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Spare a thought for the birds this Christmas



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Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Aldreth, Cambridgeshire. Picture: Simon Stirrup (5999264)
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), Aldreth, Cambridgeshire. Picture: Simon Stirrup (5999264)

I know we are not quite there yet but the spirit of Christmas has dominated the media and commerce for weeks already.

Decorated trees and fairy lights are appearing in windows and we will soon be over-indulging with drinks and food, stuffing our faces with mince pies, and singing or at least listening to festive carols. While we feast and relax however we should spare a thought for the wild birds which will be getting desperate for nourishment as the weather gets colder.

The bird that features most prominently around Christmas is the robin. Bold and approachable, robins are active throughout the year and often feed in gardens, even in the snow and frost. Male and female robins both sing and they continue to serenade sporadically throughout the winter, sometimes even at night, especially if there is light from street lamps and windows. Robins have been performing their autumn territorial songs for the last month or two. I have already heard a song thrush tuning up in the recent mild spell and house sparrows have also been chirping merrily from bushes and creepers.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula) sitting on spade in snow, Aldreth, Cambridgeshire. Simon Stirrup (5999289)
Robin (Erithacus rubecula) sitting on spade in snow, Aldreth, Cambridgeshire. Simon Stirrup (5999289)

While many birds have departed to warmer climes for the winter, there are still plenty of resident species around. Taking advantage of free movement for migrants across Europe, many of our winter visitors have arrived to swell the numbers. Redwings and fieldfares have made their journey from Scandinavia and are feeding in the fields and meadows around Cambridge. They sometimes appear in parks and gardens too, especially if there are plenty of berries such as holly and rowan. Redwings often fly over at night and keep contact with each other through thin, high-pitched calls, while fieldfares make a harsh ‘chack-chack’ sound. The populations of some of our resident birds are boosted by migrants from elsewhere in Europe, so the blackbirds you see in the garden may have flown over from central or northern Europe. Blackcaps frequently turn up in the garden at this time of the year. We had one recently, greedily feeding on grapes and rowan berries. These charming warblers used to be summer visitors but some now migrate west from central Europe, where the winters are harsher, to take advantage of our relatively mild conditions of our more oceanic climate.

Last January I mentioned the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, the programme that takes in records from all over the country to help track changes in Garden bird numbers. Well the results of that survey are now in and robin came in at number eight. Perhaps surprisingly in view of recent declines in the species, house sparrow took top spot, with starling at number two. These were followed by blue tit, blackbird, woodpigeon, goldfinch and great tit, with long-tailed tit and chaffinch at nine and ten. The Big Garden Birdwatch has been running since 1979, resulting in 39 years of vital data.

Singing male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Wicken, Cambridgeshire. Simon Stirrup (5999269)
Singing male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Wicken, Cambridgeshire. Simon Stirrup (5999269)

Now is the time to clean out and fill up the bird feeders. Goldfinches and tits are very fond of sunflower hearts and as the weather turns colder will be regular visitors to the garden. It is wise to leave water for them too as even in cold weather they will occasionally need to drink. Watching birds is great therapy, perhaps especially important in these uncertain times and as an antidote to the frantic commercialisation in the run-up to Christmas.



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