Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Garden birds – our feathered friends

This year I’m going to focus on different aspects of wildlife that we might find in our gardens and local parks. Like so many, I’ve been amazed how many little wildlife nooks and crannies I’ve discovered during the various lockdowns of the past two years. I’ve also become a Volunteer Ranger in my local Royal Park, Bushy Park, in south-west London which is giving me another insight into what lives locally other than the human species!

I’m starting with garden birds as it’s time for the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch which will have me once again glued to the dining room window, binoculars and scrap paper in hand for my five-bar-gate counting. However, I’m aware that I am no wildlife photographer and birds have a habit of flying away the moment I produce a camera, so I apologise now for any appalling photos included here! This is a garden blog and not a photography blog!!

Birds are probably the most obvious form of wildlife that we like to attract to our gardens and provide us with a very quick and easy connection to nature. Whether it’s just a small feeder tray of seed or a whole collection of squirrel-proof feeders with a range of different types of food, it seems that we all love providing some extra nourishment for our feathered friends, especially during the cold months of winter when it’s harder for them to find enough food naturally, and during the breeding season.  If you’re going to purchase a bird feeder, I’d urge you to spend as much as you can afford on a something tough and squirrel proof otherwise your birds may not get quite the food you’d planned!

Our study, squirrel-proof feeders have services us well (c) Elizabeth Malone

Before writing this, I made a quick list of all the birds we regularly see on our garden and I’m delighted to say that we have more than 20 species flying in on a weekly, if not a daily basis.  (I’ll add a list at the end). However, there have been some significant shifts over the years.  Twenty years ago we were complaining about the mess created by the fussy eaters – the greenfinches, who used to pick at the seed and throw out anything not to their taste.  Now we would be over the moon to see one.  The reason behind this rapid decline has been well publicised by the various bird charities. A parasitic disease that prevents the birds from eating properly means that poor greenfinches are now headed for the endangered list.  The disease is thought to be passed on around feeders so it’s an important reminder to keep your feeders clean. Now I’m beginning to fear for chaffinches. Once plentiful in our garden, I’m delighted to say that I’ve seen a male arrive in the past week but where are the rest of his chums?

Chaffinch on our old patio when they used to turn up in large numbers (c) John Malone

At the opposite end of the scale, I’m delighted to say that the last couple of years have seen a resurgence of house sparrows in our garden.  I counted no less than 21 descending into our hedge the other afternoon.  They love our birdbath and are the one species that really get in there and happily splash around. However, we have discovered that birds don’t like the tennis ball we’ve been using to stop the water freezing. They won’t go near the bath if the ball is in there!

Sadly off-putting tennis ball!

Goldfinches arrived some 15 years ago and continue to multiply, devouring niger seed by the kilo.  Over the past 2 winters, I have also seen a goldcrest in the garden.  Not to be confused with the goldfinch, this little chap is the UK’s smallest bird (along with the very similar firecrest) and is absolutely tiny but easy to spot with its striking yellow striped head.  I have my fingers crossed that they might also become a regular but they don’t seem to be attracted to feeders so might be harder to encourage. In the Bushy Park Visitor Centre we have a goldcrest nest on display. It is absolutely tiny and it’s really hard to imagine the size of eggs and fledglings that hatch in this minute marvel.

Of course it’s not only feeders that make a bird-friendly garden. Shrubbery for birds to shelter and nest is also important, as is plenty of sources of natural food such as berries and plants that attract insects. That much maligned plant, ivy, surely has to be near the top of the list as one of the most bird-friendly plants. The other day I spotted a woodpigeon getting up to all kinds of antics trying to reach a particularly juicy bunch of ivy berries.

Ivy in the frost (c) Elizabeth Malone

Every winter we await the arrival of redwings in our garden. They absolutely love the cotoneaster berries and will demolish a large plant full in a matter of days. Given how rare it is to see either a song thrush or mistle thrush in the garden these days, an annual visit from this very pretty close relative is always a delight.

Cotoneaster beloved of redwings (c) Elizabeth Malone

My favourite visitors are the great spotted woodpeckers and the long-tailed tits.  The woodpeckers embody the phrase ‘pecking order’ and it’s always interesting to see the reaction of other birds when they stake their claim at the feeders. Recently I saw a cheeky little goldfinch holding its own on one side of the feeder whilst the woodpecker dined on the opposite side. And of course hearing them ‘drum’ is a sure sign that spring is on the way. The long-tailed tits are just delightful, such pretty little birds. Always in small groups, they adore fatballs.

Of course the regular visitor that divides opinion in this part of the world is the ring-necked parakeet. We’ve been through phases in our garden when they’ve driven us crazy, arriving in huge flocks, but then suddenly we won’t see them for a while. I confess that it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship with them. They are noisy, messy and drive away the smaller birds but equally they are very entertaining to watch with their ridiculous acrobatics as they try to hang upside down!

Ring-necked parakeet on our feeder – only one?! (c) John Malone

If you feel that you’re only seeing the same few species of bird from your kitchen window, why not take a walk out to your local park? You may be surprised at the diversity of birds you see along the way. As I read on a recent local RSPB post, always look up, you never know what you might see!

Birds we see in our garden in south-west London over the course of a year:

  • Blue tit
  • Great tit
  • Long-tailed tit
  • Coal tit
  • Sparrow
  • Goldfinch
  • Chaffinch – fewer than we used to see
  • Wren
  • Robin
  • Redwing
  • Blackbird
  • Blackcap
  • Woodpigeon
  • Collar dove
  • Magpie
  • Jay
  • Great spotted woodpecker
  • Crow
  • Jackdaw
  • Parakeet
  • Heron
Herons love our pond (c) John Malone

And very occasionally …

  • Green woodpecker
  • Sparrow hawk
  • Stock dove
  • Goldcrest
  • Thrush