Painted lady butterfly Cynthia cardui, feeding on lavender flowers in garden setting, England

Wildlife gardening

What plants are best for wildlife? Do different colour feeders attract different birds? Your wildlife-gardening questions are answered by our experts.

Wildlife gardening

Your questions

I have noticed there are no nuts and acorns this autumn. How will this affect our animals over the winter and could bird feed help to sustain them? chevron-down

Sent in by Shirley Roberts, Carmarthenshire. 12 November 2012


A wild bird irruption (a large irregular migration) often indicates an issue with a food source. Jays migrating into the UK is a sign that their favourite food, acorns, is in short supply on the continent as well as in Britain. The jay isn't fond of crossing open water so to cross the North Sea suggests a poor acorn crop. The arrival of bramblings in significant numbers may also reflect a problem with the beech mast crop in Scandinavia.


Bees and bad weather
Whilst some trees like oaks produce good crops followed by bad crops in irregular cycles, some trees’ production of fruit, nuts and seeds are influenced by climatic factors. Pear trees for example that rely on insect pollinators, bees in particular, were left without pollinators during the main flowering season as a result of an extended wet and cool period that limited insect activity.


In years where oaks don't produce acorns, the oak tree has played a smart move. By not producing acorns one year the population of the creatures that have come to rely on acorns decreases, that oak tree may then produce a super-abundance of food the following season that the smaller numbers of acorn eating creatures cannot eat their way through.


Alternative diets
Winters are hard for wildlife, they will take their toll on all creatures, this is part of the natural cycle. Those wild animals that are able to take advantage of other food sources will fare much better. Despite the lack of acorns, sweet chestnuts and hawthorns are both heavy in nut and berry and provide a tempting alternative. We are already seeing jays working hard to cache the chestnuts.


Providing supplementary food in your gardens is definitely a positive step for wildlife. Many birds rely on gardens for food and shelter, especially over the really cold winter spells, so providing a range of foods such as seed mixes, suet based foods and soft fruit is a top tip.

How can I provide shelter for garden birds in really cold weather? chevron-down

Sent in by Sally McKenzie, Maastricht, Netherlands.


Sally said: Temperatures as low as minus 30 Celsius are forecasted for our area with continuous freezing conditions for at least 10 days. What can I do to provide warm shelter for my garden birds?


That is really cold, and naturally we feel desperate to help our garden birds when temperatures sink so low. 


However, as far as providing shelter is concerned, then birds usually choose evergreens, thick bushes and hedges for night-time roosts. Reedbeds are also popular. Starlings love these, diving in en masse at dusk after swooping around in ever increasing numbers. 


In gardens, mature ivy is a favourite and, if this is growing against a house wall, the birds get extra protection and fewer chilly draughts. I remember watching almost 200 pied wagtails diving into thick ivy growing over a fairly low wall in a local park - an amazing sight with the latecomers struggling to find a spare perch. 


Tits and wrens regularly roost in nestboxes, with wrens inviting plenty of friends to share. This is an excellent strategy, as tiny birds are particularly vulnerable during cold nights; many wrens, huddled together, helps to keep them all warm and cosy. 


To summarise, nestboxes can help and, when planting new areas, include shrubs and climbers that will provide thick cover during winter. 


However, having full tummies also helps birds to keep out the cold. Provide nourishing food, such as sunflower hearts, fat cakes and suet nibbles on a regular basis. If birds struggle to find food during the day, then long, cold nights often prove fatal.

I usually have goldfinches in my garden, about 2 weeks ago they stopped coming. What can have happened? chevron-down

Sent in by Sue Jones. 11 January 2012


While there are many reason birds may not be appearing on feeders in gardens, the most likely cause is that there is enough wild food for them.


Human feeding is supplementary; when we have a mild autumn or winter natural food can be in abundance throughout the season. This winter (2011/12) we had an elongated summer and very mild autumn allowing natural food like berries and fruit, seeds and insects to be in abundance throughout autumn.


This can mean people will look out onto their feeders and see very few birds, and become concerned by the lack of birds. You may have seen the flocks of young and adult starlings, as well as mixed tit flocks and groups of finches during the autumn. These groups stay together for safety in numbers and will be highly mobile on their search for natural food.


The only cause for concern would be the discovery of bodies in the garden or feeding area, as this may suggest disease.


Trichomonosis is a disease usually seen in finch species, but can affect any. If birds appear fluffed up, lethargic and with food around their bill, it is in their best interests to stop feeding all together for around 2-3 weeks. Cleaning feeders and good feeder hygiene is always best practiced.

How can I make an old bus shelter wildlife-friendly? chevron-down

Sent in by Malcolm Parker, Derbyshire. 25 February 2011


Malcolm said: 'I have an old concrete/brick bus shelter on farmland in derbyshire, previously used as a sheep shelter. Have you any suggestions for making it wild-life friendly by installing bird boxes (which?) and plants to grow over it which could be used by birds as nesting/roosting sites. It is about 15' x 10' x 8' with an orchard on one side and fields on the other. Is it too small or low to attract owls or birds of prey?'


It's a great idea to convert the shelter to a wildlife haven. While I think it would be a little too low for owls or birds of prey to use it, the inside would be ideal for swallows. By placing a number of ledges or swallow nesting cups close to the ceiling, you could encourage several pairs to nest.


If you have house sparrows or tree sparrows in the area, putting nestboxes for them on the outside on north or east-facing sides could provide these red-listed birds much needed nesting sites.


By growing plants over it, you would cater for a wide range of species that like to nest in thickets, such as blackbirds, song thrushes, wrens, robins and warblers. Choose from plants like wild honeysuckle, wild clematis (Clematis montana), ivy and dog rose, which all have high wildlife value.

What food can I put out for waxwings? chevron-down

Sent in by Keith Grey, Northumberland. 10 December 2010


Although waxwings are birds that many people watch out for each winter, they don't always appear. This winter though is shaping up to be a waxwing one with thousands of them arriving here since the autumn. 


Stunning birds, they feed almost exclusively on berries and can eat vast numbers - how about a thousand cotoneaster berries in one day! 


This does work in our favour though, as they frequently turn up in unlikely places such as supermarket car parks and town centre squares;the attraction being the landscaping of these otherwise barren areas which includes attractive berry-bearing bushes.  They feed, we birdwatch whilst shopping.


Clearly the best way to attract them is to plant this type of shrub - holly, ivy, hawthorn, pyracantha, cotoneaster - and sorbus, of course - are great and help many other birds too.  It has always been thought difficult to attract waxwings to food we supply but apples will probably do the trick.


Some lovely pictures, taken on Fair Isle, showed waxwings feeding on apples, which had been halved and impaled on twigs. At the time the twigs were being held by a young lad who had excellent close up views of these amazing birds.  Sounds like apples are well worth a try. 

My new bird table has a red roof but the birds will not use it. Are they colour-blind? chevron-down

Sent in by Bryan Smith. 5 August 2010


Sight is the dominant sense of almost all birds and it is highly developed in most species. They need efficient eyesight to find food, identify mates or rivals and to look out for predators.


Most birds appear to have colour vision. This is shown by the spectacular plumages that many birds have to attract a mate or deter a rival. Nocturnal birds are possibly less sensitive to colour as they generally have duller plumages and it is less important to have colour vision.


Birds' colour vision is taken advantage of by plants which rely on birds to disperse their seeds. These plants have evolved berries, which become conspicuous when ripe and attract the birds to feed.


Robins are a good example of birds' sensitivity to colour. The red on the robin's breast is what provokes territorial disputes. Robins have been recorded displaying to and attacking model robins and plumes of red feathers put in their territories. There is also a record of a robin displaying to someone's red beard while they were ringing birds.


Some birds may also be able to see ultraviolet light. For example, kestrels are thought to be able to see routes regularly used by rodents. These rodent runs are marked with urine, which is visible in ultraviolet light. The kestrel can then search a large area more quickly and wait where the rodents are most active.


A bright red bird table would be highly visible to foraging birds so would get their attention. It can take birds a while to use new feeders so it is important to persevere.

We've seen a hedgehog out during the day. Is there a problem? chevron-down

Sent in by John Todd, North Yorkshire. 23 July 2010


Hedgehogs are nocturnal; they sleep during the day and forage for food at night. If you find a hedgehog out-and-about during the day and well before dusk, something may well be wrong and you should seek the advice of a wildlife hospital.


With their small eyes, hedgehogs have relatively poor eyesight and rely on their acute sense of smell to find food. They can travel 1 to 2 km each night in search of food and can move at speeds of 3 metres per minute.


They require 70 g of food per night and can eat a whole variety of foodstuffs, which can include earthworms, beetles, spiders and slugs, the latter making them a firm favourite with many gardeners.


Often the best sign of the presence of a hedgehog in gardens are their black tarry droppings. Outside of the breeding season, hedgehogs are quite solitary and you may be alerted to their presence at night by snuffles and snorts as they search for food.


Hedgehogs can live up to seven years old, but most live for no more than three years. An adult hedgehog is covered in approximately 6,000 spines!


If you would like to encourage hedgehogs into your garden, why not find out more in our advice pages.

Are slow-worms suitable to keep as pets? chevron-down

Sent in by Charlee Armitage Hindwood. 18 June 2010


Slow-worms are not at all suitable to keep as pets - as specialised reptiles they don't take to captivity very well and are far better off in the wild, where they belong.


They are burrowing lizards which spend most of their lives out of sight under rocks or logs, so you probably wouldn't see much of them anyway.


They are commonly found in gardens and by creating the right environment for them in yours you can attract them and encourage them to stay. Black plastic tiles, sheets of corrugated iron or large stones will make ideal basking areas for them - they prefer to hide under warm objects as opposed to basking in the open sun.


Creating dark, damp areas with dead wood and rocks in a corner of your garden will also provide a good hunting ground for them by attracting the prey they need to live on - a compost heap is an ideal habitat for this as they are damp and warm.


They are very useful to have in the garden as they feed on many things that we would regard as pests, such as slugs and snails, and they'll also eat insects spiders and worms.


The slow-worm's biggest enemy is the domestic cat, but they are also eaten by foxes, badgers and hedgehogs - providing them with plenty of hiding places can help them to avoid conflict with predators.


Slow-worms are protected in the UK under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This makes it illegal to kill, injure, sell or trade wild slow-worms.


The ideal conditions that slow-worms require to thrive are very difficult (and expensive) to re-create in a captive environment. It's far better to allow them to live in the wild, behaving naturally and playing their vital role within your local ecosystem.


See our Homes for Wildlife pages for more information on how to create an environment for wildlife in your garden.

What is the best time for cutting back Leylandii with nests in? chevron-down

Sent in by Lynn Lathbury, Wolverhampton. 14 May 2010


It's never a good time to cut back Leylandii with active nests in!


Ideally, any cutting work to trees or hedges should be left until the end of the breeding season. We recommend that this sort of work be avoided between March and August, as this is the peak breeding time for many birds.


Outside of these dates, you should still be cautious as there may be early or late nesters. It can be distressing for both the birds and us if a nest is destroyed and by simply waiting a while you'll be helping birds to breed successfully.


Many birds utilise Leylandii for nesting as they offer good shelter for their nests. Leylandii is a fast-growing tree that can sometimes cause problems between neighbours in residential areas when they begin to grow too high and block light.


Even in these situations, it would still be a criminal offence to cut the trees if it would damage or destroy active nests and the work should be postponed.


Before beginning any cutting work, the Leylandii should be thoroughly checked for active birds nests. Old or abandoned nests have no legal protection but it is important to be 100% sure they are no longer in use.


You can find lots of information on maintaining your garden hedges on our website or discuss it on the RSPB Community forum.

Can you tell me when frogs hibernate? chevron-down

Sent in by Dorothy Brockbank, Morecambe, Lancashire. 15 February 2010


I am very fond of frogs and, as you state, they are a real friend to gardeners. I do understand though why you don't want them hopping around as they can take you by surprise. 


I have similar feelings about birds flapping close to me, but will relocate distressed spiders without any qualms at all! 


Frogs are probably still safely hibernating at the moment although they do begin to wake during February. It may be too cold for them at the moment but it won't be too long before they rouse. You will probably hear the males croaking to attract a mate, so that will alert you and the young frogs will be on the move during May and June, so these are the times to be particularly careful. 


If you have a grassed area, keep some of this fairly short to make a pathway for you and to remove hiding places for young froglets. It sounds as though they have plenty of alternative damp places amongst the rocks and troughs so won't be deprived of habitat. Take care in these areas though as, I am sure, they will prove popular spots for them.


I do hope that you will be able to enjoy your garden as the frogs certainly will; their favoured habitats are disappearing rapidly so gardens provide a vital refuge.

We have a very strange looking nest in our loft. It almost looks like plastic. What can it be? chevron-down

Sent in by Monica Munro. 10 February 2010


Quite a few creatures will use of roof space as a home, which in some cases can be great for them and us. Swifts, starlings and house sparrow are all great urban birds to have around and all find their way into roof space through gaps in the fittings or between tiles. The swift does not really build a nest other than laying a few feathers down which it grabs from mid air. Starlings and sparrows build messy nests from twigs and grass, usually in a recess or cavity. I think you can rule a bird out of the list of suspects!


If this plastic like nest were hanging from the beams then I would think it is the handy work of a wasp. The common wasp (vespa vulgaris) frequently builds its nest in roof cavities as well as underground burrows and tree cavities. The material the nest is made of is actually wood which has been chewed up by the wasp into a paper like material. The nest is usually cone shaped and can reach the size of a football. These structures are incredibly ornate and are truly amazing constructions for such a small creature to make.


Wasps do not have a great reputation, when they sting it can really hurt! However, before deciding to get rid of wasps and their nests, consider their role in the garden habitat. Wasps are active predators that feed their fast growing young on insects, many of which are garden pests that eat favourite flowers and produce. The wasps are therefore a brilliant form of biological control so should be left to their own devices if it is possible to do so.

Today we have had a flock of blackbirds feeding in the garden on the hawthorn berries. Where will they have come from? Normally we have just the odd pair. chevron-down

Sent in by Rhona Doughty, Cheadle, Cheshire. 13 November 2009


We tend to think of our garden birds: blackbirds, robins and chaffinches for example, as being resident throughout the year. Migrant birds are swifts and swallows, here for the summer, or redwings and fieldfares who come to our relatively milder climes for the winter. In fact we are wrong. 


Our resident birds are joined by incoming blackbirds, song thrushes, starlings, even woodpigeons. They seem to know that we are less likely to be covered by a blanket of snow for long periods and our waterways will mostly remain ice-free. Let's hope they are right and their journey will have been worthwhile.


We can't really tell the difference between resident stock or those from further north. However, they are regularly in flocks, so the blackbirds feeding on the hawthorn berries in your garden, may have come from Sweden, Norway or Iceland for example. They will be very relieved, as will the resident birds, that there seems to be a bumper crop of berries this year. These will be very popular with many species and certainly provide an excellent food source for a few months. 


Blackbirds swallow small berries like this whole so can quickly strip one bush before moving on to the next. Some of these 'migrants' will enjoy our hospitality for a few days and then move elsewhere but others will remain until late winter provided that there is sufficient food for them. They also love windfall apples but usually wait until these are really soft, almost rotten, before tucking in. The blackbirds will be joined by the real winter thrushes: redwings and fieldfares, all anxious for a tasty treat.

I saw a golden brown animal with whitish belly in our garden today in East Kilbride, about 6 inches long. Would it be a stoat or a weasel? chevron-down

Sent in by David Mackay, East Kilbride. 10 November 2009


Both of the animals you mention here belong to the family called Mustelids. They live where they can obtain cover and prey, ranging from coastal dunes and grassland to woodland and scrub.


They are very similar in appearance, essentially being reddish-brown above and white below. Weasels are the smaller of the two and have all brown tails. Stoats, on the other hand, have a clear black tip to their proportionately longer tail. Also, the dividing line between upper and lower body colour is straight on a stoat, but irregular on a weasel


Getting a good view of the tail is the key to identification, so, unfortunately, in this case it isn't possible to be sure which of the two you saw!


In contrast to birds, monitoring of mammal populations in the UK is generally less well developed, and trends and populations are much more poorly known.

The records used indicate that following an increase from 1961 to the mid 1970s, the UK stoat population declined to some degree.


The dramatic decline in weasel numbers, down to a quarter of 1960 levels, more likely reflects a genuine trend and may be associated with reductions in the extent of rough grassland - an important habitat for voles, a favourite prey weasel species.


Among the UK’s predatory mammals, foxes, badgers, polecats, pine martens, and non-native American mink and grey squirrels have all increased, whilst weasel numbers may have declined. The trend in stoat numbers is less clear.


It is perhaps equally possible to sight wild or feral polecats within the UK. These animals are becoming increasingly common and widespread, spreading away from their western strongholds. There is also the possibility of seeing a polecat ferret which is difficult to separate from true polecat, except by experts. These animals sometimes escape from their owners during ferreting for rabbits and can happily live in the wild.

Is this time of year ok to trim/top trees? chevron-down

Sent in by Flash Costello, Hull, East Yorkshire. 14 September 2009


It's best to avoid the cutting of trees or hedges between the first of March and the end of August. This is the main breeding period for most garden birds that make their nests in trees and hedges. Conifers can provide nesting sites for a variety of species at this time including blackbirds, robins, greenfinch, goldcrest and even larger birds such as sparrowhawks and crows, so care needs to be taken during any cutting.


September and October can be a good time to do such work on conifers though. However, it is important to check first for nesting birds as some species always nest a bit later. Collared doves and woodpigeons for example are preoccupied by nesting at this time and often choose large conifers to build their nests.


If you see any birds taking in nesting material or can actually see active nests, you would have to leave the cutting until they have finished. As a rough guide, the woodpigeon will incubate eggs for around seventeen days and then feed the young for as many as thirty five days before they fledge.


As conifers, particularly Leylandii, grow very quickly and can end up being a problem with regards to light and moisture in gardens, it is important to keep them in check. Cutting them back every year is essential, sometimes two cuts every year are necessary, one in late winter and again the following autumn. By regularly topping the hedge and trimming the sides, it can be managed as an effective screen.


However, you may wish to consider the benefits to wildlife that a mixed hedge would provide. Including species like hawthorn, holly, hazel and crab apple into a hedge will create a greater diversity of structure for nesting birds and a variety food in the form of berries, seeds and fruit. Read more about planting trees, shrubs and garden hedges.

I have an almost empty pond covered with, I think, duckweed. Should I fill with water or wait for rain? chevron-down

Sent in by Eliane Zimmer, Hampshire. 24 August 2009


What is duckweed?

Duckweed is the common name for any of the floating plant species of the family 'Lemnaceae'. Lemnaminor being the most common variety. The individual plants consist of just a leaf or two floating on the water surface with one small root that hangs freely below. It can be found anywhere on earth in still or slow moving bodies of water except for arctic and tundra climates and can cause problems for pond management.


The problem it causes

They are adapted to grow very rapidly and when fuelled with plenty of nutrients, duckweed will dominate still water by creating a carpet that shades out any other plant competition and consumes the pond's nutrients – which could lead to ill effects on other pondlife.


In temperate regions such as the UK when temperatures consistently drop below 6 to 7 °C, it develops small, dense, starch-filled organs called 'turions', which become dormant and sink for winter. The following spring, stimulated by increased temperature, they restart growth and float back up to the surface.


A small amount is good

The main reason that duckweed is commercially available is that it provides rapid pool cover and uses up excessive nitrates, therefore inhibiting the growth of algae. This allows higher plants in the water get chance to establish and do a similar job by removing nitrates and offering cover for the newts, keeping the pond ecology in a good balance.


How to control duckweed

Perhaps the simplest and most obvious way to remove duckweed from a pond is using a skimmer net to scoop it out of the water. This is ok if you have a relatively small pond, but other methods will have to be applied to keep it in check - especially if it is a larger pond. Also, try to remove old decaying vegetation or leaf litter from the pond - this could add fertiliser to the water, adding to the duckweeds spread - by raking it up around the shore.


If it is a small pond, it's worth adding an electronic aerator to the pond as this adds oxygen and reduces the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.


Although many garden centres may recommend ponds with fish to keep the spread in check it is best avoided as they consume amphibian eggs and spawn. 


When and how to fill your pond

You could collect rain water and use a water butt during autumn to fill the ponds and rake the excess duckweed.

If you have deadly nightshade in your garden, will it poison the birds? chevron-down

14 August 2009


Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a tall bushy plant, with dull purple bell-shaped flowers in June and July. Preferring shady or wooded areas, deadly nightshade plants are best found on limestone and chalk areas of southern and eastern England. Though becoming increasingly uncommon in the UK, deadly nightshade or Belladonna, actually belongs to the same family as tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, and lives up to its name - its fruits are poisonous to man.

Deadly nightshade berries are shiny and black (when ripe) and first appear in August. Packed full of small seeds in their pulp, these berries can vary in size and can measure up to 20mm in size. Ripened berries of deadly nightshade plants do not last long, and soon over-ripen and dry up. It is uncertain as to where exactly the poison is concentrated in deadly nightshade fruit; whether it is in the fruit pulp or seeds, or present in both.

Though poisonous to most mammals, there have been records of birds eating deadly nightshade berries and such birds include blackcaps and song thrushes. Because of the short availability of the fruit and the competition offered by other fruiting plants such as bramble and elder, berries of deadly nightshade are often over-looked and rarely taken. One reason for the dispersal of the deadly nightshade plant, however, is thought to be down to birds.

Bittersweet or woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is also poisonous to man and is often mistaken for deadly nightshade because of its bright green and red berries and spiky purple and yellow flowers. It flowers from June onwards with the berries ripening in August/September. The fruits of bittersweet, though not particularly nutritious, are very watery and are often sought by birds in dry weather, prior to elderberries and blackberries appearing.


Birds that take bittersweet berries include: blackcaps, blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and woodpigeons.

We have found lots of small (about 1cm) amphibians. Could they be toads rather than frogs? chevron-down

Sent in by Matthew Hamman. 10 August 2009


These tiny amphibians could be young common frogs. They have smooth skin and have two lines down their backs with spots. After hatching from their eggs, the tadpoles will gradually develop into small frogs. This will take about ten to 15 weeks. Once they have completed their metamorphosis, they emerge from the pond and disperse. This usually occurs towards the end of the summer. At this stage they are only about 1cm long. They then spend the next few weeks of their lives in amongst damp vegetation only occasionally returning to water so you might find more in your garden, particularly following wet weather.


Over the next couple of years they will double in size each summer and should be ready to breed after two or three years. They are normally 5cm long when they first breed.


Common toads can look similar to frogs but they have warty skin. They also tend to walk rather  than hop. Common toads have a similar lifecycle to the frogs. Their metamorphosis takes eight to 12 weeks. They emerge from the water and live amongst the undergrowth. They are a similar age and size to the common frogs when they return to breed.

I wish to encourage swifts and house martins to nest in my eaves but am unable to do so because of telephone wires. Is there any way I can get BT to move them? chevron-down

Sent in by Ruth Jewitt, Llanelli, Carmarthenshire. 12 June 2009


Both house martins and swifts are incredibly well adapted to life on the wing. They have acute vision that enables them to catch tiny flying insects in flight – hence providing food cannot attract them.


The presence of the Telecom cables should not be a problem as they will easily be able to navigate around them as they would any other stationary object. It is only with larger more slowly manouevering birds like swans where this could pose a significant problem. The martins in the area may well even use them as perches when they begin to gather during late summer.


To move the cables would be at the discretion of the supplier. In some circumstances, they will consider laying them underground where appropriate. You should contact them directly or perhaps write to your local MP to take action for wildlife.


Artificial, ready-made house martin nests and nestboxes for swifts can be purchased from our online store.


For tailored advice on enhancing the wildlife value of your garden, please join thousands of others in our Homes for Wildlife project.


Swifts are in trouble – they’ve just moved from the green list of Birds of Conservation Concern to the amber list. Actually, they came perilously close to going straight to red. We’re not sure of all of the reasons why their numbers are falling, but we do know they are losing many of their nest sites, because buildings are repaired and they can’t get into their old holes, or the buildings may even be knocked down. Buildings have to be repaired and replaced, of course, but how sad that these terrific birds should lose out, when they may have nowhere else to go, and they use the same sites again and again.


We need your help

This summer we are asking you for your help. We really do need to find out where swifts are breeding.


We're working with various voluntary groups that are doing great work to help swifts, to develop an 'inventory' to record the location of colonies of swifts that people tell us about. There's a simple questionnaire to complete on-line, telling us where screaming swifts are, and when, and if known, where they are actually nesting.


Knowing about screaming parties is important, because it usually means they are nesting close by, even if we don’t know exactly where. As the data builds through time, we hope it will encourage sensitive development and renovation of buildings, and also to target new nest site provision where it’ll be most effective.


It's straightforward to do. Please add any swifts that you know about, and encourage others to do the same. The more complete the inventory, the more it will help this very vulnerable bird. Click here to submit your records.

A slow worm appeared in our garden yesterday. Please can you tell me: 1) Do they bite? 2) Do they eat frogs? 3) Should it be moved somewhere more suitable than my garden? chevron-down

Sent in by Jacquey Thurlow, Brightlingsea, Essex. 5 June 2009


Despite looking like snakes, slow worms, are actually legless lizards. With their smooth-scaled bodies and blunt shaped heads, adult slow worms can grow up to 50cm in length. Whilst male slow worms are grey brown in colour, females are brown and have dark sides with a line running down their back. Slow worms also differ from snakes in that they have closable eyelids and tails, which drop off if they are trying to escape danger.


Well-vegetated areas with dense ground cover are ideal habitats for slow worms, and they can often be found in woodland glades, pastures, heaths, scrubland, as well as railway and motorway embankments. Gardens can often provide suitable places for slow worms as well; compost heaps along with loose soil, decaying vegetation, logs and large flat stones provide ideal refuges for them. Pieces of tin or plastic, piles of stones and rubble can also provide ideal hiding places. Slow worms will burrow and hibernate underground from October to March.


Being most active at dusk, slow worms eat mainly slow moving prey such as slugs, worms, snails as well as the odd insect and spider. They do not bite people and are completely harmless. Slow worms, are protected by law and it is a criminal offence to deliberately kill them. Should you happen upon a slow worm, the best thing to do is to leave it alone or cover it back over carefully.

We live in Arlesey in Bedfordshire, and have found at least eight slow worms living in our garden. Are they rare in this area? chevron-down

Sent in by Claire Howard, Bedfordshire. 24 April 2009


Although it has a snake-like appearance, the slow-worm (Anguis fragilis) is in fact a legless lizard.


It has a cylindrical body and its colour is usually a shiny, metallic grey or brown. A close look would reveal colour and shape differences between sexes, individuals and animals of different ages.  They differ from snakes in having closable eyelids, and easily breakable tails. This is known as autotomy and serves as a survival technique if they are attacked by a predator.

Slow-worms occur throughout most of Europe, including virtually all of Great Britain, although it tends to be more abundant in the southern counties. Like all UK reptiles, the slow-worm is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.


The slow-worm is a very secretive animal, spending most of their lives underground or deep under vegetation. You are most likely to find them in compost heaps, or when they are basking openly in the sun or lying under bits of old wood, carpet, rubber, polythene sheeting or corrugated iron to absorb heat.

The few slow-worms we see are usually just the tip of the iceberg, as most slow-worms are rarely observed. In suitable habitats slow-worms can occur in considerable numbers, with over 1,000 per hectare recorded in parts of Southern England. Slow-worms are the most commonly reported reptile in urban areas, where they often occur in gardens.


As with many other species in Britain, the slow-worm has suffered dramatic declines in recent decades, mainly due to habitat loss and intensive land-use. When an area of its habitat is destroyed, the slow-worm population is almost certainly doomed as they do not travel far. Unless some suitable habitat remains very close by, it is likely the population will be lost. So the populations that remain in gardens such as yours could be very important to the survival of this species, especially in urban areas.

The slow-worm is considered to be the original gardener’s friend - they feed on pests such as garden slugs and snails and other invertebrates, and are completely harmless to humans. Unkempt areas in garden are an important factor, but having a compost heap could also provide a haven for slow-worm activity.

Why does the noise from my neighbour not bother insects - they can hear, can't they? chevron-down

Sent in by Elizabeth Jane Bouttell, Norwich, Norfolk. 6 April 2009


Insects come in a whole variety of shapes and sizes. Although they can react to light, smell, taste, touch and sound, they do not do so in the same way as humans. Insect sense organs, although comparatively small in size, are large in number and are located on various parts of their bodies.


Different insects have different ways of dealing with sound. We have only to think of the noise that grasshoppers make by rubbing parts of their body together to realise that sound plays an important role in insect communication. Take the hairs of a caterpillar for example. These are not only sensitive to touch, but also respond to sound waves. When hearing a sound such as the buzzing of an approaching predatory fly or wasp, caterpillars react by moving the front (and sometimes) back part of the body either upwards or sideways. The caterpillar of the large (cabbage) White butterfly is known to react in this way.


Grasshoppers, crickets and some moths have tympanal organs, which enable them to ‘hear’. These tiny organs are covered with drum-like membranes, which vibrate in response to sound. In crickets, the tympanal organs are situated on each of their forelegs, just below their knees and in some moths, tympanal organs can be found on either side of their thorax, which is the area of the body that lies between the head and abdomen.  Moths, which respond to high pitch squeaking, do so by vibrating their wings or by flying or running. Though humans and other mammals respond to loud sounds in a variety of ways, it is unlikely that such sounds would have a detrimental effect on insects.


Benificial insects

Attracting insects into your garden can be very beneficial for a variety of reasons. Many insects can act as natural pest controllers and others are useful for pollinating garden plants. You can encourage insects; by avoiding the use of chemicals in your garden, by planting suitable flowers, shrubs and trees and by providing artificial insect boxes. Click here for more information on providing ideal homes for insects in your garden.

Why am I finding dead frogs in the garden? chevron-down

Sent in by Laura Allard, Sunbury-on-Thames. 27 March 2009


There are several possible causes of death of these frogs. In winter, the most likely cause of death is anoxia (lack of oxygen).


Many frogs choose to overwinter in ponds. They can breath through their skin, so can stay submerged for long periods. However, in very cold winters, ponds can freeze for long periods. As vegetation in the pond decomposes, it uses up oxygen and the frozen condition prevent more oxygen being absorbed into the water. Frogs that have died of anoxia will float to the surface when the ponds thaw.


This is a natural occurrence and does not impact on frog populations. However, it can be distressing to see and there are steps you can take to allow oxygen into the pond. Placing a ball in the pond before it freezes over and then removing it once frozen will leave a hole that allows oxygen and other gases to enter and escape. Placing a bowl of hot water on an already frozen pond will also create a hole.


Disease is another possible cause. There is growing concern worldwide about the effects of disease on amphibians. In the UK, the most common disease is ranavirus. This can cause lethargy, emaciation, sores and bleeding. The bleeding can sometimes occur under the skin making the frogs look red. However, this disease is most commonly reported in the summer in temperatures above 25C.


Predation is also possible. They are most vulnerable to predators in spring when large numbers gather to breed. Herons, rats and cats are most likely to predate them in a garden and bodies could be left behind. However, this is unusual and there would normally be an obvious wound on the frog.


Large number of dead frogs can be reported to the Frog Mortality Project, which is run by Froglife and the Institute of Zoology.

Would the earwigs in my nestbox deter birds from nesting in it? chevron-down

Sent in by Maureen Watt, Ellon, Aberdeenshire. 12 March 2009


Earwigs (Forficula auricularia) is the common name given to the insect order Dermaptera. They are characterised by the membrane wings that fold underneath short leathery forewings - the literal translation of the order name is 'skin wings'.


They are attracted to cool, moist areas, such as leaf litter, soil, under bark or in hollow plant stems. They are generally nocturnal and spend their days resting; coming out at night to scavenge on decaying plant and animal matter, fungus and other insects.


Earwig bites, despite what some people claim, are quite harmless and never fatal because earwigs don’t secrete any poison. Though the earwigs' pincers (or cerci) are quite strong and the pinch may be a bit painful, there is no reason to worry about an earwig bite.


The urban myth that earwigs burrow into people's ears at night and lay eggs in their brains is also not true. Earwigs are not parasitic so it would not be typical behaviour, and a female would much rather lay her eggs under a damp, dark stone than in your ear! 


Earwigs could be considered a beneficial addition to a garden, especially as they prey on other insects. They can cause some damage in gardens as they chew plants, but on the other hand, they eat many plant pests and their eggs, such as aphids.


Birds will actually eat earwigs so having them in the box could be a good thing. They are full of protein and are a good source of energy. Attracting more birds into your garden will help to keep the number of earwigs down, along with other garden pests, such as slugs and snails.


For advice on how to attract birds and other beneficial wildlife to your garden you can take part in our Homes for Wildlife project.

What could we plant in place of a box hedge we had to dig up? chevron-down

Sent in by Celia Chasey, North Oxfordshire. 5 March 2009


There are countless varieties of shrubs which can be used to enhance or create a good wildlife friendly hedgerow. Although there are a number of species which are relatively fast growing, a new hedgerow is likely to be vulnerable to damage by the elements for the first two-three years.


When planting native species, make sure they come from British grown stock. Many hedgerow species, especially hawthorn, are imported from Eastern Europe and may have been taken from the wild. Non-native varieties flower at different times and are more susceptible to mildew than our native strains. A few good plant species for fast growing evergreen hedges include:


  • Privet is an under-rated evergreen shrub, which produces a good screen for privacy. The flowers are very good for butterflies. Use only the native privet, Ligustrum vulgare. The species commonly used for hedging is L. ovalifolium, which is very fast growing, may require pruning several times a season to keep it in trim, and does not produce berries.
  • Beech Fagus sylvatica can easily be trained as a hedge, despite being a large tree when mature. As a hedge it retains its leaves all winter, providing a useful windbreak. A beech hedge does not produce seeds. It prefers chalk soils, but is tolerant of other conditions.
  • Lime Tilia cordata can grow into a large tree, but can easily be trained as a hedge. Being insect pollinated, it is a useful food plant for many birds.
  • Barberries All species of these thorny (but non-native) shrubs are suitable for a wildlife hedge, providing flowers, berries and secure nesting sites. They grow to 2-3m (6-10ft), but can easily be kept lower. There are both evergreen and deciduous varieties. Berberis vulgaris, B. darwinii, B. stenophylla and B. thunbergii are particularly good. They grow on all soil types, and provide thick cover and weed-free ground underneath.


Prepare and loosen the soil thoroughly before planting anything. Hedging plants are available both as bare-rooted whips and as container-grown plants. Ensure that the plants have an extensive root system so they take quickly. Whips are much hardier and cheaper although if planting whips keep them under a moist clothe or in a bucket before planting as exposure to wind and sunlight can kill them within minutes. Whips should be planted between October and March and container plants at any time.


Once the hedge becomes established, to improve the security and fruit bounty of the hedge it may be worth planting a climber. Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum is a great example and can be encouraged to thicken out with hard pruning in the winter. In addition, Ivy Hedera helix is a very hardy fast growing climber and provides excellent nesting and roosting cover. The flowers will attract insects in September and October and the berries will ripen in late winter when most other fruiting species will have lost their yield.


You can find out more about planting and maintaining a hedge here


Your home and garden can become a great haven for wildlife. For free comprehensive tailored advice to enhance the wildlife value of your home and garden, including factsheets and surveys, you can take part in Homes for Wildlife.

I get ladybirds in my room on and off, but they always seem to die. What can I do to keep them alive? chevron-down

26 February 2009

Ladybirds are one of our most familiar and recognisable beetles. There are over 40 UK species of ladybird, but the two types you are most likely to encounter are the 2-spot and 7-spot ladybird. The 2-spot is most commonly seen in the winter.

Low temperatures make ladybirds inactive during the winter and many tuck themselves away to avoid the cold. Some may even huddle themselves together in groups.


7-spot ladybirds often over-winter under the bark or in cracks of tree trunks and whilst 2-spot ladybirds may use venues like this, they can also be found in lofts, in the corners of cool rooms or around window frames and doors and sometimes in the folds of curtains!


Ladybirds normally emerge from their hibernation around April.

Resistance to disease and survival during the winter months depends on the amount of food they were able to eat during the summer. For those ladybirds, which secreted themselves away in September and October, there is usually a 5-8 month before their next meal! and those that have not had chance to feed well over the summer, often perish.

If you should happen upon ladybirds in your house in winter, the best thing to do is to gently encourage them into a jar or box and place them outside either under a hedge or in a suitable sheltered place, during the warmer part of the day.

Ladybirds love to eat aphids and these colourful little beetles are extremely helpful in controlling such garden pests. Plants such as Honeysuckle, buddleia and rose bushes provide nectar for aphids.


Registering for our Homes for Wildlife scheme and following the gardening advice we send you to help ladybirds and all kinds of other wildlife is a great step – as is buying a ladybird box.  I recommend placing your box in a sunny and sheltered spot, and near to the plants mentioned above if you have them.

Where is the best place to fit a bat box? chevron-down

Sent in by Joan Matthews, Belper. 17 November 2008


It is an excellent idea to try to help bats by providing safe roosting sites. These have disappeared in many areas mainly due to the loss of mature trees.


Bat boxes can be placed on walls though as well as trees and are best placed in areas where you know bats fly. Sheltered positons are more to their liking but they do need a clear flight path. South facing is probably the best direction and as high as possible, but at least 5m (15 feet) from the ground.


Three boxes can be sited on one tree, but make sure they face different directions - north, south-east and south-west are ideal.


Bat boxes should never be treated with preservatives, but they need to be rain-proof and draught free. Try to get one which has the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) logo, ensuring that it is from a sustaninable source. For information on buying a bat box for your garden from the RSPB, click here


Once the bat box is in position it is better to leave it alone. In fact bats and their roosts are fully protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act so it is illegal to disturb them.

I have been told that a couple of rudd would feed upon the mosquito larvae in my pond but am reluctant to introduce fish. What do you advise? chevron-down

Sent in by Paul Pensom, London. 16 October 2008


Creating a wildlife pond is a great way of enhancing the garden environment. By creating a pond with a variety of depths, native aquatic vegetation and different substrates, you will naturally attract a range of creatures.


In a small garden pond intended for wildlife, introducing fish may reduce the productivity of any invertebrates, newts, frogs or toads you attract. The fish may eat the beneficial organisms and their eggs and larvae.


When the pond is establishing, fly larvae are some of the first creatures to move in. These are not just mosquitoes and gnats but often crane-flies, midges and black flies.


As the pond develops, a balanced eco-system should evolve between predators and prey, so it is unlikely that you will be plagued by swarms of biting insects. Not all of these insects bite and many of our urban bird species rely on flying insects for food such as the swift, house martin and pied wagtail. The aquatic fly larvae will attract aquatic predators too such as water boatmen, which can fly to colonise new ponds, dragonfly larvae and the efts of newts.


The best way to encourage a range of species to colonise the pond is to improve the pond habitat.


Plant a range of vegetation around the pond, some surface plants for cover and lots of marginal plants for the aquatic creatures to lay eggs on, feed on and hide in.


Some tall plants, like yellow flag, are also beneficial to dragon and damselflies as they allow the larvae to climb out when they are ready to emerge into their adult form.


If you can incorporate a hibernacula or a log pile nearby to the pond, these features should attract amphibians to the pond which may eventually use the pond to breed. Visit our advice pages where you can find more information on how to make the most of a wildlife pond, or sign up to take part in our exciting wildlife gardening project 'Homes for Wildlife' to receive tailored advice for your garden on how to attract a range of species and create a wide variety of features.

Can you advise me on the best location for a butterfly box and a ladybird box? chevron-down

Sent in by Linda Marshall, Blyth. 22 August 2008


Providing homes for insects and other wildlife is a great way of increasing the biodiversity within your garden. It also helps with pollination of plants and encourages natural pest control.


Boxes for ladybirds and butterflies can also provide shelter for many other insects such as spiders, lacewings, beetles and mason bees.


Butterflies use cracks and crevices to hibernate in, or to shelter from bad weather. An ideal box will have several entry slits, allowing them to crawl inside and offer protection from wind and rain.


The best place to position such a box is on a wall or fence post that gets plenty of sun. However, it is best to avoid exposed aspects that may receive strong winds and rain, as these conditions are not favourable.


It would be ideal to locate the boxes close by and at the same height as suitable food sources such as nectar rich plants or even a homemade butterfly feeder. All you will need is a shallow dish that can be hung or attached to a garden cane, fit it with a brightly coloured surround, yellow or orange card can be effective, and fill it with a solution of sugar/water or slices of fruit.


Ladybirds often shelter in hollow stems and the ridges in the bark of trees. Ladybird boxes with lots of similar sized holes are a fantastic way of encouraging these garden favourites.


The main food source for ladybirds and their larvae are aphids. Before deciding on where to put the box, try to locate plants in you garden that attract aphids. Once you've found a suitable wall or fence, position the box close to plants that could do with the help of ladybirds.


As with butterfly shelters, position ladybird boxes in a sunny but sheltered spot close to and at the same level as the surrounding vegetation.

Where is the best place to find wild reptiles, and is it possible to attract them to one's garden? chevron-down

Sent in by Seb Brixey-Williams, London. 29 August 2008


The UK has six species of reptiles. Grass snakes and slow worms are the most likely to visit a garden. Grass snakes are usually found near aquatic habitats where they can find their favoured amphibian prey. Therefore, a pond could encourage these snakes and a wide variety of other wildlife into your garden. Grass snakes need cover, but also some clearer areas where they can bask.


Slow worms are legless lizards. They can be found in a variety of habitats but generally avoid very marshy or very arid areas. They prefer habitats with plenty of cover, but small sunny patches to bask in. Slow worms spend a lot of time under ground so areas they can dig into, such as compost piles and loose soil, could encourage them. They are also often found hiding under piles of rubble, stones or metal.


Find out more about attracting reptiles to your garden


The other four species are unlikely to visit gardens. Adders and common lizards are quite widespread through the UK, but prefer open areas such as heathland, moors and woodland rides. Sand lizards are found on lowland heaths and coastal sand dunes in Dorset, Surrey and Merseyside. Smooth snakes are the most restricted of all our reptiles. They have very similar habitat requirements to sand lizards and their strongholds are in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.


Reptiles are best looked for in Southern England. They can be difficult to see as they spend a lot of time hidden.


They are best looked for on warm, sunny days when they come out into open areas to bask. Look in small clearings or on top of rocks.


Spring mornings are best as it take them longer to warm themselves up following a cool night than it does in the summer. Warm days following a period of bad weather are also good times to see them. They can be easily disturbed so you need to walk slowly and keep to paths.


Our Arne nature reserve in Dorset provides the opportunity to see all six species at one site.

I am really worried about my house martins. Why are there so few this year? chevron-down

Sent in by Myra Bristow, North-east Somerset. 27 June 2008


We do receive reports about the lack of house martins each year and numbers have been gradually declining since the early 1970s. However, the good news is that we also receive reports of good numbers and successful breeding. 


So, it is always difficult to know whether a lack of these birds, in a few areas, is indicative of a greater decline in their numbers. 


We also know very little about how they fare during our winter when they are in equatorial Africa. Although some martins will be late returning to the UK, all those coming here ought to have arrived by now, and will be nesting and probably feeding young. 


Sadly, early indications are that numbers this year are much reduced. The British Trust for Ornithology has recently launched a survey to try to get a clearer picture of house martins and where they are throughout the British Isles. 


The current distribution map for this species is twenty years old, so it will be very useful to be able to up-date this and try to ascertain whether house martins are continuing to decline or just breeding in different regions. 


Please take part, even if the numbers nesting in your area are stable or increasing. Visit and click on the 2008 House Martin Survey.

Will a mirror in my garden confuse birds? chevron-down

Sent in by Deena Robinson, Lincolnshire. 18 April 2008


We don't think that this is a good idea at all. The main reason is that birds will see the reflection of your garden and have no way of knowing that a solid surface - the mirror - is present. They will fly straight at it and, at the very least, be stunned but many may die from severe injuries such as broken necks sustained on impact.


We receive many reports of birds that die due to window collisions. These are caused because windows can act like mirrors too, reflecting surrounding shrubbery or sky, and birds fly straight at them.


These accidents can be prevented, to a large extent, by placing stickers on the outside of the glass. Birds can see these so most collisions are avoided. We have raised our concerns with gardening programmes and publications in the past about their suggestions for the use of mirrors in gardens.

Why is a blue tit tapping on our window? chevron-down

Sent in by Nicholas Smith, near Godalming in Surrey. 28 March 2008


This is a very topical enquiry; one we receive frequently at this time of year. Although it can seem, from inside the house, that the blue tit is trying to get in, it is, in fact, attacking its own reflection.


This is territorial behaviour and fairly common at the moment as birds claim, and then defend, their breeding territory. This blue tit has chosen its nest site nearby. Seeing its reflection in the window it thinks that another bird is intruding and tries to drive it away by pecking at it. Many birds do this and they will also attack other reflective objects such as car wing mirrors and hub caps. Two years ago, a pied wagtail spend a couple of weeks attacking the sun roof on my car. I suppose that every time I drove away, it thought it had succeeded in its mission.


These activities are difficult to stop. Placing cling film or non-reflective cellophane on the outside of the glass may work but often the bird will move to another window and resume its attack. Soon though, it will be diverted by its busy schedule of nest-building and rearing its young.


Sadly, windows can cause the deaths of many birds. On brighter days, glass reflects the sky or surrounding greenery and birds fly straight at them. They do not realise that it is a solid surface and although some recover, after a short rest, many break their necks and die. A simple solution is to place a few stickers on the glass - bird shapes, especially of a hawk, work well, but it is important to place them on the outer surface for them to be effective.

Do woodpeckers try to enlarge nesting box holes without any intention of using them? chevron-down

Sent in by John Norman, Wheldrake, near York. 17 March 2008


Of all of our native woodpeckers, the great spotted woodpecker is the mostly likely to readily take to a nestbox. This, like the many cavities that they may excavate in trees, can either be used for nesting and or roosting in.


Not all excavations made in trees are actually ever used and some woodpeckers rather than excavate their own will readily use existing holes. In addition to excavating nestholes, woodpeckers will also chisel away at wood in order to get to wood-boring insects as well as drumming on trunks and branches to advertise their presence.


Woodpeckers normally start to breed around April time and great spotted woodpeckers, if they choose to use one, will frequent a nestbox with a 50mm aperture.


Nesting and roosting is not the only reason why a woodpecker may show interest in a nestbox. Unfortunately, great spotted woodpeckers, like squirrels and cats will on occasion investigate the nestboxes of small bird species with a view to taking the young. In order to avoid this, a metal plate can be fitted around the entrance hole of a nestbox and this will help prevent the woodpecker from chiseling away at the hole in order to get at the contents.

How long do the common birds in our gardens live? chevron-down

Sent in by John Aden, London. 8 February 2008


The actual age an individual bird can reach is very variable for most species. Many young birds will not survive their first year. However, once they reach breeding age then their survival chances are better.


The habitat quality, hunting pressure, persecution and climate can all have an impact. Over a species' range all of these factors could vary so the life expectancy would be different. For example, the average age of magpies in the countryside is 2.3 years but in urban areas 3.8 years.


Most common garden birds have an average age of between 2 and 5 years. However, the maximum lifespan recorded for many of these birds is much higher. For example, the average age of a blue tit is 2.7 years but the oldest recorded was over 21 years old. The oldest recorded bird in the UK was a Manx shearwater which was 52.


Information on the survival rates of birds is obtained from ringing. Rings are fitted to birds mainly to track migration but can help determine the age of the bird. Many individuals of each species would need to be ringed to work out an accurate average age. Therefore, we can be most confident about the average age of common birds that are most likely to be ringed and then recovered.

Do starlings nest in boxes? chevron-down

Sent in by Stanley Morrow, Letchworth Garden City, Herts. 23 January 2008


Starlings are cavity nesters so will definitely use nestboxes. They prefer a box slightly larger than the one used by blue tits, with an entrance hole of 45mm. 


Boxes for starlings can be placed on trees or, in a shady spot on a building. They don't mind company, so will nest quite close to one another. They regularly nest in roof spaces too and are not always welcome. Seldom causing damage, they can be rather noisy but for a very short period. 


For several years they shared my house, nesting in a small opening on the chimney. They were noisy but very welcome. When the outside of my house was decorated, during January last year, the decorator, with the best of intentions, repaired this area blocking the hole. We quickly installed a nestbox as close to the site as possible and were delighted when they took to it immediately and raised two lots of young. I am looking forward to their return and we have already had reports of starlings and other species, inspecting nestboxes ready for the breeding season.


If planning house maintenance, do be aware that several species of birds, including house sparrows, house martins and starlings may be nesting in the roof space. If the nest is not active, but the site needs to be removed, or the entrance blocked, it will be very beneficial if a nestbox can be provided. 


Loss of suitable nest sites, for starlings and house sparrows, has contributed to a massive decline in their population. It is illegal to to anything to an active nest. For further advice please call Wildlife Enquiries on, 01767 693690.

What is the white powder that pigeons leave on my birdbath? chevron-down

Sent in by Frances McDermott, Middlesex. 3 January 2008


The white substance you refer to is known as feather dust and originates from the down feathers. These soft feathers, known as powder down, not only provide woodpigeons with great insulation, they also have fine barbs which crumble to form this waxy dust which the bird then uses to preen the outer feathers to make them waterproof.


Birds with powder down feathers such as woodpigeons and members of the parrot family generally have a reduced or no preen gland, which is how most other birds look after their feathers. Feather dust is therefore vital in order to keep the woodpigeons feathers waterproof and in good condition. Bathing is an important part of keeping feathers in good condition for all birds but especially important for birds with powder down. Washing the dirt-covered powder off enables the woodpigeons to reapply fresh powder to their outer feathers in order to keep them water proof and well insulated.


The powder deposits on the pond are not harmful to the pond wildlife or other birds that may be using the pond for drinking or bathing and will eventually disperse with the movement of the water. It is not just on ponds that woodpigeons leave behind feather dust, it can often be found on windows too as collisions are a frequent occurrence. A clear outline of the pigeon is often visible as the dust adheres to the window. We recommend sticking silhouettes to the outside of windows to break up the reflection as this can help prevent such incidents.

Is it possible for two nestboxes that are close together to be occupied by blue tits? chevron-down

Sent in by Terry Gleeson, Swansea. 26 November 2007


It is unusual for two pairs of blue tits to nest close to one other in gardens, unless you live in a neighbourhood where gardens are large and contain a good supply of mature trees, preferably oaks.


Tree density in gardens is far lower than that in a wood and gardeners tend to choose ornamental tree species, which support a comparatively poor insect crop. Consequently, garden blue tits need to spread themselves out into larger territories in order to secure adequate food supplies for the breeding season. Although it  is unlikely that two nesting boxes would be occupied by blue tits in a normal suburban back garden, it is possible to have one box occupied in the front garden and a second one in the back garden.


Birds often view rows of houses as dividing lines between pieces of suitable habitat, and divide their territories accordingly. If coal tits regularly visit your garden, it may be possible to encourage them to take up residence in a nestbox, although being shyer, they prefer a quiet corner rather than a box close to the house. Since they also need a 25mm entrance hole, it is possible to have both a pair of coal tits and a pair of blue tits nesting in your garden.


Blue tits are territorial against other blue tits only, and so any one area can hold several pairs of nesting birds of different species.


Although blue tits and great tits are not territorial against each other, they can fight over nesting sites. If you witness this in your garden, fixing a second box a discrete distance from the first one may well result in two happy families. Make sure that one box has 25mm entrance and the other is 28mm or larger to discourage them continuing to squabble over the same box.

How can I stop sparrows picking the grit off my shed's felt roof? chevron-down

Sent in by Christine Fazackerley. 3 August 2007


Since birds don’t have teeth, grit can have an important role in helping them digest their food. The grit is swallowed and remains in the part of the digestive system called the gizzard.


The food and grit are ground together by the muscles in the gizzard, resulting in the food being broken into smaller pieces. Whether a bird needs grit is determined by its diet.


The harder the food that a bird consumes, the more grit it needs. Seed-eating birds need more grit than those that feed on insects or fruit, and species that have a variable diet will change their grit intake accordingly.


House sparrows are predominantly seedeaters but during the breeding season, they will feed on insects and provide them for their young. As the summer progresses, natural seeds will become more available to them so their diet will change back to seeds and they will need to take in more grit, perhaps explaining why this behaviour has started in your garden.


Putting out an alternative source of grit could help with this problem. It's worth providing a container of grit of the same size as the grit on your roof, near to a feeding area where will see it and hopefully, they will take this easy source of grit rather than continuing to take it from the roof.


It's important not to put out 'grit' used for de-icing roads, as salt can poison birds. Grit suitable for birds is available from pet shops.

When can I paint my house without affecting the house martins nesting there? chevron-down

Sent in by Jim Waugh, Mouswald, Dumfries. 29 June 2007


The nests of house martins are a welcome, additional feature of many properties throughout the UK, although they are only occupied for a few months each year. 


Attractive blue-black, black and white birds, each spring house martins travel thousands of miles to enjoy our hospitality. They brighten up our skies as they swoop around catching flying insects, their main food, chattering to one another constantly. 


They arrive in April and May and quickly reclaim and repair their nests or build new ones. During their breeding period they will often rear two lots of young, sometimes three. 


House martins usually leave for their long flight back to Africa during September but, if they do attempt a late brood, their nests may still be in use until early October.


Once the birds have flown and the nests are no longer in use then they can be removed. House martins are now amber listed as birds of conservation concern due to their population decline, so we are grateful to you for thinking about them. 


To help them next year you may consider installing one or two artificial nests once the decorating is completed. 

I have a blackbird nest in my wildly overgrown hedge. The babies have hatched, but how do I know if this is the blackbirds' first brood? chevron-down

Sent in by Julie Bush, Leeds. 8 June 2007


We do not recommend cutting or removing hedges or trees between the months of March and August.


Light pruning to neaten up a hedge from straggly shoots should not be damaging to nesting birds but the use of power tools and vigorous cutting and can be very destructive. If any work takes place it is vital to check for nesting birds before the work takes place. Nesting birds are often difficult to find even by the most observant of gardener so it is best to err on the side of caution. Certainly if you see a nest or a bird taking food into the hedge, I would leave well alone.


The best time cut a hedge is generally autumn or if it is a berry bearing species, early spring but no matter when you do it, always check first.


Blackbirds can start breeding as early as February if the weather is favourable. It is normal for a blackbird to have up to three broods in a season, this activity can go on until late summer, sometimes even into autumn. Other species like the robin, song thrush, dunnock and wren are also common hedge nesting birds among many others that may be vulnerable from hedge cutting.


It is also worth highlighting the fact that gardens that are neat and tidy are often not the best gardens for wildlife. Leaving wild patches and cutting hedges and lawns less often will be beneficial to wildlife. Gardens are vital for wildlife in built up areas as they may be the only suitable habitats for birds, insects and mammals. By leaving hedges to grow through the summer, planting wildflowers, creating a pond and a log pile it is likely your garden will become an urban oasis.


Please see the pages on the website on creating a wildlife garden.

Why is a blue tit that is feeding young in one of our nestboxes attacking a blue tit on eggs in another box? chevron-down

Sent in by Frances Frodsham, Wigan, Lancs. 11 May 2007


If you are sure that one blue tit is attacking another, then this is probably to do with territory. 


Territories tend to be claimed early in the year, or held from the previous year by the male. 


Usually territorial disputes are settled by the end of March, well before the nest is built and the eggs laid. The loser has to find another site for its nest. 


Territories are very difficult to define. When nestboxes for the same species are sited closely together, usually only one of them will be occupied. Occasionally though, boxes which are close together will both be occupied simply because they are sited either side of the territory boundary – but only the birds know that. 


So, this is an unusual case. Blue tits are not usually aggressive at this stage of the breeding process; being fully occupied finding food for their young.  There is really nothing that can be done. Hopefully, the birds will sort themselves out and live harmoniously for the sake of their young.

Can I cut down a tree that blackbirds have started nesting in? chevron-down

Sent in by Brian Hood, Market Deeping, Peterborough. 2 March 2007


Under Section One of the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981), it is an offence to intentionally damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built - which is also referred to as an 'active' nest. 


A nest is considered active as soon as the first twig, or other nesting material, has been added to the nest site. If you know that there is a nest being built or occupied, you would have to delay the work until after the blackbirds have bred.  


Blackbirds often have three broods. After laying, the eggs take 13-14 days to incubate. After that, the newly hatched nestlings will take a further 13-14 days to fledge and leave the nest. So, if each brood takes approximately one month to fledge and the pair have three broods, the nest will be deemed active for around three months.


If you are planning any tree cutting, hedge trimming or other garden maintenance, always check beforehand that there are no active nests present. If you see birds carrying nesting material or food items into a hedge, bush or tree, you can be pretty sure that there is a nest within. Remember also that certain species have been known to nest in every month of the year, so always check first!


If you see anyone potentially damaging or destroying a known nest, you should contact the Investigations Unit at the RSPB on 01767 680551 or report the incident online. You can of course remain anonymous.

Is there an easy way to stop starlings nesting in our loft and how much damage would they do if they were left to get on with it? chevron-down

Sent in by Ami Johnson, Somerset. 12 March 2007


Starlings are inquisitive and adaptable birds. They nest in holes and crevices in a variety of man-made and natural structures. Despite this, they are in serious decline, with the UK breeding population having declined by 65% over the last 30 years. This decline qualifies the starling as a 'red-listed' species, that is, of the highest conservation priority.


At this time of year, starlings will be investigating any crevices and holes in buildings for a suitable place to breed. Breeding usually starts in mid-April, so it is possible that they are only roosting in the roofspace in the evenings and leaving the following morning to feed.


Starlings are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take a starling, or to take, damage or destroy an active nest or its contents. Preventing the birds from gaining access to their nests may also be viewed as illegal by the courts. It is therefore important to check for active nests before any repairs to roofs and soffits are carried out during the breeding season.


It would be a pity to deny these charming birds access to a suitable nest site, so when carrying out repairs or building from new, consider putting a nest box behind fascia and soffits that are not positioned directly over main living areas. This confines the birds to one area and prevents them accessing the whole roof space. Find out more about starlings.

Why haven't I seen siskins and redpolls in my garden this winter? chevron-down

Sent in by Tom and Margaret Leimdorfer, Congresbury, North Somerset. 2 February 2007


The autumn and winter of 2006/07 has been one of the mildest on records. This has had effects on wildlife throughout Europe from plants through to birdlife. Butterflies have been recorded flying throughout the winter, hedgehogs were active when they should have been hibernating and many flowers have appeared out of season. However, the climate has particularly effected migratory species of bird.


Last winter, siskin and redpolls were prolific in the UK, many visiting garden feeders with resident and migratory finch flocks. This year has seen far fewer as a result of milder weather in their native summer ranges allowing them to stay on and feed through the winter. During harsh winters the UK climate may provide a welcome sanctuary for large numbers of birds including goldcrests, starlings and many other familiar species. Despite the mild weather, some winter migrants have arrived in large numbers, such as the redwing and fieldfare, and have been taking advantage of the abundant berry crop.


The number of migratory birds that arrive each winter differs greatly depending on weather events and how much food is available in their summer ranges of northern and central Europe. The waxwing is a great example of this seasonal variation. In harsh years where the berry crop elsewhere fails or is limited, the UK gets a large number of these attractive starling-sized birds. This year has been mild in comparison and reports have been few and far between.


Migratory species that are usually summer visitors, such as the blackcap and chiffchaff, are now able to overwinter in the UK in increasing numbers. Although the migration of birds varies greatly year on year this may be a reflection of the changing face of birdlife in the UK due to climate change.

What kinds of shrubs can I plant to help wildlife? chevron-down

Sent in by John Read, Suffolk. 19 January 2007


Birds require food, shelter and suitable breeding sites in order to survive. All three of these essential requirements can be provided by planting shrubs.


Select native species wherever possible, as these attract more insects and because they are suited to our climate, they require less attention and are less prone to pests and diseases. Choose those species that provide insect food and fruit and berries for as long a period as possible.


Species such as guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, and the dwarf variety, V. compactum, have white flowers that attract insects, followed by a profusion of red berries. Juniper, Juniperus communis, supports spiders and other insects and also provides a well-protected nest site.

Thorny shrubs also provide both shelter and a safe nesting site; gorse, Ulex europaeus, is a very attractive shrub whose thorny stems provide birds with secure nests.


Native holly, Ilex aquifolium, also provides nesting opportunities for birds and many different species will feast upon the berries. Plant female plants of the wild form, but for a good crop of berries, there should be a male nearby.


Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, can be a hedge or a clipped bush, providing both cover and food, but it should be left unclipped for the berries to develop. 


All of these shrubs are attractive to both us and to garden birds!

I saw a blackcap in my garden but I thought they were only here in the summer. Was this unusual? chevron-down

Sent in by John Waites, Farnham.


The fluting, melancholy song of the blackcap is one of the finest to be heard in the British countryside during the spring and early summer months. 


These master songsters arrive here in spring from southern Europe and North Africa and this is where they will return in the autumn, so where have the blackcaps that spend their winters with us arrived from, and what are they doing here?


We’ve learned from ringing (when birds are trapped by trained volunteers, fitted with lightweight metal leg rings, then released unharmed) that these birds will have bred in central Europe.


Interestingly, it is only since the mid-1960s that these 'continental' blackcaps have been known to winter in the UK, and the reasons are not yet fully understood. One possible suggestion is that the increased popularity of garden feeding and the planting of berry-laden shrubs has made the UK a more attractive winter destination. Another that the westward migration of this central European population is an 'insurance' strategy to ensure the long-term survival of the species.

Whatever the reason, these delightful little warblers are a welcome addition to our winter wildlife.

If I put up three nestboxes in my garden, will they all be occupied? chevron-down

Sent in by Paul Howard, Leyland, Lancashire. 17 November 2006


The number of birds that can breed in an area depends on the available resources. A wildlife-friendly garden with plenty of nest sites and abundance of food would support more breeding birds.


Competition is most likely to occur between the blue tits and great tits. Both species prefer to nest in holes with clear flightpaths and have very similar diets.


Great tits will tend to dominate blue tits because they are larger. Ensure the nestbox for the blue tits only has a 25 mm hole so it will be unsuitable for a great tit. You can then provide a great tit nestbox with a 28 mm hole elsewhere. Putting the nestboxes as far apart as possible should help to avoid any conflicts. 


Mealworms can be a valuable food source in the breeding season. These can be put out to supplement the naturally occurring insects in your garden and should help reduce the competition.


Robins rarely show signs of aggression towards other species. They prefer to nest low down in dense vegetation in an open-fronted box, so would not compete with the tits for nest sites.


Reports of aggressive behaviour by robins towards other species are outnumbered by reports of robins actually feeding the young of other birds. They have very strong parental instincts and the sight of a baby bird gaping is too much for them to resist. Blackbirds, song thrushes, great tits and blue tits have all benefited.

What's been pulling up our lawn... and why? chevron-down

Sent in by James Polasik, Lothians. 12 October 2006


The intended target is leatherjackets - a larvae of the cranefly (daddy-long-legs) – that are particularly abundant in lawns and meadows at this time of the year. The leatherjackets eat away at the roots of the grass and can cause considerable damage to lawns during a mild winter.


The leatherjackets pupate in the autumn and will emerge next year as the craneflies that tend to infest bedrooms at this time of the year if a window is left open on a warm evening. During the later stages of pupation, the leatherjackets move towards the surface of the soil where it is easier for birds to reach.


Several species of birds will exploit this food supply and a typical starling signature is beak-sized holes drilled all over the lawn.


Rooks use a similar strategy but they would be relatively rare in the average garden yet they have relatives that are not so wary. Jackdaws, carrion crows and magpies will all exploit this source of food and they are not so sophisticated in the way they feed.


However, from your description, the positioning of the damage would be typical of a blackbird and they can often be seen doing something similar in a layer of leaves. The irony is that the birds are being destructive whilst ridding the garden of a serious pest. 


As a slight aside, it is leatherjackets that tempt badgers to roll away the turf on lawns and, particularly, on golf courses.

How long does the blue damselfly live once hatched? We have seen many over the hot week. chevron-down

Sent in by: Norbert Kursten from Oakhill, Somerset. 16 August 2013


The life cycle of the dragonflies and damselflies is fascinating as they spend most of their life underwater. 


Eggs are laid in the water of ponds and rivers and after a few weeks or even months (depending on the species), the egg will hatch into a larvae or nymph. With damselflies, it usually takes around a year to reach adulthood. 


When fully grown the larva climbs out of the water onto vegetation and sheds its skin to emerge. It is a sad fact that they only live for a couple of weeks to a few months when ‘on the wing’ and makes seeing them in summer even more special. 


Once the young adults have matured and gained their full colours – process that may take a couple of weeks – the male and female are ready to breed.


Males use claspers at the end of their bodies to grab a female, and the couples fly in tandem while they mate. After mating, the female lays her eggs, either alone or while still in tandem with the male.


It is known in common blue damselflies (Enallagma cyathigerum) that when egg laying begins the female will lay underwater alone. On returning to the surface she can be too exhausted to break the surface tension. The male will drop down and rescue her.