How our birds have learnt to love the oddest places

Mark Rowe on the way wildlife adapts to the modern world
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The Independent Online
To the casual observer it appears to be a straightforward case of enjoying sex in hair-raisingly dangerous places: an adventurous pair of lapwings has chosen a busy roundabout by a motorway in Greater Manchester as a breeding and nesting site.

But from the lapwing's viewpoint, the Mottram in Longdendale roundabout at the end of the M67 east of Manchester is prime real estate: the short grass provides a ready supply of insects with which to feed the hungry young and good views of potential predators.

The lapwings are not unique among Britain's bird population in seeking out unlikely locations to rear their young. Other cases this spring have included oystercatchers on the verge of the runway at Prestwick airport, rooks on A1 roundabouts, ravens at Chester cathedral and peregrine falcons on the crags of Beeston Castle, Cheshire.

The reasons are varied. For the lapwing, it is the fact that their natural habitat of open, usually tilled, fields is being eroded by agricultural practices; for the rook, the birds simply require extra space as the numbers in overcrowded rookeries increase.

"The lapwing doesn't see a roundabout - it just sees a nice site on the periphery of its usual habitat in this area on the uplands of the Peak District," said Andre Farrar, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' publicity officer for the North-west. "It would be quite comfortable with the noise from cars because it is a constant drone."

The same approach explained the oystercatcher's presence at Prestwick airport, he said. "The oystercatcher wouldn't be particularly bothered by a 747 thundering past on the runway - it sees a grass verge that mimics its natural environment."

Motorists using the A1 in Lincolnshire can take their pick of several rookeries, though the RSPB believes that the best location is the roundabout by the Great Gonerby service area north of Grantham, home to more than 20 breeding pairs. "Rooks line great stretches of the A1 and so they are just spilling over into the trees in the middle of the roundabout," said Mr Farrar.

Birds preferring a more secluded location include peregrine falcons. For the past 10 years one pair has chosen the dramatic setting of the ruined Crusader castle at Beeston, south-east of Chester, for their breeding. They share the site with a pair of ravens, but another pair of ravens has created more of a stir by nesting amid the gargoyles of Chester Cathedral for the first time in 400 years - "urban" ravens have been seen in the UK only at the Tower of London.

Meanwhile, in another tale of springtime breeding, the only pair of golden eagles in England are awaiting the hatching of a chick at the RSPB's Riggindale Valley reserve in the Lake District.

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