!

  • Comment number 24.

    Nuthatch Marital Problems
    We have an artificial (woodcrete) nest box with a TV camera on a tree in our small, suburban garden in Crawley, West Sussex. For the last 5 years we have enjoyed watching Nuthatches raise families from nest building through to fledging. The box has 3 holes. The Nuthatches muddy up two holes and seal all round the joint where the front of the box can be removed. The dried mud is like cement and has to be chiseled off. However, we have been disappointed both this year and last because the Nuthatches have been through the courting, nest building and nest sitting routine over many days; but she has not laid any eggs. Eventually they lose interest and leave the nest. It is as if she was having a "phantom pregnancy". Does anyone know if this is not uncommon or what might have caused the problem? Another interesting factor is that for the last three nests they have been using dead leaves from a nearby bamboo plant. This creates a much deeper, looser and more unstable nest platform that their usual bark flakes. Two years ago, we were concerned that the eggs might sink into the leaves and get lost. But they seemed to manage OK. I guess our latest birds are not the same as the ones that nested originally. Maybe we have been watching an inexperienced pair for the last two attempts. Does anyone have any comments, please?

  • Comment number 25.

    9 blue tits fledged successfully this morning, bar 1. The baby seems to be the runt and fell to the ground from the nest, i have tried attempts to place it in trees but it flies straight to the ground. I managed to warm a towel up which livened the baby up. I have now placed it on the table with both parents feeding it will live meal worms. The baby has tried several times to fly but just does not seem ready. The others were a lot bigger. Advice on what to do next please. thanks

  • Comment number 26.

    Don't handle it again unless there is immediate danger e.g. from cats. If you do have to move it use gloves or your towel. Handling it can cause the parents to abandon it. If there is plenty of food stay well away and keep your fingers crossed.

 

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