Birds are without doubt the commonest and most widely welcomed guests to our gardens. Whether you live in the middle of the city, or deep in the countryside, there’ll be those regular visitors queuing at your bird table that you recognise on sight. Their familiarity can, however, sometimes lead us to overlook what a fascinating bunch they really are – and what very different lives they all lead.
The Long and the Short of It
From sparrows to sea gulls, British birds come in an amazing range of shapes and sizes – and these two certainly aren’t the biggest or the smallest members of the gang.
- Britain’s Biggest – the Mute Swan has a pretty good claim to this title on two grounds; firstly, it has a wingspan of around 8ft (2.5m) and secondly, at a weight of around 26lbs (12kg) it’s also one of the world’s heaviest flying birds. That said, the much rarer White-Tailed Sea Eagle has a very similar wingspan, while the male of the Great – recently re-introduced into parts of England after an absence of nearly two centuries – is a real heavyweight contender at 35lbs (16kg) or more. None of these, however, is too likely to turn up in your back garden – so they’re not going to break your bird table!
- Smallest – although many people will tell you it’s the wren, they’re wrong. The idea seems to have sprung up because this bird used to feature on the UK’s smallest pre-decimalisation coin, the ‘farthing’, then worth 1/4d – the equivalent of today’s 0.2p, not allowing for inflation! There are two real tiddlers in Britain – the Goldcrest and the Firecrest – both tying for the title on 3.5 inches (8.8cm). Of the two, you’re more likely to see the Goldcrest, since it has over 800,000 breeding pairs in Britain, compared with an estimated 250 for the Firecrest.
Summertime, and the Living is Easy
There’s an old saying that “one swallow doesn’t make a summer” – but there’s no denying that their annual return gives us all a bit of a boost as the weather finally begins to warm up. Here’s a few quick facts about these familiar visitors who, along with their relatives the swifts and martins, travel such vast distances across the globe to visit us each year.
- The Sand Martin is often the first of the group to make it back to the UK, in some years arriving as early as March.
- House Martins seem to be particularly attracted to hot air balloons.
- Sand Martins typically nest in colonies – up to 100 strong – and their nesting burrows may be as much as 40 inches (1m) deep!
- House Martin colonies are usually much smaller, but their nests are no less of an undertaking to build; they take around 10 days and some 1,000 beakfuls of mud to create!
- Male Swallows can be a bit selfish; if food is in short supply, they will feed themselves rather than their offspring, while mum does her best to feed herself and the young.
- Swifts almost never land, being able to eat, drink, mate and even sleep on the wing. They haven’t mastered laying eggs in the air, though – at least, not yet!
In the Bleak Mid-Winter
Feeding the birds in winter – it’s something we’ve been doing in Britain for years, and certainly long before wildlife gardening became as popular as it is today. Given the weather we can sometimes get, it’s probably just as well!
- According to the RSPB, the blackbird is the commonest bird in the winter garden.
- Most of Europe’s waders spend their winters on British mudflats!
- Although Britain’s Robins are joined in the winter by European ones, the cheeky chappy on your Christmas card is likely to be a true Brit; European Robins are duller-looking and much less relaxed around people.
- Robins are partial to grated cheese – and so are most Wrens.
- Coal Tits often lose out to larger birds when it comes to competing for food – so they’ve learnt to hide tasty morsels away for later.
- Studies show that many garden birds spend 75 percent or more of their waking hours in search of food.
British birds had a hard time of it towards the end of the last Century. According to RSPB figures, the populations of once common birds such as Sparrows and Starlings tumbled in the late 1970s and early 80s, but today things are much better. Britain’s army of wildlife gardeners and bird-feeders have certainly done their bit – and more people than ever are getting involved, with a record number taking part in the 2011 Big Garden Birdwatch this spring.
Here are their results for the nation’s top ten most common birds.
- House Sparrow
- Blue Tit
- Great Tit
- Collared Dove
Perhaps the most encouraging finding, however, was that many of the smaller birds that were affected so badly by recent harsh winters have managed to recover, at least a little, with the numbers of Blue Tits and Coal Tits, for example, both increasing by around a quarter. It seems gardening with wildlife in mind can really make the difference – so keep up the good work!