A Miscellany of Information about British Birds
There are over 570 birds in the British List that occur naturally in the wild. Some live here all the year round, others are migrants travelling to and from various parts of the World depending on the time of year.
This article is a miscellany of interesting pieces of information about a selection of British Birds which we find in our gardens and in the surrounding countryside.
Why do birds sing? Primarily to attract females as a prelude to breeding and, at the same time, to repel rival males from invading their territory. With very few exceptions only the males sing. The peak time for birdsong is normally April and May, the Dawn Chorus being a star experience for those humans keen enough to get up very early. Sadly, research has shown that a songbird’s lifespan is rarely more than a year or two.
Robin: One of Britain’s favourite birds, the Robin really comes into its own at Christmas when it features on a great variety of cards. Robins may look cute but they do suffer from frankly violent behaviour; they are notably feisty, defending their territories vigorously attacking with a flurry of wings and claws – sometimes fighting to the death! Their song is magical and they sing all year round; it can sound ethereal in the autumn starting loudly and fading into wisps of sound. The female Robin is one of the exceptions to the ‘only males sing’ rule and sing to defend their territory in autumn and winter.
Wren: [Collective noun: a Herd (older and more common) or Chime of Wrens] In the Spring, the male Wren makes up to 6 nests which he then shows to his prospective mate; if she is impressed, she selects one to produce her family. To survive the winter, Wrens collect together in nest boxes to keep each other warm. The largest recorded number in a single nest was 63 birds. The RSPB has a separate record of over 90 Wrens coming out of a hole in the side of a barn in the spring!
Cuckoo: Arrives from Africa in the spring to find a mate. Once paired, a female can lay up to 25 eggs singly in different songbird’s nests (Dunnocks, Warblers, etc.). The parents return to Africa in about 2 months. Quite remarkably, the young are brought up by their surrogate (songbird) mother and, when old enough, make the trip to Africa without having met either of their parents to give them any guidance.
Nightingale: [Collective: a Watch of Nightingales] The magic harbinger of spring, nightingales have the most diverse and complex song of any bird in the UK. Although we think of them as a night singing bird, in fact they sing during the day as well – one just cannot hear them because there is too much other noise. We are lucky in East Anglia to host large numbers – The Essex Wildlife Trust Reserve at Fingringhoe is a magic spot to visit in April/May: in 2014 they recorded over 40 Nightingales.
Swift: [Collective: a Flock of Swifts] The most dramatic of fliers as they scythe their way through the sky over our towns and villages screaming as they go. They make their nests under house eaves; the parents fly unbelievable distances searching for food for between 7 and 8 weeks until their young are fledged. Once the young leave their nests they are on the wing for over 18 months until they return to breed; during their lifetime they can fly 1.5 million miles.
Barn Owl: [Collective applying to all Owls: a Parliament of Owls] Also known as the screech owl due to its loud shrill call. It is the wonderful “ghost” who glides over the ground (often by day) hunting small animals like voles to feed its young. A brood of 4 chicks can mean the parents catching 1500/2000 voles until they fledge. Unlike many birds, who wait until the whole clutch of eggs is ready before they start incubating, Barn Owls start to sit on their eggs as soon as they are laid, meaning that a single brood contains youngsters of very different sizes. In good years they may all survive, but in lean ones the older chick may sometimes feed on their younger siblings: this cannibalism ensuring their survival.
Tawny Owl: Mainly nocturnal, produces the iconic ‘to-whit-to-woo’ owl call. This is actually two tawny owls, a female (‘to-whit’) and a male (‘to-woo’) calling to each other, keeping in contact across their territory as they hunt and establish their territory. They have special feathers on the edge of their wings making them excellent stealthy hunters.
Goldfinch: [Collective: a Charm of Goldfinches] With its tinkling crystalline song this little bird has become one of the most successful of songbirds, partly due to the introduction of Nyger Seed to our bird tables; they also love Sunflower Seed. The crimson circlet around their bill is said to be because a goldfinch took pity on the crucified Christ, and pulled thorns from His crown. Due to the Victorian love of cage birds and the consequent wholesale trapping, it nearly became an endangered species, being rescued by the newly formed Society for the Protection of Birds at the eleventh hour.
Yellowhammer: The song of the yellowhammer has been interpreted as “a little bit of bread and No cheeeeese!” Bill Oddie famously likened it to a reluctant country milkmaid being wooed by an amorous farm hand: “No-no-no- no-no pleeeeese….”
Buzzard: Due to no longer being poisoned by agricultural chemicals like DDT, the Buzzard has become the commonest bird of prey. They now colonise every county in England. They are most often seen high in the sky wheeling and soaring and calling in their plaintive mewing call. Their success is now causing threat to game birds, giving rise to lobbying from some pheasant breeders for their control.
Kingfisher: This gorgeously brightly- coloured little bird flashes along the water like a missile, almost faster than the eye can see. Sadly, they rarely live longer than a year and are very vulnerable to floods and ice. To compensate, each have up to three broods of up to half a dozen chicks in a single season. They need to catch more than 100 fish a day to feed them.
Sparrowhawk: Sparrowhawks have experienced an explosion of numbers since the banning of many agricultural pesticides since WWII. This has resulted in a serious decline in songbirds – smaller males are the main enemy of the songbird – the larger female can down a pigeon. Like them or not, the Sparrowhawk is a very impressive hunter. They use the cover of hedges and fences to perform the perfect ambush, all at extremely high speed.
Kestrel: A Victorian poet called the Kestrel the “Windhover” which perfectly describes this bird’s incredible ability to hover over a roadside verge facing into the wind, and barely needing to beat its wings, making minute adjustments with its tail to hold itself stationary. It keeps its head completely motionless allowing it to pinpoint its prey such as mice and voles.
Magpie: Top of the list of “garden villains” they are generally regarded as a big menace for songbirds stealing their eggs and killing their young. They have the long-standing reputation of being the kleptomaniac of the bird world, stealing bright things like rings. Yet despite this, our relationship with magpies has also been one of joy and celebration. Even this century, when we see the bird, we recite the verse “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a wedding, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret that’s never been told”. My father-in-law, whenever he saw one, raised his hat twice and spat out of the car window. D’Esterre Stuttaford used to say “Good Morning m’Lord”.
Greenfinch: Sadly the Greenfinch population has been decimated by Trichonomosis or “fat-finch” disease; this causes a “cheese” or lesions in the bird’s crop – the birds can eat but the food does not reach their stomach causing starvation. Bird table cleanliness is vital with regular water replacement – this will help to reduce the spread of the disease. The male Greenfinch in springtime is able to perform the most remarkable display flight. Trilling loudly, he launches himself from the top of a tree or shrub and flaps his wings in slow motion, careering around his territory looking more like a bat. This is designed to impress the females and fend off rival males. The principle is that any bird that can fly so slowly and flamboyantly, staying aloft instead of crashing to the ground, must be fit enough to be a suitable father!
House Martin: [Collective: a Richness of Martins] A joy to have nesting under the eaves of our houses, if you can stand the mess and the loud calls. They may be familiar to us, but they hold one big secret: we don’t know where in Africa their main wintering grounds are. It is intriguing that a bird with whom we share our homes can still be such a mystery to us.
Swallow: [Collective: a Light or a ‘Gulp’ of Swallows] – It is the sign that Spring is here when the Swallows arrive from their amazing migration; some come from as far as the southern tip of Africa – a round trip of almost 12,000 miles. They are very smart looking birds with long, forked tails; some males have tail streamers longer than their peers and we now know that female Swallows find this attractive and are more like to choose the longer tailed male as their mate. At the end of summer when they start collecting for their long journey home they are known to meet up with Swallows from Scandinavia before setting off.
Blackbird: One of the finest singers, its fluty and fruity song tells us in lighter evenings in March that winter will soon be over. In mild winters they may begin as early as January. They are very territorial in winter announcing their presence with loud “mik-mik” calls. The resident birds are very edgy because large numbers of continental blackbirds from Scandinavia, the Low Countries and Germany come here to escape freezing conditions at home. Some of the ‘foreigners’ can be recognised by the young males having black instead of yellow bills. In winter you rarely see the brown female blackbirds as they often disappear to southern England where the food is better.
Chaffinch: This is one of our commonest and most widespread bird and the male in breeding plumage is one of the most stunning. In spring you may hear a rapid series of notes, something that has been compared to a cricketer running up to deliver a ball. Chaffinches are unusual, in that, unlike most other birds, they have distinct regional accents. Their name refers to their habit of flocking in stubble fields to sort through the ‘chaff’ for seeds.
Song Thrush: Smaller than the Mistle Thrush (with its folk name – the Stormcock) The Song Thrush is becoming increasingly rare. Its song is one of the most beautiful and varied: it has the habit of repeating each phrase two or three times before moving on to the next. The male Song Thrush boasts a repertoire of more than 100 different phrases, enabling it to vary his song continually. During the breeding season he may sing more than a million phrases in all!
Jay: [Collective: a Band, Party or Scold of Jays] A harsh screech like the amplified tearing of linen shatters the peace: it is the call of one of the most colourful of all British birds, the Jay. When you see a Jay flying away its brilliant white rump shows up like a light bulb. They are strikingly coloured, mainly pinkish brown with that vivid patch of blue on their wings. Jays are renowned tree planters: in September/October they can be seen with their beaks crammed with acorns – far too many for the bird to eat, so they plant them in a cache for the winter. One study estimated that a single bird hid about 5,000 acorns each day. Though highly intelligent, they cannot remember where they are all hidden, so many germinate into young oaks. Should the continental acorn crop fail, thousands of Jays come over here to forage.
Starling: [a Murmuration of Starlings] Gatherings of Starlings (known as Murmurations) assemble in the growing gloom, jostling one another to find the best place to roost for the night.
Vast flocks can be seen performing the most spectacular flying displays before they finally settle. Great sightings can be seen in Somerset, Gretna Green and on Brighton pier amongst many others. Good displays have been seen at Minsmere Reserve. Theories as to why Starlings gather like this are many – mass protection from predators such as a passing peregrine or sparrowhawk, a terrestrial predator like a fox, or just a good way of keeping warm in cold weather. Some travel to a gathering from as far as 20 miles away, the theory being that by congregating together weaker birds can associate with stronger ones. When you can see them close up they are the most stunning birds with their glossy plumage gleaming with green and purple in summer and dotted with white in winter.
House Sparrow: House Sparrows are one of only two representatives of mainly tropical African and Asian birds to have made the long journey north with our prehistoric ancestors, still live with us today. Their wonderful chirpy singing is so familiar to all of us. Sadly sparrows have vanished from many of their former haunts, particularly on farmland; the reason why is difficult to say but they feed on seeds and grains left in stubble and today’s farming practice to plough immediately after reaping has a lot to do with it.
Dunnock: This little bird used to be called the Hedge Sparrow, but being a member of the Accentor family it is not a sparrow. Very plain and unassuming – few other birds can match its raunchy and unpredictable sex-life. Most birds are monogamous, pairing for life, but Dunnocks are far more adventurous, practising ‘polyandry’ (where a female mates with more than one male) and ‘polygyny’ in which a male mates with several females. Dunnocks are an important host for baby cuckoos.
Blue Tit: Apart from the robin and the blackbird, no other garden bird inspires so much affection as the Blue Tit. This tiny bird punches well above its weight, jostling larger birds off the feeders. They are the most widely distributed of all British birds. The male and female look identical, but Blue Tits can tell each other apart due to their special visual abilities. Birds can see colours in the ultraviolet spectrum that are invisible to us and it has been discovered that the male’s blue crown feathers reflect ultraviolet light. Because the more dominant and experienced males reflect more ultraviolet light, it helps the females to choose the fittest partner. When milk bottles were left on our doorsteps, Blue Tits had the talent to realise that by removing the foil cap they could reach the cream. They have the distinction of producing some of the largest clutches of any songbird, with up to 16 eggs.
Great Tit: This bird has one of the most familiar bird sounds: the ‘tea-cher, tea-cher song. They have more than one string to their singing bow; each bird has a repertoire of up to 8 different songs. No wonder that when even experienced birders hear a bird call or song they cannot quite place, it often turns out to be just another Great Tit!
Coal Tit: The smallest member of the Tit family, the adult weighs just 9 grams. Because of this they are not very high up the pecking order and tend to swoop in to a table as quickly as they can to grab a seed. They also take food away to stockpile for later (known as ‘caching’). As long as they can remember where they put it, they can be sure of food when the weather turns bad.
Long-tailed Tit: “The small flying lollipop” – Before you see them it’s the volley of sneezes and splutters interwoven with high-pitched needling cries that you hear first. The sounds get louder as one, then another, and then another shoots past a gap in the hedge; a family of long-tails is on the move. The flocks that you see are made up of relatives: sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. Co- operative breeding is rare in the bird world. Long-tails travel and feed together and roost together at night, huddling up against each other on the same branch to keep warm – a strategy that saves lives in the winter.
Simon Foord has veered off course from his master subject, “Antiques” and given us an insight into the life of so many of our feathered friends. It is sad that he and Gay are moving to Sussex to be near their family. They will be greatly missed.