Watch the birdies: Which exotic visitors will you spot in your back garden?

As the RSPB gears up for its annual Big Birdwatch, Simon Usborne looks out for some of the more exotic visitors you may spot in your back garden

Thursday 24 January 2008 01:00

Look out the window long enough and, chances are (unless it's dark or you're on the Tube), you'll see something flapping, tweeting, or just sitting around. If you live in the city, it will most likely be a scruffy pigeon, but, in fact, our parks, streets and gardens are home to a fantastically diverse array of bird species. Most of them usually go unnoticed, so now the RSPB is calling on everyone, from committed twitchers to young enthusiasts, to get out a pen and start counting as part of its annual Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend.

"It's a celebration of birds," explains Richard Bashford, a RSPB project manager. "It's about raising awareness of the environment, but it's also the first chance that many people, especially children, will have to see wildlife in their garden."

Joining in is simple. Take an hour this Saturday or Sunday, and record the number of each species seen in your garden or park. Then visit the RSPB's website and enter your results. Last year, more than 400,000 people counted more than six million birds, and Bashford hopes that even more people will be involved this year. "The more people we get counting, the better our information will be, and the more we can help safeguard our birds," he says.

Building an accurate picture of the country's garden bird population has never been more important, as once-common species such as sparrows and starlings become dangerously rare, due to environmental changes ranging from over-drainage (birds can't get at worms if the ground is rock-hard) to the effects of global warming.

Bashford says that there is much we can do to help these declining species. Sparrows, for example, whose population has halved in the last 25 years, thrive on such shrubs as honeysuckle, bramble and elder, which bird-friendly gardeners can easily add to their flowerbeds. "Or you can just put out bird feeders and water," Bashford says.

Other species are faring better than the humble sparrow. It's boom time for wood pigeons and collared doves, thanks, in part, to their superior bulk on bird tables. Other high-fliers include goldfinches and woodpeckers. "It shows how gardens are becoming an important habitat. They often offer more food and shelter than the countryside, which would have been the opposite years ago," Bashford says.

One bird you won't see flapping along the garden path is the American robin. "We had one spotted in Putney a couple of years ago, which was very exciting because they are extremely rare," Bashford says. "If people are seeing things like that, you never know what's going to turn up this weekend."


Most numerous in tree-tops in Scotland and Wales, siskins fly en masse from Europe to the UK in winter, joining our native breeding pairs. They all have a weakness for peanuts, and frequently join great tits on feeding tables. Their population has been boosted by the spread of commercial conifer plantations. A small, lively finch, the siskin has a forked tail and a long, narrow bill. Males have streaky, yellow-green bodies, and black crowns and bibs. There are yellow patches on their wings and tails. "They're beautiful little birds," says Richard Bashford.


For such a diminutive bird, the wren sure can sing. Its incredibly loud and tuneful whistling announces its arrival before you'll spot it. One of Britain's smallest birds, the wren is a dumpy brown creature with a fine bill and long legs, stubby round wings and a small tail, which it cocks up. Found across the UK in a variety of habitats, the wren is a regular visitor to gardens. "They get hammered by cold winters," says Bashford, making the wren a potential beneficiary of global warming.

Song thrush

This bird's population has plummeted by more than three-quarters in the last 25 years, earning it a place on the RSPB's "red" list and causing serious concern among bird lovers. Those birds that are left, do venture into built-up areas, where they seek out parkland and mature gardens. Evidence can be found on rocks, on which the birds smash snails for food, and on hearing their distinctive call. Smaller and browner than a mistle thrush, and with smaller spots, they are found wherever there are trees or bushes.


Europe's smallest songbird is hard to spot, even if it does venture into your garden. The goldcrest measures barely three inches from head to tail, but makes up for its titchiness with beautiful plumage. A green, black and white-striped body is topped by a distinctive orange or yellow crown stripe. They are found anywhere there are trees or bushes, but tend to favour conifers. In autumn, they throng the south and east coasts of England, where large numbers of migrants arrive. The goldcrest's population has declined in recent years, but a run of mild winters like this one could boost their numbers.


According to Bashford, a relatively mild winter this year will lead to a preponderance of blackcaps. A distinctive greyish warbler, the bird possesses a charming, fluting song, which has earned it the nickname "northern nightingale". Primarily a summer visitor from the Continent, the birds are an increasingly common sight in Britain, where milder winters have led them to stay longer. They have a fondness for insects and berries, and will frequently venture from their woodland habitat into private gardens in the cooler months. They are named after the black cap that appears on the heads of males; females sport rather more fetching chestnut-coloured hats.


They might be shy woodland birds, but jays have become a more common sight in cities, where they sometimes congregate in big parks. "They're pretty colourful for a crow," Bashford says, pointing out the birds' light brown plumage and blue, black and white wings. But you'll still have to look hard to catch a glimpse of their distinctive flash of white on their rumps, as they fly between trees. The first sign of a jay will probably be its screaming call. In autumn they flock to oak trees, where they take acorns, burying them for the winter. Often they forget where they put them and we have jays to thank for many of our oaks.


"Not everyone's going to get a glimpse of these birds," says Bashford. "They rarely make it into cities, but spotters in the suburbs might see one if they look hard enough." Those who do spot a bullfinch are in for a treat. The male is unmistakable, with its bright pink-red breast and cheeks, grey back, black cap and tail, and brilliant-white rump. The first sign of a bullfinch in the garden will likely be a flash of white rump and the bird's mournful call. They are voracious feeders, favouring fruits and buds, but recent declines in numbers have placed the bullfinch on the RSPB's endangered list.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

"Twenty-five years ago it was very rare to spot a woodpecker in the garden," Bashford says, "but today it has become an increasingly common treat. I've seen them myself in friends' gardens in London." About the size of a blackbird, the striking black and white creatures have a distinctive bouncing flight and cling to trees, often hiding from view. One thing you are unlikely to see the birds doing is pecking at trees for food in characteristic style. "They're more likely to be going straight for the peanuts on your bird table," Bashford says, which probably explains why the birds are now flocking to our back gardens.

Long-tailed tit

You'll have to look for a full hour to spot one of these little birds. "They move in groups so you'll have to keep watching to see them as they pass into the next garden," Bashford says. Nicknamed "little pink lollipops" thanks to their tiny, rotund build and long, thin tails, the tits are gregarious, noisy residents, usually spotted in excitable flocks of about 20 birds. Displaying an undulating flight, they rove woods and hedgerows but can also be spotted on heaths and commons with suitable bushes, and are recognisable thanks to their distinctive colouring.


"Like a lot of woodland birds, Nuthatches have started arriving in our gardens," says Bashford. They flock to feeding tables to satisfy their penchant for peanuts, which are high in energy. Sporting distinctive black stripes on their heads, the plump birds, which are about the size of a great tit, also have blue-grey upper bodies, chestnut-coloured sides, and white bottoms. As well as nuts, they peck away at acorns and seeds, using their powerful toes to propel their slight bodies up and down tree trunks.

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