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The moss chirping tit lark...

If there is one bird you might be aware of when walking or climbing in the British mountains then surely it is the meadow pipit. The ultimate LBJ (little brown job). An unbearable song, an undistinguished appearance, a scruffy nest and it disappears in the winter. I’m not selling it well so far am I! How about an indispensable corner stone of the upland ecosystem, our constant chirping companion, a host for declining cuckoos and a crucial controller of flies, beetles and spiders. We need them, we know them, we should love them a little more. They’re actually quite cute when you take a look more closely.


The meadow pipit spends its winter lower down, in meadows. As soon as there is any warmth in the spring sunshine, it moves up hill. Usually around the end of March or at the beginning of April; you’ll start to hear its rhythmic chirping. It has a mildly spectacular mating routine of rising high then descending, wings spread out, in a parachuting type display. It sings as it descends, but this isn’t the lark that sings as it ascends, that would be a skylark, they arrive a little after the meadow pipits. They nest and lay four or five eggs, if all goes well, they’ll have young around May time (they can have second brood later too). The young are very vulnerable, their nest is small, and shallow, not always well hidden and is on the ground so any number of predators can find them. And they do. In-fact I’ve heard meadow pipits referred to (by an RSPB volunteer!) as the “Mars bars of the hill”! They get eaten, it’s good job there are around two million pairs because they are the main food source for a number of birds of prey, including hen harrier and merlin, all the crows will take them and on the ground, foxes, badgers, stoats and probably adders will feast on them. As I said they are an integral part of the upland ecosystem.


And sometimes… a cuckoo will lay an egg in their nest. The first act of the cuckoo chick will be to turf out all the meadow pipits’ eggs and sit there, in the middle of the nest taking all the food that the parent birds bring. This looks quite bizarre as we get into, the season and the cuckoo chick is twice as big as either parent feeding it. Then, one day, the cuckoo chick, having never met its own parents, ups and flies to Africa, the Congo. Are the meadow pipits sad? Or are they proud of the large chick that their evolutionary response has led them to breed, we’ll never know.


The meadow pipit’s Latin name is Anthus Pratensis. Anthus means ‘small bird of the grasslands' whilst the pratensis but means meadow (see even its Latin name is dull!). Pipit does mean chirp though! It does have couple of cousins, the tree pipit is rarely seen, but I have been out with a birder who heard it whilst we were out. On the other hand the rock pipit is easy to spot, darting about on the coast at low tide, nibbling along the intertidal zone, with a similar chirp to the meadow pipit (though, if anything, this one is even less colourful!). In Scottish Gaelic it is the riabhagan-monaidh , whilst in Welsh it’s the Corhedydd y Waun . Other names I’ve come across are moss-cheeper and tit-lark.




So, next time you wonder about the ubiquitous meadow pipit and grumble at the monotony of its call, take a second look, see a mini song thrush, a hard working, hardy little bird that props up some of our more glamourous species. The meadow pipit, should be a hillwalkers favourite bird…

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mike@mikeraine.co.uk Nature of Snowdonia. Book with confidence.