In January I partook in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. It gave me a chance to carefully observe the many and varied eating habits our feathered friends exhibit. A bird requires a large amount of food (anywhere from 10 to 100% of its weight) to maintain an impressive body temperature of 40 to 43.5ºC.
Most of the time it’s straight forward – pick a seed or peanut, quickly fly away and ingest it from the safety of vegetative cover. Eating is a dangerous business in the wild, let your guard down and you, yourself, could be eaten!
Greenfinches must have less fear (or a larger appetite) as they sit down to relax for an all-you-can-eat meal of gourmet sunflower hearts, simply ignoring others who join the feast. Goldfinches arrive in a flock and stay for a lengthy meal but tend to move around more, vying for the best selection. These busy birds are often drawn to the garden borders, prying seeds from teasels (that’s the brown spiky seed heads on these plants, revealed once the plant has died back) spared by my shears.
Possibly the most entertaining birds to watch feed are those in the tit group. They have a tendency to carry seeds to a nearby branch, holding it between their claws and pecking the kernel to bits. But one member exceeds all in agility and I’m drawn to the window whenever I see them arrive. Long-tailed tits, resembling Ewoks (think Star Wars) with feathers, are cute as a button and extremely acrobatic.
They remove a seed, place it in one foot whilst hanging on with the other, simultaneously dangling and nibbling.
Blue tits and great tits have managed to outsmart the engineers of the peanut dispenser, prying apart the wires to extract a whole peanut. Larger birds, such as the wood pigeons and even an occasional pheasant, have a difficult time reaching the feeders and pick up what’s been dropped on the ground. Blackbirds and robins, however, will hop up and hover to grab a seed before bringing it down to the ground. By far the largest bird to visit the feeder is the majestic great spotted woodpecker. Smaller birds have learned to keep their distance, as that impressive beak could do serious damage if one were to accidentally get in the way.
Our overgrown apple trees produced a bumper crop this past autumn leaving windfalls that drew species that never frequent feeders, fieldfares and redwings. Winter visitors from northern Europe, these birds are attracted by the warmer temperatures and arable crops, parks and marshes that dot the British countryside.
I first learned of these members of the thrush family last April when I encountered a group in a neighboring field. The “chack-chack-chack” call of fieldfares is reminiscent of classic 35 mm camera shutters – what could only be described as a flock of paparazzi flying overhead.
Back in my garden, blackbirds aggressively competing with fieldfares for the fallen fruit puffing themselves up, fanning out tail feathers behind their heads and charging. Although fieldfares are larger than blackbirds, they are lower in number on my patch and are eventually chased off.
I’ll continue my observations throughout the year for the Teme Valley Wildlife Group. I’ll provide my data once a month in the hopes that it will help researchers gain a better understanding of fluctuating bird populations across the country.
I find observing the birds a very therapeutic pastime but sadly, there are many people who can’t manage to fill a feeder to attract birds. To address this issue, Shropshire Wildlife Trust runs a scheme called Feed the Birds, pairing volunteers to maintain bird feeders for individuals in their communities. Although one-on-one meetings are postponed until further notice, volunteers continue to fill and clean feeders for many people across the county.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know the individuals visiting my feeders. The melodies of the song thrush wake me earlier every morning, reminding me that soon to arrive will be fledglings mastering their acrobatics, avoiding woodpecker beaks and providing hours of entertainment for the human behind the glass.
Here are a few links for anyone who is interested in learning more about becoming a twitcher.
3 starter links for enthusiastic beginner bird watchers
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Wildlife Trust
For a garden bird feeding guide
Nicole Landers is a regular contributor to LGL and can be contacted here.