The distinction drawn between nesting and non-nesting birds is entirely arbitrary, since the handful of species shown in this section have all nested close to the garden where the majority of these photographs were taken, but not definitely inside the boundary. Any or all of them might breed in gardens elsewhere.
The Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos, wingspan 35cm), originally purely a bird of the ancient forest but one which adapted to live in the much smaller woodlands associated with human settlements, and around the settlements themselves in parks, hedgerows and gardens, has undergone a severe decline in the last 25 years. It is now a bird of high conservation concern under British Trust for Ornithology guidelines. For the record, young Song Thrushes look pretty similar to the adults but as with so many juveniles, their uncertain behaviour tends to give them away as readily as plumage variation. This is clear in the picture just below.
The reasons for the decline are unclear. There have been few hard winters in that period and likelier causes are increased use of pesticides and warmer, drier summers. Both play a part, as pesticides can have a bad effect on snails, an essential part of their diet, especially in dry weather when earthworms are harder to find. Song Thrushes also feed on numerous other types of invertebrates and on fruit. In 2015 I saw one provoking ants into jumping on its back and spraying formic acid as a means of removing parasites. This procedure, known as anting, is commonest with Jays but Blackbirds also do it occasionally.
Snails can be a problem in any garden where vegetables and border flowers form intrinsic elements. The principal troublemaker in the view of the frustrated grower is the Garden Snail (Helix aspersa, diameter 40mm), commonly also found in woodland and hedgerows as well.
Putting down poison pellets to kill these and slugs, as well as White-lipped Snails (Cepaea hortensis) and Brown-lipped Snails (Cepaea nemoralis, diameter 20mm), is a bad policy when there are much more environmentally sensitive methods available. The pellets contaminate the ground, and can kill mammals and birds as well.
Snails are invertebrates and after mating, the female in some species lays up to 100 eggs in the soil, in rotting wood or under logs or stones – almost anywhere providing it is moist and not in direct sun. Adults mostly hibernate and some individuals can live for up to ten years. The reason they go for garden plants, including vegetables, is because in the main those plants are more nutritious and softer than wild plants, and packed close together.
Members of the Thrush family which are not seen in lowland England in the summer months but make their presence felt every winter are Redwing (Turdus iliacus, wingspan 34cm) and Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Both breed further north, mainly in Scandinavia, but head across the North Sea to find food here when winter starts to bite. Hawthorn berries and fallen apples are among the choicest titbits and squadrons of both species, up to 750,000 apiece across the UK as a whole in cold years, work their way across country devouring these and worms.
Other avian woodland visitors to gardens which do not usually breed there include Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus, wingspan 18cm), which usually nest in fairly thick cover. The nest is one of nature’s great works of art, consisting of a blend of moss and cobwebs bound into a funnel shape; the whole family, up to a dozen birds, can roost within at night, making for a tight fit.
Long-tailed Tits tend to move fast and in bands of a dozen or more when feeding in the winter. They will visit garden feeders for a few seconds, then move off, and quite possibly return later. There are roughly 400,000 in Britain.
Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis, wingspan 23cm) do not breed in the garden but come in now and then for sunflower hearts. They are present year round but another finch, the Siskin (Carduelis spinus, wingspan 20cm), breeds further north and is a winter visitor. Siskins tend to go for peanuts in red feeders, a colour preference which has not been explained. Milder winters seem to have reduced the numbers heading into some parts of lowland England but they are still common.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopus major, wingspan 37cm) have thrived as never before in the last 20 years partly thanks to homeowners putting out peanuts. Their numbers doubled from 1994 to 2004. By comparison, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus minor), only the size of a Robin, has declined badly.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers need standing trees in which to excavate their nest holes, helped by the double skull which prevents damage as the ferocious tapping progresses. The nests are often reused or, if abandoned, may be utilised by Nuthatches, but a non-native species, the Rose-ringed or Ring-necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri, wingspan 65cm) seemingly is having an impact.
Natives of Asia and Africa which feed mainly on fruit and seeds, they have had a strong feral breeding population here for 40 years. They, too, nest in tree holes but are larger than woodpeckers, which cannot compete with them effectively, and the fact that they can breed as early as February does not help other contenders for tree space.
The Parakeet population is increasing apace, with claims that the figure may quadruple to 50,000 by 2010. This is mainly to the south of London – several thousand have been in the habit of roosting near the Esher Rugby Club in Surrey, making a deafening noise and depositing abundant guano. Possibly they are already a threat, and despite the birds’ wonderful plumage and charming social behaviour, the projected increase may prove a dubious benefit if accurate. However, whether culling, which has been mooted, is practicable or desirable is a matter for debate.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are catholic in their diet, going mainly for invertebrates in trees but also seeds plus eggs and nestlings, with the declining Willow Tit seemingly a prime source. By comparison, the Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis, wingspan 42cm), the largest and most colourful of the family in Britain, has a harder task since its prey tends to be much smaller – ants, both as adults and pupae.
A frequent visitor to gardens, where there are usually numerous ants, the Green Woodpecker is more easily disturbed than its cousin, and also has a bill which is nothing like so tough, with the result that soft wood is required for a nest site. Perhaps partly as a result of this limitation, there are roughly half as many of them as of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, 15,000 pairs against 30,000. Youngsters, as can be seen from the image above, have much duller plumage than adults.
Besides Parakeets, other impressive non-native species introduced to Britain for various reasons which turn up in gardens include the gamebirds Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus, wingspan 80cm) and Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa, wingspan 48cm).
Pheasants are beautiful birds and have been in Britain since before the 10th century, with a wild population estimated at getting on for 2,000,000 nowadays. The wild population, though, is boosted every year by some escapees from a mind-boggling tally of 38,000,000 or so bred purely to be shot by supposed sportsmen and women. Rough shooting is one thing – this mindless carnage is something else. Pheasants are omnivorous, eating seeds, berries, leaves, roots, small arthropods and so on.
The Red-legged Partridge is a bird of south-west Europe, where it is in decline, but having been brought to the UK for hunting in 1770 with plenty of extra releases every year, they are doing reasonably well as feral breeders here. In contrast, the native Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) has declined rapidly through the last 30 years, not helped by intensive agriculture and the effects of herbicides on the invertebrates that form the main diet of the fledglings.
Perhaps the bird which, en masse, provides the greatest pleasure to people in the winter in towns is the perky Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba, wingspan 28cm), which can roost in considerable numbers, 500 or more, in urban settings. This can be on roofs or trees, anywhere in fact that provides warmth and safety from predators. The birds, which feed principally on invertebrates, can occupy the roosts for a couple of months but forage separately a good few kilometres away during the day.
Pied Wagtails require open country and their numbers tend to fluctuate for no apparent reason; they have been suffering a decline near waterways recently. There are in the region of 300,000 breeding pairs, which is a smaller number than might be imagined given their obvious presence in so many parts of the country.
Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto, wingspan 52cm) is a species that has made remarkable progress in recent times, more than any other species found in Europe. They started spreading from their ancestral home in the Middle East and Turkey at the start of the last century and reached Britain in 1955, when a pair bred in Norfolk. Since then their population has incresed to around 300,000 pairs and they are found virtually everywhere.
Towns and villages suit their requirements – they feed on grain and small seeds on the ground, plus some fruit and invertebrates, and can nest on properties though usually in trees. As with the much bulkier Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus), breeding occurs from March to October in a flimsy nest, consisting of a few seemingly precariously-balanced twigs.
As a minor point of interest, Collared Doves have decidedly dusty feathers and as a result they are the leaders among birds who leave a distinct imprint when flying into a window, without necessarily damaging themselves.
In any vote on the least popular bird in Britain, Magpies (Pica pica, wingspan 50cm) would probably top the poll ahead of Sparrowhawks. From a viewpoint based less on science than on sentiment laced with a dose of anthropomorphism, they are widely viewed as aggressive, bumptious hooligans who are increasing ceaselessly in number and threaten to overwhelm our songbirds by bullying them, and eating them and their eggs.
Magpies do impose themselves on smaller birds, but they can act cheekily even towards Red Foxes, persistently nipping their tails. They do eat birds and their eggs, including even fair-sized ones such as Thrushes, Feral Pigeon (Columba livia) and Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus). But this forms a tiny fraction of their diet compared with invertebrates, particularly Coleoptera (beetles), and plant material, mainly cereals. Moreover, their predation of songbirds and their nestlings and eggs has had no proven effect on the population of the latter group.
Essentially Magpies, like all the Corvids, are adaptable birds and opportunistic feeders, which helps explain why they increased dramatically in the second half of the 20th century to a high of getting on for 1.5 million birds. Suburbia with its gardens and formidable quantities of waste acted as a magnetic attraction. However, since 2000, their numbers have decreased slightly.
The notion that Magpies (or any other wild animals) should apply rules of morality, or not try to take advantage of the smaller size or strength of other species in their efforts to thrive, is absurd. Nature is tooth and claw, and any species which behaved in what humans regard as a ‘nice’ manner (but which, of course, humans, who supposedly ought to know better, regularly do not apply) would swiftly become extinct.
In summary, Magpies should not be criticised for acting according to their natural character, will not take over the natural world, and deserve better, especially as they are striking in appearance and intriguing to watch in the rich panoply of their behaviour.
Interestingly, although Magpies are more at home in gardens than several of the Corvid family, they and Jackdaws are usually less able to take food from feeders than some of the more determined Jays (Garrulus glandarius). However, a family of Magpies made hay with the feeder in the summer of 2008, showing how adept they are at taking advantage of almost any situation.
Similarly, the Jay pictured above was a regular peanut grabber for a couple of years. Since the physical arrangement of the species makes it difficult to remain perched in such a position for long, the bird used to peck hastily then drop to the ground to snaffle whatever had fallen to earth before flying up once more to repeat the process.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence – the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.