|Posted by Tom on May 8, 2012 at 1:55 PM|
Robin at home in the London Garden
Article by Hillyfields Birdwatch
Having or sharing a garden can bring us much closer to certain wild creatures with whom we share our daily lives - I refer, of course, to the birds. There are seven "regulars" who visit my garden every day: the Blackbird, Blue Tit, Great Tit, House Sparrow, Magpie, Robin and Woodpigeon. In this article, I want to say a little bit about them and their habits, mention some of the other birds you may see in your garden and talk about how you can help them.
The Usual Crew
The Blackbird - everyone knows the male blackbird with its bright yellow bill; the female is dark brown with a duller yellow bill. Apart from excavating worms and insects from lawns, they also eat some berries (eg. Cotoneaster), pounce on fallen apples and pears and will eat kitchen scraps from the ground or bird table. And they sing throughout the day - beautifully.
The Blue Tit and Great Tit - very common garden and park birds. The Great Tit is larger and has a black crown and black stripe down the breast. It "sings" mainly from January to June, deploying a wide range of short phrases. The most famous of these is the two-note call dubbed "teacher teacher" repeated so insistently that it may well drive you up the garden wall. The Blue Tit is a cute little bird, predominantly blue and yellow, which tseeps and churrs and flits acrobatically amongst the trees. Both these birds feed on insects, caterpillars, berries and love the nuts and seed mix in bird feeders.
|Great Tits - male on right with broader black stripe down the breast|
The House Sparrow - once ubiquitous, the "cockney sparrer" has declined sharply in numbers in London and other urban areas (by 65% since 1970). However, it is making a comeback and is now fairly common again in Lewisham. "Sparrers can't sing" said Lionel Bart, but they make up for it with excited chirping, fly around in small gangs and eat almost anything. Mainly chest-nut brown and black, with the male sporting a grey cap.
The Comeback Kid: House Sparrow
The Magpie - a large, bold bird with a striking black, white and dark blue plumage. Unlike its relative the Crow, the Magpie often comes into gardens and will sometimes build its domed nest in garden trees. They have no "song" as such, but "chatter" loudly. They will eat almost anything but their reputation for raiding nests and eating other birds eggs is, says the RSPB, "unproven". As for the famous rhyme: "One for sorrow, two for joy" - don't despair if you only see one. Magpies are not loners and it's mate will usually show up before long!
The Robin needs no introduction. The "gardener's friend" often appears when you are digging, knowing that worms are about to be served up. It will perch so close that you get the best view of any wild bird apart from the pigeon. The Robin is very territorial and in autumn/winter, you will often hear its warning call which sounds like a clock being wound up. A great songster, it is perhaps not quite as melodic as the Blackbird but has a wider repertoire of phrases. It sings most of the year apart from July-Sept when it moults and becomes rather furtive.
Lastly, the funny old Woodpigeon which waddles around my garden looking for clover, plant material, seeds, berries etc. I grow a few veggies and haven't been troubled yet by the Woodpigeon, but they are known to be fond of brassicas. Woodpigeons can be told very easily from the other common pigeon (aka. the Feral Pigeon, London pigeon or town pigeon) by the white collar or bar on their neck. They are also bigger and plumper with a pinkish breast.
Best of the Rest
Other birds that I see in my garden include Wrens, Starlings, Goldfinches, Long-tailed Tits, Feral Pigeons and occasionally that beautiful bird, the Jay. A neighbour once spotted a Coal Tit but I have yet to see it.
What you may see in your garden depends on its location, its size and what you have in it. Do you have a pond stocked with fish? Prepare for visits from a Grey Heron whose numbers in urban London have increased. (Yes, you can buy a fake "decoy heron" but do they work? At present, the reviewers on Amazon are divided!)
|Heron in the Ravensbourne at Cornmill Gardens|
Are you near a woodland or a park? If so, you'll get some extra visitors - perhaps Song Thrushes, a Nuthatch or two (they like bird feeders), a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Dunnocks and perhaps those two increasingly common spring migrants, the Blackcap - which has a fine song but can be most easily identified by its pale grey body and black head (chestnut brown if it's a female) -and the little Chiffchaff which can't always be seen very easily, but punches out a unique song of between six to twelve notes. Once you've heard it, I guarantee you will always recognise it.
|Male Blackcap singing|
More exotic visitors could include the Sparrowhawk, which may drop into your garden to eat its lunch. Unfortunately, this consists mainly of smaller birds! The birds do keep a lookout for predators though and larger garden birds will sometimes hassle or "mob" them. Finally, how could I forget the Ring-necked Parakeet? - a bird which displaces others (nuthatches, woodpeckers) from breeding holes in trees and knows how to get the most out of a bird feeder. Luckily, I don't get them in my garden but they do "flypasts" now and then.
Attracting more birds
There is a lot of information on the web about how to attract birds and other wildlife to your garden. In the case of birds, it can be summarised as:
Well sited nesting box
Here are just a few tips from my personal experience with regard to bird feeders.
If you put up a bird feeder for the first time, don't be disappointed if the birds don't flock to it straight away. It may take them a few days to realise it's there and also there are seasonal ups and downs. In spring, you won't be able to keep up. The males need to take food back to the nest for the female and fledglings, as well as feed themselves.
Store up extra packets so you can keep them going! In high summer, they may visit less frequently as the air is full of delicious insects. In winter, offer them all the food you can. Generally though it's safest not to try and second guess how the weather (or birds) might behave and keep your feeder stocked up all year round! And remember to put water out as well, particularly during dry spells.
Spot the bird feeder
If squirrels visit your garden, you'll need to buy a squirrel proof feeder, ie. one with lots of bars around it. On the whole, they work. Parakeets are a greater nuisance for us in South London and are ingenious at getting through such defences. There are one or two feeders on the market which claim to be Parakeet-proof. I'm sceptical, though happy to be proved wrong.
It might help if you can hang the feeder where Parakeets won't spot it as they fly over. I have a large wild cherry tree in my garden and I use a long pole to hang the feeder from one of its branches - a branch that curves upwards so the feeder doesn't slip off. For two-thirds of the year, it's half-hidden by foliage. The local birds know where it is, but the passing Parakeets don't notice it. Of course, you should only ever hang feeders - this goes without saying, but I'll still say it - in a cat-free zone.
Incidentally, recent research has found that birds can pick up diseases from bird feeders including salmonella poisoning and avian pox, so wash them regularly using a disinfectant. Again more detailed advice can be found on the web.
If you want help with bird identification, the RSPB website is an excellent resource and they have particularly good audio clips of birdsong. If you want to hear for example what a Chaffinch or a Chiffchaff sound like, play their clips!
This has been a very compressed article on a huge subject. Entire books have been written about garden birds while I've used less than 1500 words! However, I hope that it's been useful. I would be interested to hear about other peoples experiences and in particular if you've had any birds in your Lewisham gardens which I haven't mentioned.