This article is not going to tell you how to be a better player of Wingspan (though you can find other articles for that purpose). It’s going to have a look in detail at some of the birds featured on the cards. Designer Elizabeth Hargrave and illustrators Natalia Rojas, Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo and Beth Sobal certainly intended us to learn how beautiful birds are. Each card includes the scientific name of the bird, its distribution, wingspan and an interesting fact as well as an accurate illustration of the bird in question. The number of eggs you can place on each bird is true to the species and the food it eats is also accurate within the parameters of the game’s five resources.
With this month’s release of David Attenborough’s Wild Isles on the BBC, it seemed appropriate to write a feature on nature. At ninety-six years old, Sir David has inspired and educated every generation for decades.
The Birds In More Detail
The common swift (apus apus), is the fastest recorded species in level flight. Although the peregrine falcon is famous for reaching much higher speeds, it achieves this by dropping steeply downwards in a stoop, rather than actually flying. And swifts need to be experts at flying - they will be eating, mating and even sleeping on the wing. In fact, the only time swifts spend on their feet is when breeding.
They arrive in the UK to breed in March, and stay until October, migrating from as far away as South Africa and covering up to 500 miles per day on their journey. Chicks prepare for their lives on the wing by performing wing press-ups in the nest to build up their muscles. Once they fledge, they will stay airborne for an incredible 3 years! Next time you draw the rather dull-coloured common swift in Wingspan, remember these birds are more remarkable than they look.
The Red Kite is a real conservation success story here in Britain. From a handful of pairs remaining in Wales in the 1930’s, we now have 4,600 pairs breeding across Scotland and England. The Red Kite is a scavenger, feeding primarily on carrion and worms, although it can catch small mammals and birds if necessary. It likes shiny and colourful objects, incorporating such items into its nest. And as Wingspan tells us at the bottom of the card, Red Kites can play dead if threatened. One bird took this to such extremes that staff at a rescue centre had to monitor its recovery by using mirrors, because it would immediately act dead if it thought anyone was watching.
The White-throated Dipper (cinclus cinclus) is a unique songbird because its diet consists entirely of aquatic organisms. They are so named because they dip their heads into the water of fast-flowing streams looking for food and they can do this at a rate of 60 times a minute. They can also swim under water and have many adaptations to facilitate this behaviour. Their blood is extremely well oxygenated and they can alter the curvature of their eye lens to optimise vision according to whether they are above or below the surface. They have sharp, curved claws, making them so adept at hanging onto the river bottom that they walk almost as easily under water as they do on land.
The Red Knot is a wading bird and as Wingspan tells us, it has one of the longest migrations, from the high Arctic to Chile and South Africa. That’s more than 9000 miles, twice a year. To keep itself fuelled, the red knot probes the sand or mud for invertebrates. It has a specialised sensory organ on its bill tip that detects changes in pressure, and this alerts it to the proximity of clams and other tasty morsels. Once it’s located a shellfish, the knot swallows it whole, relying on a muscular stomach to crush it up. The size of their digestive organs can change seasonally (in as short a time as 6 days) to account for changes in foodstuff at the different wintering and breeding grounds.
The unassuming brown and grey dunnock lives in our shrubs and hedges, popping out shyly at ground level to pick up seeds and invertebrates. Sometimes called the hedge sparrow, its nests are favoured by the cuckoo, whose chicks push out any rivals and eggs as soon as they hatch. Luckily, dunnocks can raise several broods of chicks every year and they aren’t too fussy who they do it with. While most species of bird pair up and share parental duties between the two of them, dunnocks have a different way of doing things. The female will mate with several different males, and the chicks in any one brood may have different fathers. Male dunnocks are also promiscuous, so that the traditional ‘pair’, can be made up of two males and a female, two females and a male or two of each.
That’s just a very few of the birds Wingspan’s European expansion brings to our tables. I know anyone who has played the game will have stopped to admire the beautiful illustrations, but if you delve deeper, there is more to these amazing animals than meets the eye. Which are your favourites?