From The Mountains To The Sea

During autumn and winter, migrating peregrines come to our country from the north, looking for prey in the fields as well. However, the ones who nest here can also be seen in the mountains during the warm season.Another bigger bird of prey, which also lives in rocky regions, is the Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus). Expert at catching reptiles – lizards, snakes – it watches them from a distance as it glides at heights of tens of metres. To its chicks, nested on a tall tree, it brings snakes which can sometimes be seen writhing in the raptor’s strong beak. The latter tears off their heads before it offers them to the nestlings. It seems that the viper’s bites do not stop the short-toed eagle from attacking it; as for the venom, the short-toed eagle doesn’t care because its legs are covered in big strong scales and the feathers protect its body from the venomous fangs. In winter, whilst the reptiles which live in our country lie torpid, the short-toed eagles migrate to warm lands where they find their favourite food.

In the lower rocky regions there are other birds of prey. One of them is the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), which is a symbol of courage and daring. It too nests on cliff edges overhanging deep precipices. When the chicks are strong enough to fly, their parents ‘train’ them so they can hone their precision reflexes and skills necessary for catching a fast-moving prey. It has to be noted that the peregrine only attacks birds while they are flying, for example pigeons (which can reach 90 kilometres per hour) or small ducks (which can even go beyond 130 kilometres per hour), whilst its own speed can reach 300-400 kilometres per hour when swooping! Hence the need for the kind of precision which is measurable in centimetres and tenths of a second which the young peregrines need to learn. At first, the parents bring the prey to the nest, cut it up in small bites and offer it to the young. Then they begin to change the feeding method: they fly holding the prey with their talons in front of the chick, without allowing themselves to be ‘mollified’ by its hunger calls! Willy-nilly the young has to fly after its parent, who soars up and then suddenly drops the prey. The young must go after it and catch it. The repetition of these first exercises, followed by increasingly complicated ones (attacking a live prey as it watches it from a high rock, in imitation of its parents), equips the young peregrines with the skills necessary for their survival. However, it is not until after several years that they gain the experience which allows them to perform impressive feats.

The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is familiar in the tropical areas; in our country it shows up only in a few warm limestone regions – in Dobrogea, Cazane, on the valley of river Nera in Banat. It usually feeds on carrion but it doesn’t turn down hedgehogs, moles coming out to light or lazy turtles lying in the sun either. As for the problem of getting through the ‘armoured plate’ of the turtle – a kind of four-footed tank –, it solves it in an ingenious fashion: it grabs the turtle with its talons, flies up above a rock to a height of several tens of metres and lets it drop. No shell, no matter how tough, can withstand such ‘treatment’. In the Sahara it has been noticed that the Egyptian vulture also feeds itself with ostrich eggs, whose thick shell poses similar problems. Carrying an egg using talons is not easy nor finding a rocky platform onto which to throw and break the egg. Thus, the Egyptian vulture turns the method upside down: it takes a relatively big stone in its beak and lets it drop on the egg once, twice, until the shell breaks and the content can be eaten!The almost 400 species of birds which are encountered in the wonderful Romanian lands are scattered from the majestic summits of the Carpathians to the ‘paradise’ of the Danube Delta. Big or small, fast or heavy, meek or bloodthirsty, they follow us everywhere, cheer up the landscape, delight our ears, and charm us with their interesting habits.
Let us try to get to know some of them better by setting off together on a journey from the mountains to the sea.The Carpathians’ peaks, covered with snow more than half a year, are not a welcoming habitat for most birds. However, the vegetation – though it grows late – and the tiny creatures – though they don’t wake up from their winter numbness until about May – do offer some options of nourishment. This is a place of refuge for species which human civilisation has banished from the lower, inhabited lands, or for species which are adapted to the colder, tundra-like climate, having been here with us since the old times when the glaciers shaped the valleys or cirques of the Carpathians.
The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is one example of a bird which has been forced by humans to withdraw into the rocky wasteland of the mountains. It is a powerful bird of prey, more than 2 metres long when it extends its wings, and it has virtually no enemy to fear from the animal kingdom. It can easily kill a fox or a chamois kid, whilst in the far north not even reindeer calves are spared from the attack of a pair of golden eagles. Mating for life, a pair of them rules stretches of land measuring tens of square kilometres. They ‘patrol’ their territory daily, searching with their sharp eyes (their sight is about ten times better than that of the humans) the sharp peaks, crags and edges of juniper clusters in search for a prey. They build their nest, which is absolutely huge, on rock ledges out of reach or, more seldom, on top of tall trees. They usually raise only one chick per year. At first there are two but, as there is a difference of a few days between them, the younger one soon dies of starvation as its older brother devours all the food! Besides, this bird species does not need two chicks in its nest every year to ensure its survival as it does not have enemies. However, since hunters started to shoot down golden eagles, on the grounds that they snatch away lambs from mountain pastures, this species has become more and more rare. Further more, since humans started to use poison against wolves by putting it in carcasses used as bait, the fate of the golden eagles has been severely endangered because in winter they are forced to also eat carrion. This is why the rambler in love with the strong air and the dazzling scenery of the mountains will rarely have the chance to watch the majestic silhouette of the golden eagle gliding for a long time with its wings outstretched, their tips spreading out like fingers. During winter the golden eagles come down to the foot of the mountains in search for food. They enter inhabited areas, which are dangerous for them, where poison, rifles, and collision with high-voltage cables slowly but surely eliminate our last remaining big raptors. At present there are very few remaining pairs, that is why they are protected by law.
In the southern countries this vulture lives near human habitats, which offer various feeding options; there it can find food remains and it is not persecuted by humans. In our country it has unfortunately become extremely rare because of the strychnine, the killing poison which is used by humans against wolves, although the Egyptian vulture is protected and designated as ‘natural treasure’.
Another representative of the warm climates, one which has only recently entered our country and whose numbers are increasing, is the Alpine Swift (Apus melba). It nests in rock holes in several parts of the country: south of Dobrogea, the mountains of Oltenia (the Sohodol and Olteţ ravines), Cernea valley, and the Turda ravine. In these regions the climate is warmer, thanks also to the heat generated by the sunbathed limestone. Able to fly exceptionally fast (it can reach a speed of 320 kilometres per hour, a speed which has been precisely measured by aircraft instruments), this swift, just like swallows, catches small insects while flying. Its adaptation to the rocky areas is also proven by the fact that none of its toes project backwards, which is why it can’t perch on a bough (other birds have one or two opposable toes). All of its four toes point forward, allowing it to hold on to any vertical rocky wall. Most of the time it can be seen flying, showing off its sickle-shaped silhouette and white abdomen. Even mating takes place in mid-air as well as gathering all the nest material needed. In some countries such as Greece, the bird is hunted in an original fashion as the hunters rely on the knowledge of its habits. Lovers of alpine swift soup go to the edge of a cliff or a precipice, where these birds fly, and hang long thin lines with a hook on top and a small feather attached to it. The Alpine swift are in search of such feathers to build their nest and catch them with their beaks while flying. In this way one can ‘fish’ birds from the air!
The expansion in numbers of the big alpine swift, which has been noted in our country in the past decade, will probably also continue in the years to come in other valleys of the Carpathians.
The (Eurasian) Dotterel (Eudromias morinellus) is a tundra bird which has stayed in the Carpathians since the times when the glaciers covered a good deal of our country’s territory. It nests on the Cindrelul top of the Cibinul mountain, near Sibiu, as well as in the Făgăraş mountains. Perhaps it also lives on other rocky plateaus of our mountains, at altitudes of over 2000 metres, without being noticed as it has proven to be particularly cautious. It must be noted from the very beginning that this northern bird has some habits which are rare amongst its siblings. First of all, the father is completely in charge of incubating the eggs and raising the chicks! The mother lays the eggs and then off she goes! She doesn’t stay anywhere near them, she goes away to recover from the great effort of the migration and the significant loss of nutrients she has suffered whilst laying the eggs (the three eggs represent almost the same weight as that of the female, containing many proteins and lipids vital for the embryos as well as for the mother). The father then takes over and duly incubates the eggs. He barely moves off the eggs so that they don’t get cold. It must be remembered that in the tundra, as well as on the high plateaus of our country, there often are storms, fogs and even snow in June-July, and a few minutes of contact with the cold can be fatal for the embryos. The male’s instinct to permanently protect the eggs is so strong that it doesn’t move even when a human slowly (of course) gets close to it. Indeed, there have been situations where one was able to take the bird slowly in one’s hands together with the nest itself! Photographic evidence attests to this ‘brave behaviour’ of the dotterel.
The well-known Swedish ornithologist and explorer Bengt Berg was able to hold a dotterel in the palm of his hand; whilst still lying on top of its eggs, it would peck at a worm held by the ornithologist or the shiny ring on his finger as if it had known him all its life! The colour of the feathers on the bird’s back is very similar to the stony earth covered in moss; thus, if it lies still, the male becomes invisible. The eggs too have a good camouflage, thanks to their colouring and speckles, as well as the chicks who, if the parent raises the alarm, freeze behind a stone or a shrub. This is why the mountain dotterel can remain unnoticed even though it is not too small, it is about the size of a turtle dove, and its breast is of a vivid rusty colour. If you come across it in the mountains during summer time, leave it in peace to look after its young; soon, after they have started to fly better, they will have to set out on their great journey to the south.
Along the cold and clear waters of our mountains there lives a small bird, similar to the blackbird only it has a white dickey on its chest. It’s the White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus). One can see it fly, touching almost the restless surface of the water, or standing on a boulder from where it watches the creatures swim under the water. It never sits still, it always makes its typical movements as though it were taking rapid and repeated bows, but its eyes keep paying attention and suddenly, bam, it jumps into the waves, dives and swims under water by moving its wings, following an insect or even a small fish. It can even walk on the rocky bottom of the water, calmly pecking at its food, as though it were on dry land! The round nest which it skilfully builds from soft moss and leaves is placed under a bank or a waterfall. Up to 10 pairs of dippers can live on a one-kilometre-long shore.
The coniferous forests, which dress the mountain slopes in an evergreen mantle, are richer in birds than the rocky crests. Here dwells the mountain cock (wood-grouse), which leads such an absconded life that only skilful hunters can get close to it and even then with great difficulty. There we will also come across the Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), which is the biggest woodpecker found in our country. It is almost as big as a crow. Its voice, which can be heard from far over the valleys, resembles a shrill mewing followed by a specific trill (‘tree-ree-ree-ree’) which cannot be mistaken with that of other birds. One can also hear it peck at the trunk of an old fir, looking for the larvae of the capricorn beetles (Cerambyx) which erode the wood by digging spacious corridors into it. Propped on its rigid tail, holding fast onto the trunk with the claws of its toes – of which two are pointing forward and two are projecting backward, thus affording it a better grasp and balance – the black woodpecker strikes the bark with force with its long and solid chisel-shaped beak, listening to the reverberations and following the trajectory of the corridors until it discovers the fat white larva. Then it uses another tool which nature has patiently perfected during thousands of years: its tongue. Its sharp tip has dart-like spikes which, once thrust inside the body of the larva, the latter cannot escape anymore when the tongue is retracted. The length of the tongue is amazing and its root is not stuck to the bottom of the mouth, like other birds’, but rather to its fiery red forehead, passing under the skin of its nape and the top of its head. Thus, when it is stretched, it is not only 8-10 centimetres long, which is its normal length, but it is actually twice as long and it is therefore able to reach deeply into the corridors inside the trees’ trunk. All woodpecker species have this kind of tongue, which demonstrates their adaptation to eating pests hidden under the tree bark. Besides, one can see the marks left by the black woodpeckers on many rotten tree trunks, which are in the shape of wide long holes. This is not damaging to the wood, on the contrary, it keeps it healthy by maintaining the number of harmful larvae to a normal level.
The Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) has also adapted to the coniferous forests. It is slightly bigger than the sparrow and has fiery red feathers. Its name comes from its scissor-like beak. This is its primary tool which it uses when collecting the pine seeds it eats by extracting them from the pine cone. After it has extracted them, it decorticates them by simply closing its beak – the core stays inside while the shell flies left and right, being ejected through the arms of the scissors. Because they can eat these fat seeds in the winter as well, since they are available throughout the year, the crossbills do not nest only in the warm season when they would normally have food for their chicks, they also lay eggs in months such as September, December, and February even, being able to incubate the eggs successfully to the end! The crossbill does not migrate; indeed, in some winters the northern crossbills invade toward the south, showing up in large numbers in our mountains as well. In summer they wander about, sometimes going as far as into the plains, far from the mountains, even as far as the Sacalin island where the Danube flows into the sea. However, even there it looks for cone seeds. On the Sacalin island, this small bird looks like a small fire burning within the green lace of a tamarisk standing in the middle of the pale sand dunes.
The Dunnock (Prunella modularis) is smaller than the crossbill. It spends its life in the middle of small juniper bushes or small young firs. It looks like a slimmer sparrow but its feathers are dark and the beak thinner, which is perfect for searching for tiny insects through the cracks. In its nest placed close to the ground it lays 4-5 eggs of a charming blue colour. Many of the first-generation young perish even before they can fly. This is because they hatch in April when it is still cold in the mountains and the enemies are plenty. But the dunnocks breed twice or three times a year (before leaving for the south). They also have another habit which contributes to the survival of the species: in case of grave danger they freeze, they ‘pretend’ to be dead. In this case, the pale colours of their feathers make them invisible against the earth or the foliage and, if the enemy does not have a good sense of smell, they remain unnoticed.
After they meet with the coniferous forests high above, the deciduous forests continue to cover the hills with thick carpets, then they add dark stains onto the yellow fields and follow the blue ribbons of the rivers which act like lungs purifying the air and keeping the necessary levels of humidity. In their midst they hide numerous birds to which they offer shelter and rich food. Let us visit a forest in the spring.
The beech forest resounds with the trills of the fieldfares and the blackbirds. Among them, however, especially at dawn or at sunset, a high-pitched sound, very varied and slightly melancholic, stands out. If we get closer, an alarm-like ‘tsk! tsk!’, as if two small stones were being knocked against each other, can be heard interrupting the delicate modulations, then the bird starts again to weave the charming thread of its song. There it is! A small ball of fluff with a big rusty-red spot on its breast. It is the (European) Robin (Erithacus rubecula). In winter it even visits the towns, villages, parks and gardens and one is able to see from up close its slightly round silhouette, the earth-coloured back and the big black biddy eyes. It sees well even in the semi-dark of the old dense woods, where it ceaselessly looks for food even in the hours when the sun has barely risen above the horizon. Now it has other business: it needs to take care of nesting and the whistle of the male can be heard from far away. The nest is normally well hidden in a hole, at the foot of a tree or between some big stones. It is round and made up of moss laid on top of dry leaves. The interior of the robin’s little house is so soft and elastic – in it 5-6 chicks have to be warm and safe during two weeks! Their parents have patiently gathered tens and hundreds of pieces of horsehair and have carefully placed them in the bowl of the little nest. In summer, the young will have another round of siblings; the parents will also feed them with tiny insects, which they have taken from the foliage and the mushrooms growing in the shade of the forest. Let us set a meeting with them in our gardens for next winter.
What is that sound coming from the bushes at the edge of the clearing? It is a protracted buzz, like that of a grasshopper, but mingled with the silvery notes of a chirrup and coming from a tiny, yellow bird. It sings long stanzas without pause, endlessly and out of tune. It’s the (European) Serin (Serinus serinus) which is a close relative of the famous singer the canary but more modest in its vocal performance. Being a great traveller, it has slowly, over tens of years, expanded throughout Europe from west to east, having eventually reached our country too, first in the Carpathians and then in the north of Dobrogea. After it raises two broods of chicks, it migrates to the south, to the lands of its origins. In spring it comes back without fail.
In forests at a somewhat lower altitude, where the oak predominates, these birds are more numerous. Their voices make up a veritable choir from which the stronger whistles of the golden oriole and the flute-like sound of the nightingale stand out. From time to time there is a mewing-wailing kind of sound, ‘kay-kay, kay’, coming from a tree with a wider trunk. Along a bough there lies a bird not too big, about the size of a woodpecker, barely noticeable because of its striped and speckled, brown-red and grey feathers. Although it is a member of the woodpecker family, it looks and behaves in ways which set it apart quite a bit from its relatives. We are dealing with the (Eurasian) Wryneck (Jynx torquilla). Here we go, we have set a special net which helps us capture birds so we may study and band them. Soon the bird that kept coming down to the ground, hopping in pursuit of ants, has been caught. We take it out but… what do we notice it is doing? It keeps turning its neck and head in a most unusual manner: it bends and twists them like a snake does. You almost feel like throwing it away in fright, especially since it also makes a hissing sound. In fact it is not dangerous at all since it does not even try to pinch as its siblings the woodpeckers would. When it finds itself in danger, the twisting movements of its neck protect her, especially if it is found in the tree hole where it nests. When an enemy approaches the edge of the hole, the wryneck jumps out and makes a hissing sound, twisting its head in all sorts of ways, thus scaring the intruder. Unlike other woodpeckers, its beak is weaker and its tail is less rigid because it does not peck against the trees looking for larvae, nor does it dig its nest in the wood, but rather it takes over one that has already been built. Another difference is that in winter it migrates to the south, whilst the other woodpeckers, whose food is guaranteed to be under the tree barks, do not leave us.
Also looking for food in tree trunks, only this time climbing down in quick spirals head down, is the (Eurasian) Nuthatch (Sitta europaea), whose brigand-like whistle can be heard as early as April. It too hammers repeatedly but its work tool is not strong enough and it doesn’t make holes into the wood. It also nests in tree holes using old nests which were once carved by woodpeckers. As the entrance is too big and potentially tempting for unwanted guests such as field sparrows, the nuthatch uses mud to build a wall all around the hole, leaving just enough room for its small body to get through. Now the shelter is safe! The bigger birds can come all they like.
The (European) Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) too nest in tree holes. In autumn we can see them gathered in big flocks which are veritable clouds of birds, swooping over cultivated lands and vineyards. In spring however they split into pairs, their whistle letting us know that there are nests somewhere near. Starlings are master mimics, being able to imitate all sorts of sounds such as the whistle of a train engine, honking and quacking, chirping, cackling etc. If you don’t pay attention, you will think that near you there is a bird hardly suitable to the environment you are finding yourself in. But if you track the origin of the sounds, you will see the starling on top a tree, its throat swollen, beak open, wings half drooping and shaking all over as though it were making a great effort. It imitates the common quail, in the forest! Starlings also nest in human habitats, in orchards or parks. In mild winters, flocks of starlings forage near stables, rubbish sites and train stations. However, a big part of our starlings reach North Africa, from where they come back with new songs learned from the African birds.
The Hoopoe is part of a family of southern birds but it has also adapted to climates which are less warm. In summer it goes almost as far up as the Arctic Circle. It is well known for its song (‘oop-oop-oop’, hence its scientific name Upupa epops and the majority of its familiar names in various languages) as well as for the crest it adorns itself with and which it often spreads out like a fan. It lives in forests, orchards, and parks in human habitats. It nests in a large low tree hole or in an old wall, in piles of stones etc. It has the undeserved bad reputation of keeping a dirty ‘house’. In fact, this is the nestlings’ weapon of defence: if an enemy – whether a rat, a cat, a dormouse or even a human hand – shows up at the entrance into the nest, the chicks turn their tails towards the intruder and spray it from a distance with a brown liquid which gives out a foul smell. This liquid is produced by a special gland which is situated next to the tail. The unwanted guest immediately loses its appetite or even the desire to touch the chicks after such an unexpected shower and the accompanying smell! The nest does indeed give out a bad smell, especially if you put your hand in it and the chicks use their ‘secret weapon’. In winter, the hoopoe goes to the lands of its origins, in the south.
The (European) Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) is also interesting. Certain false habits have unfairly been attributed to it too. As its Latin name shows, as well as its familiar name in many languages, it is supposed to ‘milk goats’. Let us find out what the reality is. Where does this name come from? The bird has a small beak which, nevertheless, opens widely as it catches insects while flying, just as swallows and swifts do (they too have a beak which opens widely). The nightjar does not fly during the day but from sunset till dawn. As there are lots of small flies and mosquitoes flying near animal farms, flying low and especially during milking time in the evening, the nightjar often shows up in the vicinity of sheep and goats, silently flapping their wings near the animals. The wide-open beak, showing up during milking time… and the myth is born! During the day the nightjar lies stuck close to a horizontal bough or the foliage of the forest, its mottled earth-coloured plumage and its stillness being the perfect camouflage. Maybe it is because it ‘sticks’ like this that it is also known as ‘the sticker’. It lays its camouflage-coloured eggs in the sand or stony earth of the forests. If the bird is threatened by a small animal whilst incubating, it tries to scare off the enemy by suddenly opening its beak and showing off the vivid colours inside its mouth, raising its wings menacingly and producing a kind of wheezed whistle. Its voice has a special resonance in the late spring nights or in the middle of the summer. It sounds as though a cat were purring but with a somewhat metallic loud sound.
A bird which is often encountered in clearings with scattered bushes or in the thorny shrubbery at the edge of the forest is the Red-Backed Shrike (Lanius collurio). It has a strong, sharp and slightly hooked beak which gives away habits characteristic of a raptor. Indeed, it blithely snatches roaches, small lizards and mice, which it sees in the grass from its observation point situated on top of a bush. It has the habit of ‘stocking up on provisions’ by sticking the extra captured insects, sometimes maybe even a mouse, into the longer thorns of a shrub, which it later eats or forgets about them. This particular shrike is recognised by its vivid and elegant colouring: the red back, the light-grey head with a black brow, which gives it a stern look, and the white-yellow breast. It does not have a song of its own but rather imitates various voices it hears, being able to produce a high-pitched, melodiously enough chirrup. In the middle of the summer one can often see it perched on the telegraph lines alongside its bigger ‘brother’ which has no red on its back (Lanius minor – the Lesser Grey Shrike). From there it swoops into fields or into the road after insects. If you get too close to it or to its nest, it makes a typical movement of alarm: it twists its tail fully to one side and the other and lets out a distress call, a kind of ‘keh-keh’.
Let us now get acquainted with the Great Tit (Parus major). It announces the arrival of spring as soon as the snow begins to thaw and the day increases, singing energetically ‘tsin-tsivi, tsin-tsivi’ or, as they say in some regions, ‘simţ a vară’ (‘feels like summer’). As early as March it begins to cram nest material into a tree hole – wool, feathers, straws – and in April it feeds its chicks as though it wants them to fledge as soon as possible so that it may have time for two or three broods in one year. During the warm season it is rather antisocial, even fights with other birds. Vivacious beyond measure, this feisty bird skips from one tree branch to another like a humming top, showing off its black ‘tie’ on its yellow breast, the shiny black crown and the white cheek. If you take it in your hand, for example in order to band it, it pinches you meanly and swiftly, screaming in distress! It is not gentle but it is very useful, as we will later see. In winter the great tits form small groups, comprising several families, which move from one tree to another with great pomp looking for small insects. Among them we can see the

Long-Tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus), which look like white puff balls with long tails, moving like quick silver and turning around boughs like acrobats. In March they build a nest at the joining place between two boughs. This is skilfully made from lichen and filled with down and feathers. The nest blends in so well with the bark of the trees, which is also covered in lichen, that it remains unnoticed. Closed from all sides, except the lateral entrance hole, the nest hides in its down several minuscule bean-sized eggs! And yet, these will be able to hatch the great tits, which are also small and light (a long-tailed tit weighs about 8 g).
An even better builder of nests turns out to be the (European) Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus), which is related to the Great Tit but lives in forests near waters. Its nest is a veritable masterpiece: woven with catkins from poplar and willow trees and hanging from a thin willow tree branch which overhangs the water, it has a small entrance hole which is only big enough to allow the two parents to enter one at a time. In this cradle, swayed by the gentlest of breezes, and which no egg or chick ‘lover’ (the carrion crow, the magpie) can guess it is a nest, up to ten chicks can cram inside it for almost three weeks. Afterwards they all leave together, moving from one willow tree to another, looking for tiny insects. One can recognise them from a distance by the specific song they emit: a delicate, slightly wailing ‘ssseee-ssseee’ sound, which is repeated very often.
The (Eurasian) Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) too builds itself a beautiful and comfortable nest, which is a veritable hammock made of fibres and down, hanging from a great height among leaves, and can hardly be seen from below. The father has a bright yellow colouring – the mother’s is a bit more pale – but the voice is what gives it away most easily: a loud modulated whistle, which has usually inspired the name given to this bird in various languages (loriot in French, Pirol in German, oriolus in Latin and in our language grangur or pişcănflori), followed by a harsh unmelodious mewing: ‘kjjeh’. Riverside copses resound with the never-ending songs of this great ‘flautist’.
Another good singer is the (Eurasian) Blackbird (Turdus merula), which is also a whistling expert. Black-coloured with a bright orange beak and circles of the same colour around its eyes, it whistles so much like humans do that you can’t help turning your head thinking someone is calling you! The female is more red-coloured. They rustle abruptly and loudly through the forest’s foliage, as though a heavy animal were passing by; soon though an alarm signal emitted by them lets you know they are mere blackbirds. Sometimes the blackbird builds its nest quite low to the ground and we can recognise it by the fact that it is lined with earth inside and the eggs are green-blue with red speckles. In winter one can see blackbirds but these are from the north – ours have gone to the south of the Balkan Peninsula.
A close relative of the blackbird is the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), which sports a brownish back and red spots on its white chest. Its whistle is more shrill and more varied than that of the blackbird and it can usually be heard in the morning or in the evening coming from a song thrush perched on top of a tall tree. The thrush too lines its nest with earth but it also normally uses sawdust from rotting trees to soften the interior. Thrushes feed on worms but in autumn they also look for shrub berries, sometimes even getting into vineyards.
The best known ‘prima donnas’ are, without doubt, the nightingales! Here we have two species: Luscinia luscinia (the Thrush Nightingale) and Luscinia megarhynchos (The Rufous or Common Nightingale). It is hard to distinguish them by their external appearance but we can tell them apart by their song: the megarhynchos species usually whistles a long note which slowly grows in intensity as it is being repeated. Nightingales spend most of their time in small shrubs, thickets and nettles, and they build their nest right next to the forest foliage or to a plant. The eggs have such dark, chocolate-like colouring that they can hardly be seen among the red and brown leaves with which the nest is otherwise built. The birds’ brown-red plumage is also a form of camouflage. Even the young fledglings, if they hear a specific alarm call coming from their parents (a repeated ‘trrrr-feeeeee’), freeze in positions that make them look like dry leaves which have been left hanging from branches since autumn.
Some connoisseurs believe that even better singers than the nightingales are the warblers, which are small faded-colour birds. In our country there live five species of warblers, of which the most beautiful is the Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria). It has a black-grey back, its breast is striped with fine dark waves and its eyes are of a striking bright yellow colour. Their voice, albeit less powerful than that of the nightingale, is more varied, the songs are diverse and quick, also mixing in imitations of bird songs heard nearby. Often warblers sing while flying, letting themselves drop like a parachute toward the ground or toward the top of a shrub. The Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) especially displays this habit. They all migrate in autumn to the south, but they nest in our country.
In forests there also live birds which feed on seeds, pits and other plant parts. They can be recognised by their beak which is thicker with sharp edges and has been adapted to decorticating seeds. The Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) is the most typical representative of this type of birds and its beak is so strong that breaking cherry pits seems to pose no problem at all! The hawfinch does not leave our country in winter since it finds plenty of food here. It also nests in plain forests although it prefers hill forests. It builds its nest in a tall tree, towards the end of a bough. The bluish eggs usually hatch five chicks, which the parents first feed with insects because their bodies need animal proteins in order to grow. Only when they have fledged (10-12 days after they have broken the egg shell) do the chicks begin the transition to their parents’ diet. This is characteristic of most seed-eating birds, with the exception of the pigeon families.
The Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), one of the most common and best known birds of our forests and evoked by poets as well (let us remember Vasile Alecsandri’s goldfinches in his ‘Concert in the meadow’), also feeds on seeds. However, it is interesting that within the northern populations of finches the females and the young migrate to the south, leaving the males behind, who are ‘widowed’ until spring (indeed, the word coelebs means ‘widow’ in Latin!). When they return, the wives find their men beautifully ‘dressed’ in wedding bright-coloured plumage (dark red-brown breast, grey head, a big white spot on its wing) and singing unstoppably! Full-on fights then start to conquer and defend the nesting territory. The nest, although it is often quite low, can hardly be told apart from the bark of the tree as it is decorated on the outside with camouflaging lichen.
The (European) Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris), which has beautifully-coloured plumage with yellow on its wings and tail, green on its back, is also a common forest bird. Its melodious voice – a often repeated whistle, ‘foooeeeet, foooeeeet’ – interrupted from time to time by a harsher rasp – ‘kjjjjeh’ – can be heard everywhere, including in parks and gardens. Flocks form as early as autumn and keep flying in search for seeds. These flocks also last during winter. In spring they pair off and build a fairly simple nest using sprigs, often lining it up with wool, and place it in some thicket at around human height. Of the birds which feed on seeds, the (European) Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) sports the most vivid colours: bright red, black and white head, light brown back, and yellow and black wings, thus looking like flowers in constant movement when perched on a taller bramble to collect its seeds. In winter they form big flocks with other birds which wander the fields and human habitats looking for food. In spring they withdraw to places where they can find tall enough trees in order to build their nests. They hide them well and high in the tree crown and weave them with various plants, moss and wool. Their song is vary varied and pleasant.
Let us end our journey through the forest by talking about a well-known bird we often encounter: the Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). Who hasn’t heard a cuckoo sing? From the middle of April, as soon as it is back from Africa, it starts to give out its call. But who has ever found a cuckoo’s nest? Nobody, because a cuckoo never builds a nest – that simple! It is not easy for it to ensure the survival of its species without building a nest, incubating eggs and looking after its chicks. Which is why the cuckoo has a series of very peculiar habits in comparison with other nesting birds. The female lays a much bigger number of eggs than birds of its size do, sometimes up to 20! These eggs are very small and they vary in colour. The cuckoo’s chicks do grow up in nests and are looked after by parents – only they are ‘adoptive’ parents and the nest is alien. The female ‘spies’ the nearby birds when they build their nest or when they are incubating, catching the right moment when to leave its ‘gift’ in their nest. It does it incredibly quickly and, if there is not enough room for it because the nest is too full, it takes out with its beak an ‘original’ egg and replaces it with its ‘copy’. This is because its eggs resemble the eggs of other birds both in size and colouring.
If a nest is hidden in such a way that the female can’t lay its eggs straight into it (she is rather big and has a long tail), it has been observed that she lays her eggs on the ground and then carries her egg in her beak and puts it in the chosen nest. The incubation is very short, only 12 days long, as it is the norm with most parasitic birds (it is even shorter than this), whilst species which are of the same size as the cuckoo usually take three weeks to incubate. Thus, the cuckoo’s chicks’ chances of hatching at the same time (or even before!) the other chicks in the nest increase. However, the cuckoo’s adaptation to raising its chicks in host nests does not stop at the number and appearance of the eggs and the mother’s actions, for the chick has its own role to play as well! As soon as it has hatched, it proceeds to eliminate its ‘rivals’ from the nest, its ‘step siblings’, which is to say the chicks (or the eggs) of the poor bird which has built the nest and incubated the eggs. While still small and featherless and its eyes stuck close, the cuckoo chick starts to make some peculiar movements: it props itself on its head and wings, sticks the eggs or the chick on its back, between its wings, and moves backward toward the edge of the nest until the burden drops out. It repeats this operation for as long as it feels there are eggs or chicks left around it! It has been noticed that this instinct is activated only in the cuckoo chick’s first four days of its life; afterwards it no longer seeks to eliminate its ‘step siblings’ left in the nest. So this is why the period of incubation is so short – the other chicks are small and cannot withstand the attacks of the cuckoo chick in those four days. It is also known how the cuckoo chick can feel the presence of the chicks or eggs near it: not by hearing or seeing (its eyes are still stuck close) but by touching with the very area in its back that the ejected is propped on. After hatching it grows up relatively slowly by comparison with the small bird’s chicks. Whilst the latter usually fledge about two weeks after hatching, the cuckoo chick remains in the nest for around three weeks. It asks for food constantly and loudly and its ‘adoptive’ parents hardly manage to feed it, big as it is. Before fledging, it grows too big for the nest and if you come across such a chick you can observe a curious scene: the nestling is almost completely outside the nest, its tail and wings are hanging out, and around it two small birds are fretting to bring it food constantly, being almost engulfed by its beak! They even continue to feed it after it has fledged and left the nest because it continues to wailingly ask for food.
The list of parasitic cuckoo species is a long one, comprising over one hundred names. Some birds are very sensitive and leave their nest as soon as they have noticed that there is an alien egg inside it. Others care less, they incubate it and then carefully raise it as though it were theirs, in spite of the fact that it may have ejected their eggs or chicks and does not resemble them at all! It goes without saying that by adopting this parasitic kind of breeding the cuckoo does some damage, causing the abandonment of nests or the death of useful insect-eating chicks. However, the cuckoo has its uses too as it feeds on harmful insects among which first rank the hairy caterpillars which few birds attack. The cuckoo leaves relatively early for Africa, as early as August, migrating at night and staying away from other species. As it can be seen, this is a lonely bird, it does not even mate, does not even raise its chicks – hence the wise traditional saying: ‘lonely as a cuckoo’!
from Tales from the World of Birds, 1974
 Translated by Monica Mircescu

by Matei Tălpeanu