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At home with Garden Birds!

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:

  • put out suitable food and water for them;
  • install nesting boxes;
  • grow trees, bushes and hedges for them to hide in and sing from;
  • grow food-bearing plants with berries, seeds, fruits etc.


Well sited nesting box

Bird Feeders

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.

In Conclusion

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.  

Tom, the Hillyfields Birdwatcher

Useful Links:

RSPB Bird identifier

RSPB Birds in your garden booklet (Free)

RSPB Wildlife on your doorstep (Free)

Categories: Wildlife, Advice, Gardening at home

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Reply Alan
6:54 PM on May 10, 2012 
Thanks for this tom. To be honest, I garden more for wildlife than for flowers and vegetables.
Ive just spent a good 40 mins on your blog Tom- excellent! Ive book marked it.
Im excited to discover there is someone out there collating this information.
Its so easy to dip and out of hobbies, I love that you've been doing this over a prolonged period of time. It gives real weight to your piece here.

Really excellent stuff!
Reply Alan
6:57 PM on May 10, 2012 
Oh and I should say I have most of the bird species you've mentioned here as regular visitors to my garden. Robins and blue tits especially must nest very near by as they are daily visitors.

I have a bird bath and have fat balls out during the winter and spring.
Reply Tom
10:08 AM on May 11, 2012 
Thanks for your comments Alan - much appreciated. I've only been bird watching for about 3 years, but if you do it regularly you soon build up knowledge - not just about how to identify birds but about their habits and life cycles and how they interact with their environment. We also put the results of our Hilly Fields surveys onto the national BirdTrack database so that wider comparisons can be made. And yes - your robins and blue tits will be nesting nearby. We fence off our adjoining gardens (for good reasons), but for birds they're just one big green space with plenty of nesting opportunities!
Reply Bizzy Bee
5:16 PM on May 17, 2012 
Really useful list of birds.
Last week on Radio 4 - I cant remember the show but David Mitchell the panel show regular mentioned how there is a specific order to the dawn chorus bird song, with birds chiming in as and when their eyes sense the coming dawn.

I honestly had never thought of it before! I work shifts and with the much lighter summer mornings, I start hearing birds from 5am. Thanks for the article. I'll pay more attention from now on!
Reply Tom
6:17 PM on May 17, 2012 
Thanks Bizzy Bee. Didn't catch the Radio 4 show, but this article published in last week's Guardian may be what David Mitchell was referring to:
I've been on a couple of dawn chorus walks recently and certainly the Blackbird and Robin are first to start. In fact, in cities and towns the Robin often sings during the night because of light pollution. The Blackcap, Wren and Chiffchaff start up quite early too. I was staying with a friend at the weekend whose garden attracts a lot of House Sparrows and when they joined in, they just about drowned out every other bird!
Reply Lewisham Gardens
9:19 AM on May 18, 2012 
Tom says...
Thanks Bizzy Bee. Didn't catch the Radio 4 show, but this article published in last week's Guardian may be what David Mitchell was referring to:

I've been on a couple of dawn chorus walks recently and certainly the Blackbird and Robin are first to start. In fact, in cities and towns the Robin often sings during the night because of light pollution. The Blackcap, Wren and Chiffchaff start up quite early too. I was staying with a friend at the weekend whose garden attracts a lot of House Sparrows and when they joined in, they just about drowned out every other bird!
Hi Tom, I cant edit your comment, Turns out I can only delete it.

Here is the link to the Guardian's Dawn Chorus article. Lets hope it works.
Which birds sing first in the dawn chorus? -
Reply Tom
10:24 AM on May 18, 2012 
Yes - your link works. Many thanks...
Reply Alan
12:14 PM on May 21, 2012 
Thanks to you both for that link!

Good stuff!
Reply Victoria
3:41 AM on May 30, 2012 
Hello all, not sure if this is the place to ask, but you all seem like bird people!

Slug pellets, the blue ones- are they bird safe?
I was reading about garden birds eating slugs who had in turn ingested the pellets.
Do I need to find new slug pellets?!
Reply Tom
4:42 PM on May 31, 2012 
I confess that I did once use slug pellets, many moons ago before I became bird-conscious. I would never use them now. Blackbirds, robins, thrushes, starlings, crows and jays are all known to eat slugs and could therefore end up being poisoned. Hedgehogs have been found dead after eating them as have family dogs. That said, there are products on the market which claim to be bird and wildlife friendly - not sure if these are the "blue ones" you mention - but if you have a real problem, you could give them a try. Nemaslug and Advanced Slug Killer are brand names which have come up on a basic Google search. If at all possible, however, I would avoid them. The usual alternative methods mentioned are beer traps, going out at night with a torch and killing them yourself or building a barrier around your crops with materials which they find difficult to traverse, eg. sand, broken egg shells. I tried that last year (I don't like killing creatures, even ones as unattractive - to us - as slugs) and it seemed to be effective but I don't have a big slug problem to start with. Also you do have to keep renewing the barrier as it will get trampled by cats, foxes, etc!