Stonechats are little birds that live in this region of France and are called stonechats because their song, if you can call it that, which sounds like two stones being hit together. This is a photo of one I took earlier.
Since we purchased our house in this region, I have recorded all the birds I have seen on each visit. I have a method of notation which is that if they are seen in the region but more than about 10 Km away from the house I put a dot into my record book, if they are within 10Km they get a cross and if they are seen either on the premises or viewed from the premises, ie in the field at the bottom of the garden or flying overhead, then they get a star. These records go back to 1990 and in that year I have one recording of having seen a stonechat, only one recorded sighting out of 5 visits in 1991, then 4 recorded sightings from 5 visits in 1992, – I will not bore you with the next twenty years’ records but in summary I have seen them every year and in 1997 and 1999 I actually saw them on the premises. Generally though I have seen them at one particular place, and this has come to be known as ‘Stonechat Corner’
Stonechat Corner is actually a cross roads between Saint Romain and Charroux. It is nothing special, or at least to me it isn’t but maybe it is special to a stonechat. There are just hedgerows, fields and road signs there. Across the road is some hard standing which is used as a temporary grain store during harvest time which attracts small flocks of house sparrows and some starlings but I would not think that is of any interest to a stonechat, as they eat insects. Until 2004 there was a small pile of old twigs and branches in the corner of one of the fields at this crossroads and was the preferred roosting place of the stonechat, on top of this pile of twigs. If it was not exactly there it was invariably to be seen very close by on the hedge or occasionally on the electricity wires that run overhead. In 2004 the farmer cleared the twig pile and ploughed up the field which up until then had been rough pasture.
Since 2004 I have seen stonechats every year within 10 Km of the property but not often at Stonechat Corner. In 2011 I spent a lot of time in France and did not see a stonechat at all for 4 months from July through to November. Last year from April to November I only saw one and that was in May. This year in July 2013 I have once again seen a stonechat on the electric wires at Stonechat Corner.
So all this poses some questions in my mind. How long is the average stonechat’s life? I am guessing only a few years. There are various websites that try to answer this question and I quote from one which concludes by saying
‘So, the answer to our question is that most adult small birds in temperate regions such as ours live for between 1¼ and 1½ years, but that only about 10-20% of young reach adulthood. Big birds, seabirds and tropical birds can live much longer. But some individuals of any species can live as much as ten times as long as the average – that’s like an exceptional human living for about 800 years!’
That site is http://www.countrysideinfo.co.uk/bird_lifespan.htm if you want to check it out.
I think then it is fair enough to assume that the birds I am seeing represent several generations of stonechats. Stonechats are insectivorous birds and will be fairly vulnerable to harsh winters especially snow which will be quite a challenge to them.
Is this one line of descent? Was the stonechat I first saw on the pile of twigs in 1991 the great great great etc etc grandfather of the one I saw three days ago or have I been seeing birds from lots of different genetic lines which have just set up home on this particular crossroads because there is something really very attractive about it to a stonechat? I tend to go with the direct line of descent theory.
The other thing which occurs to me is that if these birds are all related then how far back does the line go? Were there stonechats in that place at the time of Napoleon or Eleanor of Aquitaine for example? If this is the case then how much does the DNA of these birds reflect the exact habitat and circumstances that exist in that place? Given that a stonechat will produce two or three clutches each year and that each clutch will consist of 3 to 8 eggs we can assume that each year about 20 birds will have been produced and that if the fittest survive then over the last 23 years 460 birds will have been produced. We might assume that the bird I saw yesterday is somewhat more suited to the habitat and life at Stonechat Corner than the one I saw 23 years ago. Does it work like that? Could it be that the reason they are attracted to Stonechat Corner is because over a period of many years they have been honed to perfectly fit that location?
Finally it makes me think of my own situation. I have traced the male line of my family tree back to about 1650 and whilst that only represents about 7 generations, they are all more or less country folk and farm workers. Of course this is only one line and as you go further and further back more genetic lines will have an albeit smaller and smaller influence on your DNA make up but I do feel more at ease in the countryside and am happy to spend time roaming about the woods and fields. I would not say cities and towns put me into a panic but there is a small element of that when I have to enter places with lots of people and hustle and bustle.