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Garden Birds: The Facts

Updated on June 06, 2014

Introduction

Many people love to spend from a few hours a week to every day watching the antics of the little feathered friends that pass through their gardens. If you do this on a regular basis, then it is very easy to get attached to them almost intimately, but there is far more to our common garden birds than first meets the eye. Below our 10 facts about our beloved garden birds that may surprise you:

Is that your Blackbird?

Source

They're Not Your Birds

If you enjoy watching garden birds, then it is very easy to become attached to our feathered visitors, but some of them actually maybe foreign impostors. During the autumn and winter months, as the nights draw in and the weather turns colder, all sorts of different bird species flock over from Northern and Eastern Europe. These include starlings, siskin’s (a species of finch), bramblings (another species of finch), thrushes, robins, chaffinches, gulls and even pigeons. These birds choose to pass through or stop by in our gardens because they are increasingly becoming the best places in the UK to acquire food, water and shelter. Many of our gardens can supply these three amenities, making them the ideal places for birds to spend the winter, when their summer homes turn cold and bitter. The movement of our garden birds isn't just confined to passing from one country to the next.

There’s also plenty of movement across the UK, for example blackbirds that live in the east of the UK, will move to the West and South West in the Winter, just as their cousins from the continent arrive in the East, this shifting of different populations is called chain migration. Be sure, also to listen out for different bird songs in the winter, as you may be lucky enough to detect a foreign accent.

Blue Tit

Up to 100 of these can visit your Garden every day.
Up to 100 of these can visit your Garden every day. | Source

The Numbers Game

The birds that come into your garden; have secret cycles that you may not be aware of. Basically, they will spend their time travelling between their favourite feeding grounds throughout the day. Studies have shown that at any one you only see around 10% of the birds that visit your garden at one time. So to put it another way, if you regularly see 10 blue tits, then you probably have 100 individuals using your garden throughout the entire day.

Do They Actually Like Feeders?

When we design Bird Feeders, we think that we’re being helpful, but not all of the feeders you see in the shops, have the Birds in mind. Most Garden Birds, if given the chance like to take food away to eat in the relative safety of a bush or hedge. Feeders are often placed out in the open, so that we can enjoy unhindered views. But, this strategy could be a recipe for disaster, as most gardens harbour a lethal killer, the domestic cat. Cats and other predators that target small birds find it much easier to hunt when they have an open target. Birds tend to enjoy their food under cover, which is why it is important to place feeders and bird tables near any cover, so as to give them a chance to escape from a predator, whether it be a cat or a hawk.

Also, certain larger birds like blackbirds and robins cannot cling to feeders, so you may witness the comical sight of a robin attempting to hover in order to obtain food from a feeder.

Male House Sparrow

This Male has a large 'bib' on his breast, meaning that he is of high rank.
This Male has a large 'bib' on his breast, meaning that he is of high rank. | Source

Another Male House Sparrow

This one is of a lower rank, because his 'bib' is smaller.
This one is of a lower rank, because his 'bib' is smaller. | Source

The Pecking Order

When we watch garden birds we often get excited when we bear witness to a bit of bickering or even a full blown fight. But are they any patterns to this? Do some birds get picked on more than others?

Basically, how it works is that the biggest bird wins. The blue and great tit will bully their smaller cousin, the coal tit, and all three in turn receive their share of abuse from the nuthatch, a sparrow sized bird that resembles a small woodpecker. Speaking of woodpeckers, if one of those should turn up, then the nuthatch will flee, and almost all birds will flee at the sound of a pigeon’s flapping wings.

Hierarchies also exist within certain species, particularly the more gregarious ones. Dominant pigeons, for instance will often bully younger or weaker birds, pushing them to the outskirts of the group, making them more vulnerable to predators than the others. I remember seeing a pigeon in my garden, and I’ll tell you now, he was the skinniest, tattiest pigeon I’d ever clapped my eyes on. I really do think that if it wasn't for the food we were giving him, he would have died long ago. He used to get abuse from the others, but he always managed to get enough. We saw him every day for about two months, until one day he didn't turn up, the next day was the same, and the day after that. After a week, we concluded that something had happened to him, I remember feeling quite sad, because I’d even given him a name, Scruffy. Another species that has a complex hierarchy is the house sparrow; the males have black markings on their face and breast that resemble a bib. The sparrows with the biggest bibs are the dominant ones, a good analogy is the insignia used in the Armed Forces. So when you see two male house sparrows bickering, it’s usually two individuals of near equal rank.

The Eye of a Bird

Birds have exceptional vision, and see a far greater range of colours than we can.
Birds have exceptional vision, and see a far greater range of colours than we can. | Source

More Than Meets The Eye

All birds need excellent vision, as like us they rely on their sight more than any other sense to interpret the world. So if a bird suffers any damage to its eyes that impair its vision, then death is a near certainty. All birds have four colour receptors in their eyes, meaning that they have the ability to see light that is outside of our visual range. Even to us, the blue tit’s blue cap and the robin’s redbreast are distinctive, but in ultra-violet, which is what birds can see, they are both brightly contrasting beacons or signals.

Blue Tit Bathing

Water is essential for Birds, as it not only quenches their thirst. But also enables them to bathe and rid their feathers of parasites.
Water is essential for Birds, as it not only quenches their thirst. But also enables them to bathe and rid their feathers of parasites. | Source

High and Dry

Many birds that come into the garden, such as finches and sparrows are natural seed feeders. But seeds are an extraordinarily dry food to eat, so they must be able to wash them down in some way. In winter, this becomes especially hard because of the freezing conditions, meaning that birds have to exert more energy than usual to find water. If you can make your garden into a water haven, then you will quickly see more and more birds coming into your garden. Birds need water, not only for drinking, but also for cleaning their feathers, which must be kept in trim condition at all times.

A doomed Greenfinch

This poor Greenfinch has trichomonosis, the parasite closes off the throat, causing the Bird to starve.
This poor Greenfinch has trichomonosis, the parasite closes off the throat, causing the Bird to starve. | Source

Feeder Hygiene

In the UK, the last few years have witnessed an alarming decline in finches. The culprit is thought to be a disease called Trichomonosis, caused by a parasite that lives in the bird’s upper digestive system, over time it blocks the bird’s throat preventing it from swallowing, thus resulting in death from starvation. It’s usually passed on by birds feeding each other during the breeding season and through ingesting food or water that is contaminated with recently regurgitated saliva. If an ill bird is caught, then it is impossible to save it.

But you can help to stop the spread of the disease by monitoring the levels of food you put out and keeping your feeders and tables clean, and also ensuring that the surrounding areas are kept free of mouldy food and droppings. The best method to clean bird feeders is to use disinfectant solution mixed with water. Another tip is to rearrange your feeders and tables regularly to stop bacteria and parasites from settling in one spot. Always keep food in a cool and dry environment, and away from pets and other animals to avoid any contamination.

The Nuthatch Patrol

Nuthatches are one of many species of Bird that will hoard food to prepare for leaner times.
Nuthatches are one of many species of Bird that will hoard food to prepare for leaner times. | Source

Hoarders

Many species of birds like to cache or store their food, just as squirrels do. Jays are well known for collecting acorns and hiding them away as an insurance policy when harsher weather appears. The nuthatch will collect various nuts and wedge them into tree bark or holes in a wall and then cover them over with bark or moss. Magpies and other crows will store carrion, just as dogs do. The smallest birds such as coal and marsh tits also store food, by sneaking food off the bird table and hiding it away before the bigger birds barge in.

Know Your Food

Each garden is different, and the unique structure of it will favour some birds over others. By knowing the right type of food and the right type of feeder to support your local birds, you’ll hopefully provide the perfect feeding ground for them. In the spring, live mealworms are vital for overworked parents desperately trying to feed their chicks. Robin and thrushes, in particular love these little wriggly treats, and if they are live, it helps to give them much needed moisture. During the colder months, all the birds are fattening up to survive the long winter, so fat balls and suet cakes can give them the crucial fat and energy required to keep them going. Fat balls and suet cakes always draw a crowd whenever I put them on the bird table in the winter. However, I must stress that these should only be made in the winter, as the warmer temperatures of spring will cause the fat to melt, causing them to go off quicker.

Sunflower seeds are good because they are rich in proteins and unsaturated fat, but they do require a considerable amount of effort to remove the husks, and that's energy that birds cannot afford to waste. It's best to put these and kibbled nuts out in the autumn to save them the effort of doing it in the winter. Niger seed is a favourite of the goldfinch and siskin, but be aware that you have to buy a specialist feeder because the seed is very small and will just drop out of the holes of a conventional feeder.

Peanuts are favoured by almost all birds, especially tits and sparrows, they also help to give the birds a protein and energy boost in the winter. But do not put whole peanuts in the spring, as they may choke young birds.

Try to avoid bird food packaged in mesh bags, as more often than not, a bird will get its claws and feet stuck in the mesh with disastrous consequences.

The Robin Singing his Heart out

Beautiful and Poetic to us, but a matter of life and death for a Robin.
Beautiful and Poetic to us, but a matter of life and death for a Robin. | Source

The Song of War

We all love the beautiful and melodious songs of some of our most cherished birds. But what we often forget is that these songs are part of territorial displays. The autumn is a tricky time, as the adults now have to compete with the new kids on the block, the fledglings that were born in the spring, they all want a piece of action. The robin, to us is a charismatic, cheeky but friendly bird and many gardeners often speak of their robin who perches on their garden spade, in reality he’s using the spade to survey his territory, pumping out his red breast to intimidate any potential interlopers. On the occasions when they have to fight, they often battle it out to the death. The dawn chorus, is something we often take for granted, but to the birds it’s everything, they are basically letting the others know that ‘I’m still here, and this patch is mine’.

© 2012 James Kenny

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    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 5 years ago from Iowa

      What an interesting hub! I love watching the birds in my garden. We have several feeders to attract as many different kinds of birds as we can. My favorites are the woodpeckers; we see 3 or 4 different kinds every day. Do you have those in the UK?

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 5 years ago from SW England

      Very interesting hub. I love watching different birds; the starlings make me laugh. Comparing what we get in England to those we see in France is interesting too. You give lots of facts I wasn't aware of and good tips to help the birds. Thanks. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Deborah, yes we do have Woodpeckers in the UK. We have three different species, but only one of them regularly comes into gardens, 'The Great Spotted Woodpecker'. My favourite garden bird is the Robin, we had some nesting in the ivy that covers an old shed last year. It was really interesting to watch, although we had to keep an eye out for the local cats.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi annart, thanks for the comment. Have you ever seen when Starlings gather together in huge flocks just before they roost. I saw it once, near the River Severn in Gloucestershire, and it was the best bird watching experience I've ever had. It was like watching a giant kite sweeping across the sky.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Lots of great information here for all backyard bird watchers and lovers. Your nuthatch looks very much like one of ours, and it uses the same tactic to hide and accumulate seeds for later. Your blue tit reminds me of our blue jay without the crest. But your robin looks different from ours. I loved all your beautiful pictures. This is a great way to 'meet' the birds of the UK. Voted Up and Awesome!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi grandmapearl, thanks for the comment. I find it interesting comparing the different Birds we get in our gardens on both sides of the pond. I think your American Robin looks very similar to our Thrushes. I'd love to see Hummingbirds in my garden, the closest we get is the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, it looks so much like a Hummingbird, its unreal.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      JKenny, we have a hummingbird moth here as well. A miniature version of a hummer! I have tried to sneak up and take pictures of it, but alas it is too fast for me. Our American Robin is actually classified as a thrush. It is great fun to compare.

      Hummers are amusing to watch as they are extremely territorial. I have seen them wage aerial battles using their long beaks as swords!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi grandmapeal, I guess the first Europeans to see it, just saw the red breast and called if after the European Robin. I've just been looking at some pictures of it, and it actually looks a lot like our Blackbird.

      I love the European Robin, because its so bold and fearless. I remember watching one trying to attack a Cat, that had strayed too close to its nest last year. It was an awesome thing to see.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Wow! That European Robin must be one feisty bird! That reminds me of our Blue Jays. They seem to be fearless and very aggressive towards other birds at the feeders, especially in the springtime.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      There's a little bit of irony surrounding the European Robin, because its our national bird, purely because of its friendliness towards Humans. But they will fight to the death to protect their territory.

      Mistle Thrushes are also very feisty, I've seen them driving Pigeons and Crows away from Holly bushes in the winter. They're just as feisty in the spring, driving Magpies away from their nest, with no fear.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Beautiful hub and very well written! I love watching and taking pictures of birds. I love this hub, voted up, beautiful, useful and socially sharing. Thanks for your follow, following back! Have a wonderful day! :)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks sgbrown, no problem at all. You have a wonderful day too. Take care.

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 5 years ago from South Wales

      I also love the birds in my garden, and watch their antics with great amusement. Thanks for SHARING, JKenny. Voted up and useful.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks scarytaff, some of the best moments you can have as a Birdwatcher is just by simply watching the trials and tribulations of garden birds, magnificent creatures.

    • thelyricwriter profile image

      Richard Ricky Hale 5 years ago from West Virginia

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Awesome article JKenny. Lots of useful info. I have never heard of a blue tit before. They are such beautiful birds. You listed some very cool facts about them. A well researched article my friend. Great job.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks for the vote thelyricwriter, yeah Blue Tits are beautiful little birds. As far as I know, they only live in Europe. In Britain they're very common and very popular with the public, along with the European Robin. You can actually buy special nestboxes specially designed for them, as they use tree holes for natural nest sites.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Great hub. I will never look at our cute little robin in quite the same way! We get lots of birds in our garden, even a few unusual ones for our area. Most recently, we've had a woodpecker visiting regularly and I had never, ever seen one before that except in a photograph. Voted up etc.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Jools; it does seem strange to think of our lovely little Robin as an aggressive bird, because they always seem so friendly to us. I had a Woodpecker in my garden, the other week, but didn't stay long. Just before Christmas, I heard an Owl hooting over the park, an amazing thing to hear, considering I only live a few miles away from Birmingham. Appreciate the vote, have a nice day.

    • profile image

      Carole share 5 years ago

      I love all wild life but Robbins I truly love they come and nest in my garden twice a year and I get great pleasure in watching them this year a blackbird has been bullying them but they have still built there nest I wish I could stop the bullying it really upsets me enjoyed ur page thankyou

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Carole, I know how you feel, robins are such delightful creatures, but that's nature. Its best not to interfere, the blackbird probably gets harassed by magpies.

    • geoffclarke profile image

      geoffclarke 5 years ago from Canada

      Great hub - full of interesting facts about our feathered friends. One of my favourite English birds is the Chaffinch which I was fortunate to see on my recent trip back to the U.K.

      Voted up, of course!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yeah I like the Chaffinch too, I love hearing the males song in springtime. At the moment I've got a male Blackcap in the garden, he sings every morning.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 5 years ago from Space Coast

      What a great hub. It isn't just well written, it has as much visual appeal as you can get with the medium. Even the products were displayed tastefully. I recommend this article for anyone who wants to watch and feed the birds in their yard.

      I live in Florida, where Yankee birds come for winter vacation. I have learned . . . they don't need me. I was feeding them and enjoying the vast and varied population that was attracted. Eventually, we had three different species of hawks set up shop. They loved the convenience of the smorgasbord I created.

      Now I have one little feeder under a wax myrtle with big stuff for the woodpeckers, cardinals and Jays. They just grab and go. The hawks have moved deeper into the woods, and all is well again.

      Good to meet you. You are a pro.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow, thanks for the kind word William. Living in Florida must be interesting, with all those alligators prowling around. I really appreciate you taking the time to drop by, and its good to meet you too.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 5 years ago from South Carolina

      Great hub,

      You really brought the different traits and habits of the birds to life in this informative and entertaining hub. I didn't realize many of the facts that you pointed out and found them quite fascinating as well as useful.

      My house in Delaware, USA, is on a half acre of land and the part of Delaware that I live in is part of the migration fly zone for many birds.

      I don't have bird feeders out but I do have about a dozen pine trees that the birds rest in and they often bathe and drink from a small water fountain that I keep on my deck. I love watching them when they do that.

      Thanks for sharing this information.

      Voted up across the board except for funny.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Happyboomernurse. Half an acre of land! I'd love to have that amount of land. My gardens 50 feet by 20 feet, but I still get a lot of wildlife. Yesterday, I heard a Tawny Owl hooting outside my window. Thanks very much for dropping by.

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