Bird Families and Species to be Found in the British Garden
Gulls are never garden birds, but some are common inland outside the breeding season and, especially in winter, will land on lawns to feed.
The bird most frequently recorded is the black-headed gull. It is fairly small for a gull (about 15 in.), and slender, with reddish legs and beak and a distinctive white forward edge to the wing. In winter the head is while, with only a small black smudge behind the eyes, which grows larger as winter advances until, by early spring, the whole head is dark brown.
The common gull—which is not so common—is a little larger (16 in.), more thick-set, and has yellowish legs and beak.
The woodpigeon is the common pigeon of the garden and the poulterer’s shop. It is a big, plump bird some 16 in. long, with iridescent patches of green and purple on the neck, and beneath these a small white patch on either side. A broad white bar across each wing is very conspicuous in flight. The song sounds as though the bird is saying ‘take two cows Taffy’.
The stock dove is less common, a little smaller (13 in.), rather darker, and lacks the white on neck and wing.
The beautiful little turtle dove (11 in.) has a fan-shaped tail with white tips to each feather. Its purring song—’the voice of the turtle’ mentioned in the Song of Solomon—is one of the characteristic sounds of summer in the woodlands of southern England.
Three woodpeckers breed in Britain, the green, the great spotted and the lesser spotted, and all occur in gardens from time to time.
The great spotted woodpecker is the one most commonly seen, sometimes visiting bird tables for food. It is about the size of a starling (9 in.), black and white, with a vivid white patch on the wings and crimson under the tail. The male has a small crimson patch at the back of the head. In juveniles the entire crown is crimson.
The rarer lesser spotted woodpecker is about the size of a sparrow and has no crimson under the tail. The wings are barred black and white, but there is no large patch of white as in the great spotted woodpecker. The crown of the male is red. In spring these two woodpeckers ‘drum’ by hammering rapidly on resonant dead branches with their beaks. This is a mating call, the equivalent of song, and not a searching for food.
The green woodpecker is over 12 in. long and much larger than the other two. Its back is a dull green, shading almost to yellow on the rump, and the crown is crimson. It is particularly partial to ants and spends much time on the ground searching for them. Its loud laughing call has given it the name of yaffle.
SWIFTS, SWALLOWS AND MARTINS
The swift (6-½ in.) is the largest of this group. It is very dark brown with a small patch of white beneath the chin. The wings are very long and narrow. In summer the birds chase each other high in the sky, screaming shrilly. They do not perch on roofs, telephone wires, etc., and generally swoop straight into the nest hole in the roof.
Although the swallow measures 7-½ in. and is thus longer than the swift, much of this length is accounted for by its long, deeply forked tail and it is noticeably smaller in the body than the swift. It is a glossy, blue-black above with dark reddish throat and has a musical twittering song. It builds a shallow cup-shaped nest of mud and straw, usually in a building and resting on top of a beam or ledge.
The house martin is 5 in. long, has a forked tail but no long tail ‘streamers’, a white throat, breast and belly, and a very conspicuous band of white across the rump. Its mud nest is cemented to a wall, just beneath the roof, and instead of being a shallow cup like the swallow’s, is built right up to the eaves, with only a small entrance. Sand martins measure about 4-¾ in. and are appreciably smaller on the wing. They are a medium brown above and white below and lack both the long tail streamers of the swallow and the white rump of the house martin.
Although most people are able to recognize a tit as such there is sometimes confusion in separating the various species. Only two are really common in gardens—the great tit and the blue tit.
The great tit, as its name suggests, is the largest of the tit family. It is 5-½ in. long, and yellow below with a broad, intense black line running down the chest from the throat to between the legs. The head is glossy black with a pale (not white) patch on the nape, the back greenish, shading to a grey blue on the wings.
The blue tit is an inch smaller and is the only tit to have bright blue head, wings and tail.
Slightly smaller than the blue tit is the less common coal tit (4-½ in.), which is best identified by a large squarish white patch on the back of its head.
Two other less common tits, looking like the coal tit, but lacking the white patch, are the marsh and willow tits. These are much more difficult to tell apart, the best distinguishing feature being perhaps the note. The marsh tit’s note may be written ‘pichou’, and the nasal note of the willow tit ‘chaay’. There is also the long-tailed tit—a dainty little ball of pink, black and white, with a very long tail accounting for 3 in. of its total length of 51 in.
This tiny brown bird which measures only 3-¾ in. is a distinct personality in the garden. His short tail is permanently cocked up behind him and his trilling song is so loud one can scarcely believe it comes from so small a body. The cock builds several domed nests each spring, often in ivy, but only one of them is taken over and lined by the female.
This group includes the song thrush and the mistle thrush, the blackbird, two beautiful winter visitors—the redwing and fieldfare—and the related but much smaller robin. Their main food is insects, but they also eat fruit of various kinds. Their bills are slender but fairly strong. Their gait is normally a hop but they do occasionally run. They are among our most beautiful songsters.
The blackbird is the commonest of the group and is about 10 in. long. The cock is unmistakable, being black all over with an orange beak and a ring of orange skin round his eye. The hen is brown all over, the brown of the breast being mottled and often having a slight reddish tinge. Her bill is normally brown but may show traces of dull orange. The young are a warmer brown than the female and freckled on the breast, so that they can sometimes be mistaken for thrushes.
The song thrush is an inch smaller than the blackbird and more slightly built. It has uniform brown upper parts and is creamy-buff below, marked with small spots or dashes. Its song may be told from that of the blackbird by being less varied, with phrases repeated two to four times.
The mistle thrush (10-½ in.) is bigger than both the song thrush and the blackbird. Its back is a greyer brown than that of the song thrush and the underparts are more boldly marked with big, rounded spots. The juveniles are paler and mottled above. The mistle thrush is aggressive, often driving other species from the bird table. The fieldfare, one of the winter visitors (10 in.), has slate grey-head and rump, and a chestnut back; the breast is suffused with a warm rusty-brown.
The other winter visitor, the redwing (8-½ in.), is like a small song thrush, but with a pronounced creamy-white stripe over the eyes and, on the sides, a rich chestnut-red which is frequently almost hidden by the folded wings.
The adult robin (5-½ in.) is light brown above, with bright orange forehead, throat and breast bordered with pale grey; it is important to remember that the young are speckled like small thrushes. Their breasts start to become red when they are two to three months old and for a while they are strange, parti-coloured little creatures.
Warblers are a difficult group requiring care in distinguishing one member from another. In all but the larger gardens they are likely to be migrants, pausing for a day or two on their journey. Without song, identification may prove difficult. They are dainty, active little birds with very slender beaks and prefer fairly thick cover. As they pass through in the autumn they may be found searching for aphids among the rows of peas. The three most likely to turn up are the willow warbler, the chiffchaff and the whitethroat.
The willow warbler (4-½ in.) has an olive-brown back with creamy-yellow underparts and is slightly yellower than the chiffchaff, although in autumn this character is not reliable. It has light brown legs but the song is the most helpful feature to note. The willow warbler has a silvery little descending song ending with a flourish.
The chiffchaff (4-¼ in.), also with an olive-brown back and creamy-yellow underparts, usually has dark brown legs, but this distinction is not always reliable. It sings its own name—a varied pattern of ‘chiffs’ and ‘chaffs’ . . . ‘chiff chiff chaff chiff chaff chiff’ etc.
The whitethroat is appreciably bigger than the willow warbler and chiffchaff. It has a pure white throat and is sandy coloured on the wings. The male has a grey head; in the female and young male the head is the same shade of brown as the back. The whitethroat’s note is a scolding ‘charr’ which it delivers while well concealed in the vegetation. Its song is hurried and scratchy.
- Thrills and trills in your backyard (independent.co.uk)