British Garden Birdlife
Birds, with their incessant movement, charming habits and gay song, are a constant source of delight in the garden, and will often make it their home. In the migration season, even casual visitors can be attracted to the garden in search of food and water.
FOOD AND WATER
An elaborate bird table is not necessary, for some of the shyer species prefer to feed from the ground. But if food is put out it is important to see that there is no place near by where a cat can lurk in wait for an unsuspecting victim. Pieces of fat hung from trees are a safe source of food for the tit family. Finely chopped fat and other scraps are welcomed by most birds, as well as peanuts and seeds, which can be placed in holes made in the tops of posts.
A small patch of chick-weed or groundsel will soon be found by greenfinches and linnets. A clump of teasel at the end of a herbaceous border will not only look attractive but will tempt goldfinches. Berry-bearing shrubs and trees, such as holly, rowan, hawthorn and pyracantha, can make the difference between life and death for birds in severe weather conditions.
Water is important both for drinking and bathing. An elaborate bird bath is not essential, but if birds are going to bathe as well as drink, the water should not be more than an inch or two deep. An old dustbin lid let flush into the ground makes an excellent bath. It is particularly important to see that water is available in frosty weather when natural sources may be iced over.
Birds like mature gardens, for a bare plot of annuals with few herbaceous plants or trees offers neither nest site nor shelter. Shrubs, hedges, fruit bushes, creepers and trees all provide places where the birds can take refuge when alarmed, or can roost at night, as well as providing opportunities for nest building. On the whole, natural sites are more important than nest boxes, so before cutting hedges in the breeding season it is as well to check that no bird is nesting behind the leafy cover. Nest boxes should be erected in north-facing or shaded positions to prevent the young from being baked by the sun. Sites between 4 ft. and 10 ft. high are preferable.
Robins and spotted flycatchers like boxes with only the lower half of the front boarded. For tits the whole front should be closed in and an entrance hole of about 1-½ in. in diameter made. If the hole is bigger, house sparrows are likely to commandeer the box. The inside should be about 4 in. by 4 in. with a depth of not less than 5 in. A removable lid will enable the box to be cleaned out at the end of the season. Tits often roost in nest boxes all winter so leave the boxes out all the year round.
HINTS ON IDENTIFICATION
All identification is, initially, a process of narrowing down the field, whether it is to name one insect from a possible 20,000 or one bird from the 450 or so which have been recorded in the British Isles. The first step is to try to recognize the group to which a bird belongs. Thus, as soon as it has been decided that a bird is an owl, the field has been narrowed down to about half a dozen species.
BILLS OR BEAKS
Often the shape of the bill is an important clue. A slender beak is an indication that the bird is an insect eater and uses its beak as a delicate pair of forceps. On the other hand, birds such as swallows, swifts and flycatchers, which catch their insects on the wing, have short, broad beaks which open wide and make it easier for them to scoop up their prey while flying at speed.
Woodpeckers have stout beaks with chisel-like ends to enable them to bore through the bark of trees for the insects lurking beneath, but a brown and white little bird called the treecreeper, which also seeks its food on tree trunks, has a long slender down-curved beak for probing into crevices.
Nearly all flesh-eating birds, whether they hunt their prey or seek for carrion, have hooked beaks to help them to tear their food. Hawks, owls, and the larger rapacious gulls have beaks of this kind.
Many birds have beaks adapted to seed eating. These beaks are stout and conical to enable the birds to crush the seeds, but may be quite small as in the linnet, long and sharp-pointed as in the goldfinch which feeds especially on thistles and teasel seeds, or massive nut-crackers, capable of exerting a force of 100 lb., as in the rarest of our British finches— the hawfinch.
But many species such as the starling and blackbird have general-purpose bills, not adapted to one particular method of feeding, and in these birds other features must be studied for clues as to their identity.
SIZE, MARKING, SONG, ETC.
It is always important to note the size very carefully, comparing it, if possible, with some familiar species—e.g. ‘a little smaller than a sparrow and more slender’. Generally speaking, it is fairly easy to settle to which family a bird belongs, and careful observation then enables one to eliminate the various species comprising the family until the final identification is possible.
Key features to examine are head, wings and tail. Is there a pale or dark line through or over the eye ? Are there white or coloured bars on the wings? Is the tail long, medium or short, square or rounded, uniformly coloured or with pale outer edges? Song or call notes may be helpful, and behaviour is often very important. Does the bird hop or walk? Does it flick its wings, wag its tail, spend its time on the ground or keep to the bushes?
Remember that in many species the male may be so much more brightly coloured than the female that at first glance one could suppose them to be different species. And juveniles may look quite unlike their parents. A young robin, for example, has a freckled brown breast without any trace of red and looks more like a miniature thrush.