The secret life of animals
Major feature of Macedonia is its rich biological diversity. The diverse number of reliefs and landscapes created opportunity for development of numerous ecosystems and habitats that are home to many animal species. Unfortunately, the modern way of life offers us little opportunity to watch and observe the fascinating life of animals. Many parts of their lives remain secret to us, but here are some things we know about.
The black throated loon is a regular resident of the Macedonian lakes. One pair makes 1-2 nests and has 3-4 chicks each year. After the young hatch from the eggs, they immediately leave the nest by climbing on their parents backs and sit there until they are able to swim on their own. Although swimming is usually easier than flying, the parents are always there to encourage them as they master the new technique.
The black throated loons are extremely caring parents. After the young hatch from the eggs, the parents do not separate from them even for a moment. Once the chicks learn to swim on their own, the next lesson is what to eat and what not to eat. These birds have a wide range of diets that include: shrimp, insects, mollusks, tadpoles, frogs and small fish. They hunt by diving into the water, sometimes for up to 30 seconds. The young birds have fast metabolism and a big appetite, which makes parenting difficult.
The little egret is a water bird species that is widespread and is a frequent visitor to almost all lowland water habitats in Macedonia. Their slender, tall legs allow them to move easily along shallow coastal waters in search of food, and their long beaks are a great tool for catching all kinds of prey that comes their way: fish, frogs, worms, snakes, insects, and even small mammals are all regular part of their diet.
Apparently nothing special is happening in this picture. Two water turtles sunbathing on a fallen tree. However, this is another problem caused by human influence. The pond turtle (right) is a species of water turtle with limited distribution in Macedonia, and is also declared “vulnerable” according to the National Red List of Reptiles and Amphibians. The red-eared slider (left), on the other hand, is an invasive species found naturally along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, and is also the most popular aquarium turtle available in almost every pet store. The reckless release of these turtles into the wild has led to the formation of a savage population that is slowly but surely beginning to spread. The similar ecology and the living needs of these two species contribute to additional stress and pressure on the population of the already rare and vulnerable pond turtle. We will see how the red-eared slider will spread and to what extent it will affect the wildlife in our country.
The coots are one of the most common water birds in Macedonia. They can be found in the three valley natural lakes, as well as in many reservoirs, ponds and swamps. In the winter months they form huge flocks that sometimes number hundreds of birds. However, during the nesting season, these birds are extremely territorial and aggressive towards other birds that will step on their territory, especially individuals of the same species. Both parents are equally involved in guarding the territory.
There are many species of birds that are exclusively monogamous, however, probably the most typical species that symbolize romantic love is the mute swan. The pure white color and the delicate graceful appearance of these birds served as inspiration for many writers, painters and composers to create works of art that are known to this day worldwide. These birds are indeed romantics in reality. When losing a mate, the birds go through a period of mourning by spending a long time at the location where their mate used to live previously, and then fly away and join another flock of swans.
The little bittern is an extremely good hunter. He has well-specialized feet that allow him to easily attach to branches and reeds that hang over the water from where he lurks and hunts prey. This bird inhabits reeds near large bodies of water from where it hunts, but also builds its nest. The little bittern’s favorite food is fish, but he will not miss the opportunity to catch amphibians, worms, snakes or insects. He often uses his sharp beak to pierce the fish before eating it, but sometimes also swallows live fish. In our country, the this bird is migratory and spends the winter months in Africa.
The blue tit is a frequent inhabitant of the forests in Macedonia, but it is not uncommon to find it in cities as well, especially in parks and other green areas. When it comes to choosing a nesting site, the blue tits are true champions. They nest in various types of holes that will be suitable for them: in trees, poles, walls, tiles and even in mailboxes. Their nest is large and numbers about 7-8 young, but more than one female can use the same hole for laying eggs. Lots of feeding mouths also means a lot of work for the parents. During the rearing of the young, each parent can bring food to the nest every 30 seconds, and do it every day, all day. After the young emerge from the nest, they spend some time following their parents, who are still feeding them and teaching them how to behave in the wild.
As soon as they hatch from the eggs, the young black-throated loon immediately climb on their parents’ backs and leaves the nest permanently. This phenomenon protects the young from various predators and weather disasters, but also facilitates the work of the parents by not having to constantly swim to the nest to feed the young chicks. In this way, the young birds will remain attached to their parents until they change their feathers, become stronger and are able to swim and hunt on their own.
The wood pigeon is a very recognizable and typical bird for this region. It inhabits almost all forests and major parks in the country. It differs from the ordinary pigeon in the purple color of the feathers, the white “necklace” and the white lines of the wings that can be noticed in flight. The wood pigeon is a monogamous bird and nests with the same partner until one bird of the pair dies. Only after a certain period of time will the surviving bird slowly start looking for a new mate. But even though they are monogamous, the male has to win back his partner every season, and in the spring his “dance” can be observed. During their courtship, they fly almost vertically up to a great height and then gather their wings, spread their tails and flutter straight down with spectacular speed. If the partner deems that they are in good physical shape for raising young, the nesting season can begin.
The honey bee is probably the most recognizable and popular insect. But are we familiar enough with these little neighbors? We are taught from an early age that bees are the most useful pollinators on the planet, and that without their presence there would be no life. This narrative, although well-intentioned and useful, is wrong. The European honey bee is not actually European at all. It originates from Asia, and it got its name because European colonialists brought it to North America. Even the “wild” populations of the honey bee are, in fact, wild domestic bees that have started to spread throughout nature, while competing with the indigenous pollinators. However, the centuries-old breeding of domestic bees in this region has contributed to adaptation of the local biodiversity to their presence. Research conducted in the UK has shown that bees and one species of bumblebee compete because their feeding territories overlap. In order to maximize their feeding efficiency, the bumblebees have adapted to fly from flower to flower in the early morning, while honey bees use the same flowers in the afternoon.
If there is an award for the most colorful bird in Macedonia, the bee-eater should definitely get it. These are migratory birds that are present throughout the country in the summer period, with the exception of high mountain areas. They live in colonies and build their nests in holes in vertical landslides, eroded soils or banks. They can be often seeing flying in flocks while hunting but also resting in groups at their favorite “rest places”. As the name implies, these birds feed on bees but also on various other species of flying insects such as dragonflies, wasps, hornets and bumblebees. The bee-eaters are social birds and can often be seen giving each other insects as a gift, thus strengthening their friendships.
During the nesting season, the wild duck usually lays 8 to 13 eggs in its nest. However, not all eggs thrive and not all young ones reach maturity. However, the females of the wild ducks are the true superheroes. After the mother lays the eggs, the male leaves her and joins the flock of males, leaving all parental responsibilities to the mother. In the next 2 months, the young chicks will constantly follow the mother and will learn about the habitat, as well as what to eat and what to watch out for.
One of the most common birds found in urban and rural areas are the sturnus. They nest virtually everywhere: holes in trees, cracks in walls, broken street lights, poles, roofs. They are simply everywhere. In the spring, the chirping of the young “crying” for food can be heard everywhere in the cities, especially in the parks. These birds, which are slightly larger than sparrows, play an important role in the ecosystem by regulating the number of many different species of insects. However, the fact that they eat seeds and fruits makes many people perceive them as pests. During the cold months, huge flocks of thousands of birds can be seen forming, and these events are a spectacle of nature.
Author: Nenad Petrovski, Macedonian Ecological Society
Photo credits: Velian Jagev