We occasionally get queries about birds of prey venturing into gardens often resulting in rather stumped observers who did not expect to see such creatures at such close quarters. Here are just a few quick fire questions and answers that we often encounter about birds of prey in the garden.
What was it? Nine times out of ten the bird of prey responsible is likely to be a sparrowhawk. These relatively small and agile raptors are very distinctive. They are mostly grey on their upper surfaces, sometimes with bold white spots, with pale under sides with darker horizontal barring across the chest. The male of the species is smaller and has a rufous tinge to its chest. Other species that will venture into gardens with some regularity are kestrels, buzzards and in some parts red kites. We have also had a few reports over the years of goshawk, merlin and peregrine from gardens but these are rare occurences.
Why is it in the garden? Most birds of prey are wary of humans and generally avoid us where possible. However the garden habitats of the UK have attracted a variety of woodland and scrub dwelling bird species. In fact, most of the birds that we call garden birds these days are birds that are naturally at home in the woodlands of ancient Britain. As humans have felled these habitats and changed the landscape to what we have now, these birds have adapted along with us and found ways to exploit the spaces around our habitations. The attraction of parks and gardens to the smaller species has not gone undetected by the birds of prey that have always been the natural adversaries and predators of these birds. In modern day Britain it is actually quite normal to see birds of prey in gardens.
Is it dangerous? We often get asked if the bird of prey is likely to pose a threat to pets or children or people. You can rest assurred that if you have a bird of prey like a sparrowhawk or kestrel visiting your garden it won't be a danger to your family or pets. Even larger raptors such as buzzards and red kites won't take anything larger than a rabbit so there are very few situations where there would be any reason to worry.
Won't they eat all of the small birds? We have looked into predation between birds of prey and the species that they prey upon and the simple answer is no they won't. You can read our review of predation here and some facts about predators and prey here but the general conclusion made from the research into sparrowhawk predation on songbirds is that the sparrowhawks do not depress breeding densities of their songbird prey. In a garden situation a sparrowhawk will often scatter the smaller birds, they head for cover when danger is detected and only come out again when the coast is clear. Once danger has passed they usually resume their normal activities but keep a watchful eye to skies just in case the wily raptor tries his luck again. This is unusual as once the element of surprise is lost, the sparrowhawk will move off and try his luck elsewhere. The other birds of prey that venture into gardens such as the buzzards and kestrels are generalists that will take a wide range of prey that includes worms, beetles, small mammals, as well as birds.
Can I or should I deter them? Birds of prey are natural predators of wild birds, they bring a bit of the wilderness into our lives and we should take the opportunity to appreciate their finely tuned senses and adaptibility. They only make one successful kill out of every ten attempts so they have to work very hard for their meals. Once they subdue their prey they waste very little if left undisturbed and a large meal of a pigeon for example will keep them fed for a day or two. Whilst it can be distressing to witness such acts of predation, the raptor is only doing what it needs to do in order to survive, nature is brutal sometimes and we should accept this. Rather than deter them all I would encourage everyone to do is to plant gardens sympathetically for wild birds so that plenty of cover is available to those birds quick enough to find it. Those that are too slow to react or make the worng decision are fair game for the sparrowhawk, the true meaning of survival of the fittest. The strongest and sharpest birds will therefore go on to reproduce leading to healthier populations so the role of the sparrowhawk as an apex predator is a very important one indeed.
How can I encourage them, do they use nest boxes? Whilst kestrels will take to nesting boxes, see the link here, most of the other birds of prey won't use them as they make nests in the tree tops, usually in the canopy of mature woodlands or copses. It is very difficult to attract birds of prey in to a garden on a regular basis, they often cover large distances as they hunt and will rarely concentrate their attention in the same place for long. Keeping a healthy garden for wildlife is a good start as a population of birds of prey in the area can only survive if the food chain beneath it is in good order so have a look at the Homes for Wildlife project and see what you can do.
The Stork is known throughout the world as a symbol of fertility, this is an ancient legend that evolved into the cartoon Storks you see today carrying babies and delivering them to parents, but one that everyone is familiar with. This familiarity has lead the Stork to be one of the most recognised birds in the world but in the UK it is one bird that is not often seen, the reason for that is simple....they dont reside here!
However....as Spring continues Storks are being seen in the skies over the UK, but they aren't bringing babies with them this time! Yes that's right, the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) which is a scarce visitor to the UK has been spotted numerous times in the past few weeks and here at Wildlife Enquiries we are receiving more and more reports of them. The White Stork is a large white bird with black wings and red legs and beak. They breed anywhere from North Africa up through Europe and into Asia. They have a large wing span of up to 7ft in length, to put that into perspective the Common Buzzard reaches around 4 1/2 ft with the Red Kite reaching 6ft wingspan. From underneath these birds have half white and half black wings, they fly with a succession of fast wing beats before then going into a glide. Their diet can be quite varied, anything from worms, frogs and toads to voles, fish and lizards.
In recent weeks reports of White Storks in the UK have increased with sightings coming from Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Devon, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Buckinghamshire, Durham and Northumberland. There have even been sightings of groups of Storks (the collective term is a 'Muster') with 6 flying over Llandudno in Wales and 8 in a field in Worcestershire.
With the reporting of birds it is always important to get things correct and we do appreciate that often these Stork sightings could be anything from Little Egrets to Herons and it is important to also remember that many of these Storks are not wild birds but are of captive origin, often escapees from zoo's, falconry centres, wildfowl and private collections, often the presence of a closed ring around the leg can help determine this and if the bird is relatively tame this can also help idenitfy its origins but they are birds that nest around human habitation and are usually used to the presence of people.
In 1416 the only recorded nesting attempt occured on St Giles Catherdral in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town and not until 2004 was a nesting attempt recorded again when 2 birds (one of captive origin and one of possible wild origin) attempted to nest on a pylon in West Yorkshire (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/west_yorkshire/3653171.stm).
However in the last week we have not just had reports of many Storks being seen but also of Storks nest building including this one named "Harry" in Nottinghamshire that is nesting on the roof of a restaurant in Mansfield....
These nesting attempts are of lone birds doing what comes naturally to them and but no means genuine nesting attempts yet, they need partners first but very interesting to see and certainly facinating to all of us in the Wildlife Enquiries Department.
Remember if you see a White Stork then you can report your sightings to the Birdtrack Service ran in conjuction by the BTO, RSPB, SOC and Birdwatch Ireland (http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/birdtrack), it also worth recording any sightings via the Spring Alive Website which can be found here - http://www.springalive.net/
Keep those eyes to the skies (or on top of a house!)
This is a question we always get asked at this time of the year and its one with a few possible answers!
Firstly, for many birds we are coming to the end of a hectic breeding season. After all of the battling for territory, courting mates, finding nesting material, gathering food for young and chasing off predators, it is no surprise that some of the birds are looking a little worse for wear. Late summer is the time to moult all of the worn and damaged feathers to be replaced with a shiny new set that will keep the birds well insulated through the cold winter months. During the moult, which takes a number of weeks, birds change their ways, becoming quiet and reclusive. They don't want to expose themselves to predators whilst they do not have a full set of flight feathers which would make them much more vulnerable. They will still be around but skulking under hedges.
Another major event for birds at the end of the breeding season is their change in distribution. Many birds that have been holding a territory now have no need to secure this as their young have departed. This enables birds to leave their breeding haunts and head to areas where they can find food, possibly joining feeding flocks and being very mobile. You may see flocks of finches in open land, tits and warblers in mixed flocks in woodland and hedgerows and mistle thrushes can often be found in large flocks. Some of our migrant breeders may have already completed their breeding season and are now heading south, stopping off at sites to feed as they prepare for the long trip to the wintering grounds.
Natural food is also a key reason why many garden birds are not venturing into gardens or taking food that has been provided. During the late summer and autumn months there is a huge amount of food available for wild birds which is an irresistible attraction to even sedentary birds like house sparrow. The trusty spadger rarely moves more than a mile or two from its home range but in the summer when harvested crops create lots of seed and many shrubs are producing berries and seeds, short movements to local hedges and fields are common. Other species like blackbirds and starlings are also elsewhere as they take advantage of the fruit, berries and insects that can be found. If you have a hedge with a crop of berries coming, make sure you don't trim it until the birds have had a chance to eat the berries, late winter cuts are the way forward.
These seasonal changes occur every year but changes in the bird world can be subtle. However, in some years these changes are highly visible and it can be worrying for all garden bird lovers. Don't panic, you have not done anything wrong, they are doing what comes naturally and they will be back in the next couple of months when they have a full set of feathers, have found their winter ranges and the natural food has started to decrease. In the meantime, provide some food for any birds that stick around or pass by, keep the bird bath full and clean and look out for the other garden wildlife that the autumn brings in abundance such as butterflies and spiders!
Summer has finally arrived (for some), all be it late, birds have been struggling to raise their young in the wet, cold weather and now they have chicks it looks like they are disappearing from view. Where have they all gone and when will they return?
During the breeding season, birds will hold their territories and attract their mates by singing and often physically defending their space. Often at this time of year you will hear less bird song as they focus their attention on raising their young and finding food for the numerous mouths they have to feed. Once the young birds have left the nest, the adults will continue to feed their young for a few weeks and teach them what they need to know for their life ahead, before they go their separate ways. Part of this process includes utilising the abundance of natural food that is available to them. Many birds will leave our gardens and find seeds, fruits and berries to incorporate into their diet, from the wider area, including scrub land in our urban areas and the countryside, especially at harvest time when there is discarded, split seed on the ground. Unsurprisingly, many birds are attracted to the natural food in preference to the food we place at our feeding stations. Supplementary feeding only accounts for about 10% of a bird’s diet, and once the autumn months approach and the temperatures drop the birds will return to the feeders.
House Sparrow feeding their young - Steve Austin (rspb-images.com)
Towards the end of the breeding season, birds will naturally moult their feathers. Parent birds have little time to preen and clean their feathers, giving some birds a shabby, unkempt appearance. Birds will moult at different rates; some will lose a few feathers at a time, where others will lose most of their feathers in a short time, giving them a bald look. Mite infestations are often another cause for feather loss, often on the bird’s head, but once they go through their moult they will grow new feathers and have normal plumage again. While they are going through their moult and replacing their flight feathers they can be vulnerable to attack from predators and territorial disputes. This results in birds finding deep cover in our gardens and parks while their new feathers grow. The moulting process can take anything up to eight weeks, but it does vary from bird to bird.
Blackbird taking a bath - Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)
You may find that you still have the odd visitor to your feeders through this lean period, but once the autumn and winter months arrive and the berries have been eaten, the birds will return to our gardens and feeders.
As we're approaching the end of May there are many birds that are close to fledging. You may have seen some already as the first brood of starlings, house sparrows, robins, wrens and blackbirds are already up and away in many places!
Coming soon to a garden near you could be young jackdaws and crows, woodpeckers, blue tits, great tits and finches! Out in the woods you might be lucky to catch a glimpse of young tawny owls branching or long-tailed tits lined up waiting to be fed. In the ground level vegetation young blackcaps might be tucked away, it's a very busy time for birds! Remember the golden rule, leave baby birds alone - their parents have the situation under control!
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
For some species it is still very early in their nesting season, late migrants such as the swift and spotted flycatcher may only have just returned to their nesting sites. Their time with us here in the UK is brief and they don't have much room for error, they have to get it right first time unlike the resident birds that can have subsequent broods if things go wrong at the first attempt. Have you got your swifts back yet? If so remember to record them via the swift survey via the link below.
A question often posed to us here in wildlife enquiries is when does the breeding season stop? Well it depends on a number of things, which species you are talking about and what conditions are like in terms of weather and food availibility. Some species like herons and crossbills for example are often in their nests before spring arrives whilst collared doves and woodpigeons often decide to nest well into the autumn and winter. Generally speaking for most birds in gardens the peak nesting activity will occur through the period between March and August. If conditions are favourable, species that have multiple broods like swallows and house martins may continue to nest well into September.
June is perhaps the best time to look out for newly fledged birds, don't forget to record them if you are taking part in our Make Your Nature Count summer survey between 2-10 June, to find out more about taking part have a look at the link below.