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Woodcock Pilot


Christmas can be a time for telling stories and there are many stories in country folklore of seemingly extraordinary behaviour by birds.

I was reminded of one of these stories in November when I had reports of increasing numbers of Woodcock and increasing numbers of Goldcrest on Arran.  For example, a Woodcock was photographed in a garden in Glen Cloy and twelve Goldcrest were reported in a flock in Brodick Country Park.  While both species breed on Arran, the population here increases in winter when the large Scandinavian and Northern Continental population migrate to the milder west of Europe to avoid the northern winter.

The Goldcrest is the smallest European bird weighing about half that of the more familiar Blue Tit.  In new money the Goldcrest weighs about the same as a ten pence coin.  How does such a small bird manage such a long journey including crossing the North Sea? The story is that Goldcrests hitch a ride on the backs of Woodcock, which are also on the same journey, giving rise to another name for Goldcrest, 'Woodcock Pilot'. Although this may conjure up images of the Goldcrest sat on the Woodcock's back saying "left a bit , right a bit", the story may have developed from the belief that the arrival of a large number of Goldcrest can precede the arrival of a large number of  Woodcock.

The truth is more remarkable than the pilot legend.  Namely these small birds are capable of migration over long distances.

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