Photograph of a robin in a yew tree

12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds

Blue tit (c) Andrew Bladon

For day two of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife, we are celebrating our feathered friends. Winter can be tough for birds. As the temperature drops, they need more energy to keep warm. But once the bounty of berries and seeds of the autumn is over, food can be in short supply. Provide birds with food in your garden or outdoor space and you can support these wonderful creatures, and enjoy watching them at surprisingly close quarters. Scroll down to the end of this blog post for instructions on how to make seed cakes for them, and get some top tips from Dr Andrew Bladon on supporting birds in your green spaces:

Missed day one of the 12 Days of Winter Wildlife? Fear not, the live launch is available on catch up here.

Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds

Academic in the Department of Zoology, and one of our visitor engagement volunteers in the Museum, Dr Tony Fulford writes:

Robin on a blue post
Robin (c) John Howlett

The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn,
And keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing!

Actually, robins are pretty well adapted to our UK winters. Their feathers are pretty good at keeping them warm and on cold days they fluff them up turning a fairly sleek bird almost spherical.  This has the effect of trapping an insulating layer of air keeping the warmth in (air is a very poor conductor of heat).  And, yes, on very cold nights they will tuck their heads under their wing to conserve more heat. So, unlike many other insectivores, most stick it out here (although a few head south to the Mediterranean for the winter).  In fact, robins that breed in Russia and Scandinavia migrate to the UK to enjoy our balmier winters.

Robins are highly territorial and sing the year round.  You may have notice that their song changes to a more melancholic tune in late summer as the first hints of autumn appear.  This is when pairs split up, young birds disperse and all, females included, sing to defend an individual winter territory.

Robin song (c) Tony Fulford
Wren standing on a fence
Wren (c) Matt Lowe

Wrens in some ways are similar.  They too are sedentary, territorial insectivores and sing their incredibly loud trilling song all year round.  But on cold nights competitive instincts are forgotten and several birds will pile into a hollow to keep one another warm.  On one record occasion 63 Wrens were found snuggled up in a single nest box.  Like robins, wrens are pretty well adapted to our winters – a very closely related North American species (once considered to be the same species as our wren) is known as the winter wren.  Nevertheless, they are very small and mostly insect feeders so very harsh winters hit them hard.  During the arctic conditions of the severe winter of 1962/3 their numbers plummeted and for the next few years Wrens were quite scarce.  But they are a resilient species and breed fast; it wasn’t long before they were back among the top 3 or 4 commonest species of birds in the country.

Wren song (c) Tony Fulford
Blackbird on a bare branch
Blackbird. Image credit: Daniel Engelvin

You might notice that blackbird numbers increase dramatically in your garden as autumn turns to winter. Not only are the surviving chicks from three or four broods still present but an influx of bruisers from Scandinavia swells the population. These migrant blackbirds can sometimes be recognised by their larger size and subtle grey scalloping of their body feathers. Also, where our young males usually start to develop the characteristic yellow beak as soon as they moult into adult plumage in late summer, these Scandinavian males often retain a black bill until the following spring. Like Robins, some of our Blackbirds make short migrations south and west in the winter.  One famous individual, known as Homer, spent the summers in a Thetford garden and turned up in the same Devon garden each winter for three years in a row.  [While this bird made the national news, in fact such behaviour is not at all unusual: long-distance migrants usually migrate to exactly the same spot in Africa each year and return to breed in the same bush the following year.]

Blackbird (c) Andrew Bladon

Blackbirds don’t usually sing in winter but that’s not to say they are silent. As dusk falls you will often hear a prolonged chorus of “chink chink chink …” calls as the birds settle to roost. This is believed to a somewhat aggressive and territorial call and associated with birds sorting out their pecking order and sleeping arrangements.  You’ll hear a similar sound during the day when a cat is on the prowl or a Sparrowhawk has been spotted. They also have a variety of other familiar alarm calls from the soft “chook chook  …” warning to the out-and-out clucking and shrieking of a startled bird.  I find their first song in late February comes as a huge relief: finally the world is waking up from its winter gloom and the promise of spring is in the air.

Blackbird (c) Tony Fulford
Great tit (c) Andrew Bladon

From late summer onwards itinerant, mixed flocks of blue, great and coal tits move through the woods, hedgerows and gardens.  You can hear them coming, keeping up a clamour of contact calls to maintain the flock’s cohesion.  Larger flocks are often joined by tree creepers, goldcrests and, occasionally, chiffchaffs (a small proportion of our breeding population has opted to overwinter in recent years). At least some members will be familiar with the location of peanut, sunflower-seed or fat-ball feeders and lead the flock to them.  Watch them closely and you may notice that certain pairs of birds stick close to one another taking turns at the feeder.  Male and female great tits and blue tit that bred the previous summer will stick together all winter and, if both survive, will nest together again the following spring.

Long-tailed tit calls (c) Tony Fulford
Long-tailed tit in hawthorn
Long-tailed tit Image credit Wildlife Terry

While family parties of long-tailed tits may also join larger mixed flocks, the family stays together uttering their “tirrip” and “tup tup” contact calls.  They’ll know exactly where the fat-balls are in the neighbourhood and visit them several times a day.  On one occasions I moved a fat ball from its usual location outside the kitchen window to a spot on the other side of the garden.  An excited family of long-tailed tits turned up at the kitchen window and flitted about bewildered for a while.  You could almost hear them saying, “Well, it was definitely here last time we came.” Eventually one of them spotted it, gave the food call and they all shot off, trailing their streamer tails behind them, to refuel.  Long-tailed tits are tiny, all tail and only half the weight of a blue tit.  Furthermore they originated in warmer climes before colonising Britain and Europe thousands of years ago.  So they are not so well adapted to survive the cold.  However, they are highly social and work together.  A night they squeeze up tightly in a row next to one another for warm.

It is the winter plumage of Starlings that gives them their name.  At this time of year their iridescent blue-purple-black feathers each end in a white tip, like a thousand stars on an inky sky. By spring the white tips have largely worn off leaving an essentially black bird. We are all familiar with piratical gangs of Starlings arriving at the bird-table elbowing the smaller species out and squabbling among themselves.  Sometimes on brighter days in winter you may see one sitting on a television aerial singing a chattering song mixed with slow, descending whistles.  If you look skywards at dusk you will often see small, tight flocks of Starlings heading somewhere with great determination.  Their destination is their roost site, often a reed-bed.  These flocks circle and coalesce gathering in tens of thousands, sometimes a million or more, swirling like smoke over the roost site.  A murmuration, as this phenomenon is known, is an awesome spectacles and well worth wrapping up warm to go and witness.  Murmurations reach such huge numbers because the UK Starling population is greatly augmented by an influx of Eastern European birds escaping the frozen winters in the lands where they bred. 

Starling Murmuration (c) Andrew Bladon

Visit the blog on 12 December for instructions on how to make your own origami starling murmuration decoration.

Winter Wildlife Crafts: Make a seed cake for the birds

Museum Volunteer Coordinator Lucy Williamson writes:

These bird seed cakes are an extra special treat for birds in winter, and a really fun thing to make with kids.

The seeds do tend to go everywhere, so we decided to take this activity outside into the winter sunshine!

Please do not be tempted to eat the seeds yourself, they are not for humans! Lard (or beef suet) is used because of its high saturated fat content, birds need this high energy food to help them keep warm in winter.

1 block of lard
1 bag of wild bird seed

1 knife (we just used a table knife as the lard is so soft)
1 large mixing bowl
1 chopping board
1 spoon

Step 1.

Take the lard out of the fridge at least an hour beforehand, so it can soften up. This makes it easier for mixing. Chop it into cubes.

Mixing lard with bird seed to make a seed cake

Step 2.

Tip the lard chunks into the mixing bowl and add bird seed. Mix together with the spoon. You are meant to use 1 part lard, to 2 parts bird seed but we just kept adding bird seed until we thought it was enough.

Eventually we decided that mixing it with a spoon was actually a bit difficult, so I got my hands in and squished it all together. My son wasn’t keen on doing this at all, but it was actually really fun (but so greasy!).

Mixing and forming seed cakes by hand

Step 3.

Scoop up lumps of the mixture and roll into balls. You could use an ice-cream scoop, but using hands is very easy.

Seed cakes moulded into balls

We have a bird feeder that fits the balls, so we put them in that. If you don’t have one, you could use empty yogurt pots. To hang it you need to get a length of string and tie a knot at the end. Poke a hole in the base of the pot and thread the string through. Add the mixture right to the top of the pot, pressing it in. You can then hang the pot from a tree, bird table or balcony.

Finished seed cakes in a bird feeder

Birds are shy and wary, so they may not visit your treat for a few days until they are sure it’s a safe place to visit. 

12 Days of Winter Wildlife Day 3: Active Insects

Completed moth craft as tree decoration

Visit the blog again tomorrow and find out about insects that stay active as adults over the winter months. Discover winter moths, and learn how to set a moth trap. Find scraps of fabric and turn them into a beautiful wintery moth decoration with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.

12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:

Robin on frosted willow branches
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Photograph of a robin in a yew tree
Robin (c) John Howlett

You can find out more about garden birds with these blog posts:
Blue tits and their relatives
Find activities for learning about bird beaks and evolution with our Nature Classroom.
Learn about the Garden BirdWatch Scheme run by the BTO, and watch the Q&A with Rob Jaques of the BTO on Day 1 of the 12 Days of Winter Wildlife.

14 thoughts on “12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.