When you start to garden for wildlife, and put out food and water for the birds, you will start to notice a huge range of different feather visitors coming to your garden. But who is who? Is that little brown job a sparrow or a dunnock? If, like us you sometimes struggle to identify the birds in your garden read on for our handy guide to some of the most common species.
Common British Garden Birds
Male Robins are fiercely defensive of their territories. They may look endearing but sometimes, fight to the death. Think you have the same Robin visiting your garden year after year? You can identify individual Robins by studying the orange/red breast. Each pattern is different. Robins have a beautiful song. If you hear a bird singing by a lamppost early in the morning, it is likely to be a Robin. They are often mistaken for nightingales.
Wrens are tiny, brown birds. They are often thought to be the smallest British bird but the Goldcrest is much smaller. Wrens are easily identified with their upright tail feathers. They also have an Incredibly loud song for such a small bird. Wrens are polygamous. This means the males pair with more than one female during the breeding season.
At the height of the breeding season, you may spot the male bird continuously searching for insects. There is a lot of pressure on the male Wren to produce sufficient food
Blue Tits are tiny birds and incredibly agile at the feeders. Their lifespan is usually quite limited – around 3 years on average. Many Blue Tits die in their first year of life. But one Blue Tit is on record as living for 21 years which is incredible
Great Tits are frequent visitors to gardens. They are very distinctive and quite robust. They have a heavy bill and domed head with a central black stripe down the front which is more defined in males. Great Tits are fantastic mimics and have over 70 calls and songs. If you hear a bird singing but cannot identify it, then look for a Great Tit.
Long Tailed Tit
Long Tailed Tits are not part of the tit family but they are much-favoured garden birds. They are tiny, fluffy birds with a subtle pink hue to their feathers. They fly in small flocks during the winter months and have a distinctive undulating flight.
Long-Tailed Tits are at risk in the cold weather as they lose heat quickly due to their small size. They huddle together on branches at night to sustain warmth
Blackbirds have an average lifespan of 3-4 years although many Blackbirds die in the first year of life. The oldest ringed Blackbird on record survived for 20 years and 3 months. This is an amazing age.
Blackbirds start to sing from January onwards. These are the juvenile birds born the previous year but the more mature males start to sing in March
Greenfinches were quite common in gardens until 2005. Sadly, the species was affected by the disease trichomoniasis. This disease is easily spread between birds and can devastate bird populations. To avoid this disease, keep bird feeders and tables clean. Greenfinches are beautiful birds and they add colour to the bird feeders. Encourage them into your garden for a feast of sunflower seeds and chopped peanuts.
A Dunnock is often mistaken for a sparrow but they are not related at all. Dunnocks are very territorial. You may see two males animatedly wing-flicking. In the breeding season, the pairs form strong bonds but the female will still mate with another male. Both males will supply food for the chicks when they hatch.
Starlings have short tails and triangular-looking wings. When they land, they look a little like a Harrier jet. Take a close look at the feathers and you will see vibrant green and purple sheens coming through. Starling murmurations are well-known and a sight to behold. 100,000 Starlings may flock together creating extraordinary patterns in the air. These are aerial acrobatics at their best.
When House Sparrows pair up, they are faithful to each other and their nest site unless one of the pair dies. If this happens, there is no period of mourning. They quickly pair up with another bird and life goes on. Adult birds are mainly vegetarian but they feed insects to the young. Some Sparrows change their hunting tactics and hunt for food at night catching moths that are attracted to lights
Jays belong to the Crow family. They are widespread throughout Britain – apart from in Northern Scotland. It is easy to see Jays in Autumn when they forage for acorns. These are cached away for when times are hard essentially creating a larder. Jays are intelligent birds and excellent mimics. They can even express emotions including anger and playfulness
Jackdaws are the smallest member of the crow family. They are striking birds with dark feathers and appear slightly comical as they hop or walk. Did you know that Jackdaws may go grey as they age? The grey tinge occurs as a result of changes in the structure of the feathers. When you see one with a splash of grey, you will know that it is an older bird.
Crows have the largest bird brains apart from parrots. They have been recorded as excellent problem solvers. They even use sticks as tools to access food that is out of reach. Carrion Crows seem to play just for the pleasure of it. They have been seen dangling upside down from clothes on a washing line. One crow was recorded sledging on a snowy roof
Magpies are beautiful birds but they are not always appreciated. In the spring months, they raid the nests of songbirds and predate on eggs and young birds. In the Summer, they alter their diet and eat ground invertebrates. During the Winter, Magpies turn mainly vegetarian.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are often heard drumming their beaks onto tree trunks. A male that has not paired up may drum up to 600 times in a day. Fortunately, they have shock-absorbent tissue between the bill and the skull. This protects them from brain damage.
Green Woodpeckers are vibrantly beautiful birds often seen foraging on the ground. One little known fact is the size of their tongue. It reaches 10cm and has a barb at the end. To contain the tongue, it curls the tongue around its skull.
Song Thrushes really are a gardener’s friend. They are one of only a few British birds partial to eating snails. This actually becomes a critical food source for them in the summer months. If snails are a problem, encourage Song Thrushes into your garden. Leave leaf litter for them to forage in. They are also tempted by hulled sunflower seeds.
During the breeding season, Barn Owls are able to practice asynchronous hatching. This means that each egg hatches 30 days from when first laid. In a single nest, there could be a difference of two weeks between the youngest chick and the eldest
Smaller than a GreenFinch at 12cm, Siskins have a long narrow bill and a very distinct forked tail. They are resident breeders throughout Britain. The population levels are higher in Wales and Scotland. They will visit gardens – especially if their natural food source is low and will happily take seeds or sunflower hearts from bird feeders. Siskins display agile and energetic movements.
Collectively Coal Tits are known as a banditry of tits. If they become agitated, they have a hidden crest on the top of the head that raises into a spiky shape. Individually, these pretty birds usually live for only 2 years. One ringed bird passed all expectations and lived for 8 years, 9 months and 26 days.
Collared Doves have been known to fly into windows. While other birds do this, they seem particularly prone to it. The imprint on the glass occurs due to the high level of dust in their feathers. It is possible to see the beak, eyelids or feathers outline.
Goldfinches are known by many names including Thistle Finch, Gold Linnet, Red Cap and King Harry. The name Goldfinch was also used to describe a wealthy person back in the early 18th Century. The collective name for finches is a charm of Goldfinches. This signifies their beautiful singing voice.
Chaffinches often fly in all-male flocks during the winter months which may explain its latin name of Fringilla coelebs. Coelebs means bachelor. In fact, this bird is often called the Bachelor Bird. Female chaffinches migrate further than the males during the winter months.
During the breeding season, Wood Pigeons are able to produce milk from their crops. They do this in the last few days of incubation. There are very few birds that can do this. Crop milk is the only nourishment young chicks have in the first few days of life. Both adults are able to provide this substance. It is produced by cells within the crop – a sac-like enlargement in the digestive system. This is where food is stored.
Feral pigeons occur in all parts of Britain. Descending from the Rock Dove, they are a similar size to Collared Doves. Plumage colours can be very different. They may be one of the first domesticated birds. Feral Pigeons have an amazing ‘homing’ instinct and can find their way back over 1300 miles. Feral Pigeons have adapted extremely well to urban life.
They belong to the order Columbiformes which is the same order as the long-extinct Dodo.
The Goldcrest is Britain’s smallest bird. It weighs around 5g in comparison to the Wren which weighs 7-12g. Goldcrests can lay up to 12 eggs although usually, the clutch contains 6-8 eggs. When the eggs hatch, the female will often move to a second nest to start laying again. She leaves the male to feed their first brood. Goldcrests are easily confused with firecrests.
The beautiful Bullfinch is quite a shy bird and rarely seen at garden feeders. Its name comes from its appearance…front heavy, bull-headed. They are found in orchards and can be destructive to the trees. Bullfinches can decimate half of a tree’s buds. This hasn’t always made them very popular. Females are usually dominant
There are around 12 million pairs of House Martins nesting throughout Europe. It is still not known where in Africa they spend their winter months. About 86% of the House Martins in Britain will try to raise two broods. The young birds from the first brood help the adults to feed a second lot of chicks.
The Cuckoo spends only a short time in Britain. It arrives in April and its presence here often heralds the first sign of Spring. Cuckoos fly back to Africa in June once the breeding season is over. The juveniles fly to Africa a few weeks later. Cuckoos are called brood parasites. This means they lay their eggs in the nests of other species.
The female cuckoo generally lays eggs in the afternoon. She chooses the nests belonging to the same species that would have once reared her. During the breeding season, she can lay between 12 and 22 eggs, all in different nests. Once the cuckoo emerges from the egg, it has little empathy for the eggs or any young bird. It immediately tries to evict both from the nest.
Whitethroats are small birds – just 14cm in length and they weigh between 12g and 18g. This small bird makes a difficult journey crossing the Sahara desert twice a year. Its lifespan is usually just 2 years but one ringed Whitethroat made it to 7 years. It is a summer visitor to Britain.
There was a massive decline in the population in the 1960’s. This was due to a drought in the Sahel – a semiarid region of western and north-central Africa.
Mistle Thrushes are much-loved visitors to gardens. These are larger than Blackbirds and tend to have a plump-bellied appearance. They perform something called resource guarding where one or two birds will defend their source of food. This defence is against any birds.
Reed Buntings are similar in size to House Sparrows. They are usually seen in wetlands or farmland areas. They could easily be considered finch-like due to their strong, sturdy bills which are perfect for opening seeds. They are actually classified as warblers. In Autumn and Winter, they may come into gardens for seeds but are unlikely to come into urban gardens.
Willow Warblers are birds sadly on the decline. They look like Chiffchaffs. You can identify them by the pink of their legs rather than the Chiffchaffs dark legs. But the best way to identify them is by the song.
They were once called Willow Wrens. They eat small insects and spiders but enjoy berries and fruit in the autumn. These are unusual birds as they moult all feathers twice each year. This is still a mystery.
Bramblings arrive in Britain in September usually leaving again by late April. A few pairs have opted to stay in Britain rather than migrating. They fly in large flocks often alongside Chaffinches and can be seen in farmland or woodland. It is possible to entice Bramblings into the garden, just add a seed mix or peanut granules. Scatter this on the ground.
Redwings are often confused with Song Thrushes. You can identify them by their white stripe above the eye and the red colour under the wings. Redwings migrate at night and so suddenly appear. They return to Britain late September or into October. They are very partial to fallen apples so if you would like to see Redwings, don’t be in a hurry to remove them.
Birdlife in Britain is so exciting. There is still much to learn about these charming birds. You can have hours of pleasure watching their antics at the feeding station.
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As you study these British Garden Birds, you can create the right environment for them. By doing so, you will have a wonderful insight into their secret lives