First, a plain truth. There is no such thing as a garden bird. The best gardens and buildings are merely aggregations of different natural-style habitats used casually or systematically for various purposes by the denizens of those habitats. Woodland birds are the main beneficiaries.
Perhaps those closest to being specialists are the ones bearing a human connection in their English name, such as the Barn Owl (Tyto alba), the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus, wingspan 23cm) and the House Martin (Delichon urbica, wingspan 28cm). All of those have shown opportunism in appropriating ‘our’ space for nesting and foraging.
The House Martin was originally a rock-nesting species, and they, Barn Owls and House Sparrows are still at home in rocky settings in parts of their range. It’s just thatbuildings are better, providing more warmth and, usually, more food close to hand (or beak).
Regrettably, House Sparrows, which almost certainly arrived in Britain with Neolithic man, are now a species of high conservation concern after suffering a major decline. The reasons are not entirely clear but one theory blames the virtual disappearance of spare grain in towns, cities and on farms with the replacement of horses by motorised vehicles. The modern tendency to make rural locations with livestock tidier (or less wasteful) than formerly probably hasn't helped either.
In fact, old-style livery stables are still a stronghold of House Sparrows and Swallows (Hirundo rustica, wingspan 33cm), with the latter, which have always been more numerous in farm buildings than House Martins, maintaining pretty stable populations through both the 19th and 20th centuries. Their undoubted popularity may have had something to do with this, and with the continuing success of House Martins. Both species are insectivorous, have two broods all being well, and winter in Africa.
Houses and outbuildings offer abundant opportunities of vacant and safe space to birds, with Jackdaws (Corvus monedula, wingspan 70cm), typically intelligent members of the Crow family, a prime example.
They eat almost anything, are not in the habit of storing food like some other members of the tribe, and are particularly adept at nesting in chimneys, sometimes to the chagrin of property owners. They are also social and noisy, and disputes between neighbouring families can be very loud.
On a much smaller scale, Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes, wingspan 15cm) will take advantage of outhouses or walls for breeding, though most nests are constructed in trees, shrubs or banks. The male can make several, leaving it for the female to choose.
The Coal Tit (Parus ater, wingspan 19cm) pictured above found a hole in the wall alongside the waste pipe from a bathroom and successfully reared chicks there. The nest was built of sundry natural and man-made materials, and the only drawback was that when the bath water was being let out, the heat made it impossible for the bird to enter the nest for a short while.
Great Tits (Parus major, wingspan 23cm) and Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus, wingspan 19cm) also take advantage of holes in walls along with suitable nest-boxes and their more natural habitat, holes in trees.
Blue Tits (the pictured one is collecting cat fur for nesting) are the commonest, or most frequently seen, birds in many gardens, which is hardly surprising given the size of the population in Britain: around seven million and increasing. There are fewer Great Tits, around four million, but they too are increasing.
Not much more than half the size of the Blue Tit is our smallest native bird, the Goldcrest (Regulus regulus, wingspan 12cm), with its dashing yellow crest (the rarer and related Firecrest, Regulus ignicapillus, is much more orangey). Goldcrests, which eat only invertebrates such as aphids and small spiders, are most often found in conifers but can be seen dashing about almost anywhere in incessant style – the pictured bird was on the lawn.
Understandably, many woodland birds, including tits, bring their young to feed in gardens even if they have not nested on the spot, offering Sparrowhawks (Accipitus niser) regular prospects of a kill. The profits outweigh the risks, and in cold conditions feeding by householders undoubtedly assists the survival of some birds which would not have come through cold winters in previous generations. However, it is worth pointing out that the summer months are pretty thin for seeing woodland birds on feeders as they normally have abundant food in their natural habitat of the wood. Tits tend to catch protein-rich invertebrates in the breeding season and feed off seeds and fruit during the rest of the year.
Despite still having more than two million territories in 2000, the Dunnock (Prunella modularis, wingspan 23cm) underwent a significant decline in the 1970s and 1980s, with the result that it is now a species of medium conservation concern. Given the adaptability of the species, this drop in numbers is a shade surprising, since they make themselves at home in almost any habitat where humans are present and quite a few where they are not.
Equally, Dunnocks do not make their presence terribly obvious, preferring to stay under cover most of the time, though they are pretty apparent when singing. Their nests are constructed in bushes, hedges or trees of the type many gardens hold, and their breeding is fascinating, involving various combinations of birds with the same partner, male or female. This can be a female with two males, or a male with two or three females, and so on.
Berry-carrying trees and shrubs help the Blackbird (Turdus merula, wingspan 37cm), the most numerous member of the thrush family and one that is seen arguing over breeding territories in gardens earlier than almost any other species, often in February.
They have several broods each year and can breed close to human habitations, in virtually any shrub offering good cover – the pictured bird nested in a Jasmine bush right by the front door. Unfortunately a cat killed two of the four youngsters at the nest as they were about to fledge but two, plus the adults, lived to fight another day.
Robins (Erithacus rubicula, wingspan 22cm) are nothing like so approachable on the Continent as they are here, remaining based on the margins and in woodland. In Germany, for instance, you would be unlikely to see one perched on a garden fork handle as happens in countless properties in the UK while they wait for invertebrates to be disturbed in the soil. Or perched on a washing line, an activity for which they are not designed, waiting for food to be thrown out of a window.
Robins are not designed for seed feeders either but are adapting to hover and feed or perch, albeit none too comfortably. They nest in virtually any location, using natural or artificial holes, even in watering cans. One of the grandest gardens in southern England, Wakehurst Place, hosted a Robin with a lot of white on his/her wings during the winter of 2012-13. The bird is also shown at the top of this page. The white was completely symmetrical and this was probably the outcome not of leucism but of a relatively uncommon syndrome known as 'progressive greying'. Under this, the whole plumage could turn white if the Robin survived long enough.
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.