Birds

Blue tit

Image by Marko_K via Flickr

What do birds do in my garden?

Birds like most wildlife need two or three things in life, food, shelter and somewhere to breed.  If your garden can provide one or more of these things there is a good chance birds will be attracted to it.  For birds, gardens are an important habitat offering lots of food, and attracting them is good for the garden and gardener too as they help to keep garden pests like snails and other creepy-crawlies from becoming a problem.  Some birds you might get in your garden will only pop in for a quick snack, especially if you put food out for them, while others could stay longer using it to shelter, make it their home or even nest and breed there.

What do birds eat?

Well, what don’t they eat!  In fact birds are a very successful group of animals because they have adapted or evolved to feed on lots of different things.  There are both vegetarian and meat-eating or carnivorous birds, and some such as Starlings and Gulls will eat anything they can get their beaks into!!  So, the birds you might get in your wildlife garden will be eating seeds and grains (sparrows & finches for example), berries, small insects and their grubs (larvae) and spiders (‘insectivorous’ or ‘insect-eating’ birds like Blue Tit & Great Tit, Wren & Robin), worms, slugs and snails (thrushes).  A good way of guessing what a bird eats is to look at its beak (bill) – finches like sparrows have very short strong bills for eating seeds, but insectivores like Robins, Wrens and warblers, have long thinner more delicate pointed bills for poking about in tight spaces and gaps for their favorite food.

How do birds communicate?

The most obvious way in which birds communicate with each other is by song and calls.  Imagine if humans communicated by singing and shouting all the time!  Most birds sing in spring and summer during the breeding season.  They are usually saying to another bird of the same species something like… “keep away, this is my lovely garden…”, and so is protecting its territory and food supply, nest or nest site, and probably a mate as well.  A male also sings to attract a female to his territory to breed.  Most birdsong is male birds showing off to defend a territory and attract a mate.  Birds also use their appearance to communicate.  Male birds show off their good looks to both impress the females and to scare away other competing males by showing them how big and strong and tough they are!

How do birds reproduce?

Most birds in Britain breed between spring and late summer or autumn, but some like pigeons can breed all year round.  Most (but not all) build some sort of nest, which is usually an open cup-shaped nest outside in a bush, tree or vegetation, or hidden inside a tree or even a building.  Birds are very adaptable and have been known to nest in some very strange places.  Some, especially Blue Tits and Great Tits, are very happy to nest in home-made nestboxes, which are really just artificial tree holes!  Eggs are usually laid in spring or summer, but these eggs and the small young or nestlings are very vulnerable to being eaten as they are a good source of food for lots of other wildlife at this time of year.  Birds lay different numbers of eggs depending on the species.  Many like Robins and Blackbirds lay 4 or 5 eggs, but others like Blue Tit and Great Tit lay loads of eggs, often more than ten!  Most birds will also have more than one breeding attempt in a breeding season, aiming to raise as many chicks as possible while the weather is good and food still available.

Chaffinch

Image by foxypar4 via Flickr

Bird Facts

  • Birds are evolved from dinosaurs and still have scales on their legs like reptiles.
  • Birds’ greatest evolutionary achievement is flight, and they have evolved a unique skeleton with many air spaces inside the bones making them very light but strong and flexible.
  • Man has copied lots of ideas from birds in his quest to fly, using the ideas of a light strong and flexible frame (skeleton) and wing shape when designing aircraft that will actually fly.
  • Feathers are unique to birds – all birds have feathers and anything with feathers is a bird!  Feathers are modified scales made from the same substance called ‘keratin’ as your fingernails, bird bills or rhino horn.
  • Most birds lay one egg per day, and only start incubating them when the last egg is laid so that all hatch at the same time.  Some though, like Barn Owls, start incubating when the first egg is laid, so the eggs hatch at different times.
  • Many birds have developed a strong relationship with humans and man-made environments, shown by the common name of some species such as House Sparrow, House Martin and Barn Owl.
  • Birds use their colourful feathers (plumage) to advertise their strength and fitness and find a mate. Many become brighter in spring and summer when breeding, for example a male Chaffinch will be much brighter, a Robin’s red breast a brighter red, and a male Blackbird a darker black with a bright contrasting yellow-orange bill.
  • The humble Robin is one of the few birds in Britain to sing all year round, including the winter months.