We have feathered friends aplenty in our garden every winter and feed them regularly from November to the end of March. Three different stations in place at peak periods, offering fat balls, peanuts and a mix of seeds. I also top up water in the stone birdbath, as garden ponds and water troughs are often frozen. The usual suspects appear without fail after each refresh of rations. Top of the pecking order – in numbers and disposition – is the tumultuous tribe that inhabits the dense cover I call Sparrow Towers…A ferocious chirping emits from that corner of hawthorn hedge, crab apple and privet. The ability to feed on holders as well as the ground ensures they cover all bases. Hard to believe that nationally there has been a dramatic drop in house sparrow numbers of up to 71% when they are so noisily numerous here round houses and farms.
The extensive tit family are next. The ubiquitous blue tit and great tit maximise their superb acrobatic skills, giving them the edge in extracting food from otherwise hard to get to angles, as well as being great fun to watch in the process. I particularly like the smallest of their kin, the coal tit. Perhaps it’s because of their masked faces and dainty habits; darting in quick, before the chunkier birds can retaliate, wheedling out a nut with their needle beak, then flying off to a quiet spot to safely feast on it. Recent studies by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have shown that both blue and great tits lose up to 5% of their body weight each night in winter. An 11g blue tit must eat almost it’s own body weight every day in order to survive (the equivalent of 300 insects) and that non stop forage will take up to 85% of daylight hours.
A visit by that most colourful of seed lovers, the goldfinch, always cheers. Unlike many other small birds its population has increased year on year over the last decade. Elegant Siskin and thick billed greenfinch come calling too, lured from their home territories in the great conifer forest a short flight away. Sunflower hearts and tiny black Niger seeds are their favourite fodder by far.
Of the ground, a battery of beaks sweeps the frosty ground, between shy clumps of emerging snowdrops, picking up debris flung out of the feeder above. Prominent among these foragers are dunnock (hedge sparrow) blackbird and robin, all of which remain resident the year round. The sparrow gang and many of the tits absent themselves from our winter hangout for their summer getaway destinations. From observation I’ve concluded that they shift base to the broadleaf wooded valleys of the burns to our immediate north and south. (above) Those environments offer the best selection and supply of insects to feed their spring hatched broods.
One lone visitor is in a class of its own. Watching a greater spotted woodpecker on a peanut holder is like witnessing an adult swinging on a child’s play seat. Fascinating to note this bold bird’s posture – tail as anchor point, body stock still while head hammer drills into the nuts. There’s a huge punch there, so little wonder all the small birds wing clear and leave him to it. Last autumn our rural community had an arranged power outage over two mornings while BT contractors, in a complex co-ordinated operation, removed and replaced telephone poles along our road. The reason? Over the years woodpeckers had exploited holes in the timber to excavate the interior tissues for food and to nest, rendering the poles unstable and prone to collapse.
A reminder, if you need one, that the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch will be upon us weekend 29-31 Jan. More information here https://www.rspb.org.uk