Sedge Warbler

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of Bird Watching magazine…

Words: Dominic Couzens

 Damian Waters/Alamy

Damian Waters/Alamy

That’s it, now. The great summer bird party is over. The travellers came to visit, had a ball and are now on their way back. Tick off the average autumn departure dates of your favourite migrants one by one, as they trickle away.

It’s been a party, alright. All the guests bring their own unique imprint, just as we recognise human characters at gatherings. There’s the creepy one, a character you never quite trust, the Cuckoo. There’s the loud one, whose presence dominates the early evening karaoke until their partner gets them to be quiet – the Nightingale. There’s the one who seems to get drunk early and is soon out of control, all over the place, like a Whitethroat.

There’s the notorious love-rat and womaniser, the Pied Flycatcher, mixing with the impossibly elegant beauty who leaves a dodgy set of relationships in her wake, the Swallow. From the one who arrives early but never says anything interesting (Chiffchaff) to the one who stays for such a short time that it is almost rude (Swifts), every personality is there.

At almost every summer social there is also the ‘life and soul’ character. This is the one who lifts and enlivens proceedings as soon as they arrive. They are a force of nature, and when they finally say goodbye, you look at each other, raise your eyebrows and go “wow!”. And no bird fits that profile better than the irrepressible, mysterious, exceptional, unusual super-bird, the Sedge Warbler.

Continuous flying



You think I am joking about it being a ‘super-bird’? Well, take this in. The evidence suggests that, on autumn migration, many Sedge Warblers cover most of their journey to tropical Africa in a single or a few spurts, some potentially encompassing more than 1,800 miles of continuous flying – and this from a bird that only weighs up to 13g. Furthermore, it seems that this extraordinary feat is fuelled by a special super-food, an ultra-sugary invertebrate called the plum-reed aphid. After breeding in territories that lie to the edge of reedbeds, in drier, more diverse vegetation, Sedge Warblers move in late summer to large, pure reedbeds that abound with this particular bug. For several weeks they eat these snacks, put on plenty of weight and then, on an early September night, take off into the darkness to face their long journey.

What a thought this is. The indomitable midget rises into the air, jet-propelled by sugar all the way to warmer climes. Indeed, thousands of them are doing it at once, perhaps at the moment you are reading this. Nobody has ever seen it happen, and perhaps no-one ever will. But while Reed Warblers have a slower migration strategy, fatten up at many stages as they move south at leisure, Sedge Warblers are flying a marathon.

Putting on the style

Migrating isn’t the only thing that the Sedge Warbler does in style. It also has a fantastically zestful song, which fizzes along with great gusto and intensity, with unpredictable changes of pace, unusual riffs and bursts of mimicry. The phrases are longer than for most other birds (but not Reed Warblers), sometimes belting along for a minute or more, and when they do they can include 300 or more syllables.

The inventiveness and content could be compared to a speeded-up monologue by the late Robin Williams (himself, no doubt, a memorable party guest). Those that study these things have found that the Sedge Warbler’s is among the most elaborate bird songs in the world. Compared to the Reed Warbler’s song, which starts and continues at a pacey but constant rhythm, the Sedge Warbler’s seems to get faster and faster, so much that you half-expect to see steam coming out of the bird’s mouth. The phrase certainly becomes more complicated as the bird goes along, and no song is ever quite the same.

To add some extra drama, a Sedge Warbler often starts its song slightly hidden in the vegetation, but then climbs upwards until it is in full view – a real performer. Sometimes the excitement boils over and it takes off on a very short song-flight, up and down and appearing unsteady, as if tipsy on its own effervescence. The Sedge Warbler was one of the first species in which it was proven that a male’s repertoire is crucial in attracting females.

Scientists played recorded songs to females in cages and recorded their responses, finding that, the more complex a male’s repertoire, the greater the induced sexual displays. In fact, a male’s repertoire changes from year to year, with neighbouring males adding in sections to match each other’s songs.

The older males also have larger repertoires than their younger rivals. The frequency of song-flights also sends a message, with well-performing males usually pairing up earlier than their rivals. The frequency of the song-flights also equates to good health, in that sluggish performers tend to have more parasites on their feathers. This remarkable song sends multiple vital messages about male quality to the listening females.

After all the effort that Sedge Warblers put into their song, you’d think that they might put their vocalisations into practice, all summer long. But here’s another, most unusual quirk. The moment a male Sedge Warbler pairs up, it goes quiet, unlike the Reed Warbler, which might grumble and rumble on singing for weeks. Curiously, it seems that the Sedge Warbler’s song is purely uttered for sexual attraction, and once it’s woven its magic, the male has no use for it. This is very unusual, because most small birds sing for territorial reasons,
as well. But apparently the Sedge Warbler uses visual displays for this purpose.

All-singing breeding strategy

 David tipling/Alamy

David tipling/Alamy

Of course, the situation is never quite as simple as this, not in the life of the ‘Edgy Sedgie,’ anyway. This irrepressible bird is never going to be satisfied with a simple boy-meets-girl-and-stops-singing scenario, living happily ever after. Naturally, the melting-pot in the rank vegetation throws up several variations.

For one thing, a proportion of males (40%) are polygamous; these individuals don’t entirely stop singing once they are paired, but instead take it up again when their females have begun egg-laying or incubation and are perhaps distracted!

The males that do this are often successful in breeding with a second female. Interestingly, at the same time, a minority (fewer than 10%) of female Sedge Warblers are also polygamous. Once they have raised one brood, conventionally feeding their young, along with the male, to independence, they evidently then decide that their breeding season isn’t done, as it would be for most individuals.

These females seek out an entirely different mate for the purpose of their second attempt – but how do they find it when the males have stopped singing?

It turns out that they listen out for what might be uncharitably described as the dross, the males that are unpaired and still singing in the hope of their luck changing. These males invariably have a smaller repertoire than the female’s original mate. The females are content with a potentially substandard mate the second time around, but the arrangement would seem to suit everyone.

That, I hope you will agree, is a pretty good charge-sheet of intriguing behaviour. From its remarkable migration to its wholehearted song to the ‘variations’, shall we say, in its breeding arrangements, the Sedge Warbler is never simple and never dull. Imagine the stories it would have to tell.

So it’s bye bye, amazing Sedge Warbler, see you next summer. You will be the first on our party guest list.

Sedge Warbler factfile

Scientific name: Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Length: 11.5-13cm
Wingspan: 17-21cm
UK numbers: 260,000 breeding territories
Habitat: Reedbed, damp wetland
Diet: Insects, autumn berries

Where to see Sedge Warbler

Found across most of the UK, look for Sedge Warblers in reedbeds or damp wetland areas, particularly around dawn or dusk. Singing birds could be seen on the outside of a bush.


The Dotterel certainly lives up to its reputation as being a ‘quirky’ bird when it comes to breeding and rearing its chicks, writes Dominic Couzens

 Kit Day / Alamy

Kit Day / Alamy

It’s high summer on the mountaintops of Britain, and you might think that, for a short time, at least, life is settled. Birds are incubating eggs or tending chicks; the frantic schedule of the montane migrants – arrival, setting up territory, pairing up – ought to be on pause. The highland days are long, and perhaps they should be lazy, too.

It seems, though, that at least in the case of that colourful wader, the Dotterel, nothing is ever peaceful. There is plentiful evidence that these birds are not content to rest on their laurels in summer, even if their breeding season is conspicuously successful, with fluffy chicks the proof. Dotterels do something very odd, of which more in a moment.

Let’s face it, though, ‘odd’ is the Dotterel default setting. This member of the plover family doesn’t follow a conventional breeding pattern. Nesting on high altitude plateaux, it is most famous for role-reversal, in which the ‘standard’ male and female identities and to-do-lists are swapped.

 Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Thus, the females, rather than the males, have the more colourful plumage, and the males are the chick-rearing gender. Both sexes sport subtle and pleasing colours, with grey-brown upperparts, intense chestnut-cinnamon, black and white on the belly and with a bold white stripe over the eye and bordering the throat and breast.

This combination of features is more striking and well-marked in the female, and it is this gender that, bearing the smarter attire, takes the initiative in courtship.

Courtship is a little like an awkward human dancefloor, with males and females eyeing each other across the scree, with the females doing the asking, so to speak. The lead birds tend to try to isolate a chosen male from the rest of its flock, or ‘trip’, a bit like a sheepdog expertly corralling an individual ram.

Once this is done, the birds pair up. It is interesting to note here that females don’t hold any territories as such, and that much pairing takes place in a communal setting.

The term pair is a little loose when it comes to Dotterels, because not only do they practise role reversal, they also take a flexible attitude towards pair-bonds. This is necessary because the sex ratio might not be equal up on the hills, and time is limited at extreme latitudes or altitudes, so the birds need to be practical.

In many cases, though, it is simply a question of monogamy, with the female taking a single partner and laying four eggs. In these arrangements, the female might take part in incubation, usually at the beginning or end of the 24-28 day period.

However, the female is virtually never around when the chicks actually hatch; males almost invariably are the sole carers. Another common pairing arrangement is for a female to be involved with more than one mate. And why not, since she doesn’t have to bother about the patter of tiny feet? Emancipation from chick-rearing gives her options.

Once she has completed a clutch for one male, she can simply move on and get involved with another male, and even another after that. It’s
a system called sequential polyandry, and the second clutch may be completed only five days after the first.

In these circumstances females take no part in any incubation, which is also the usual state in monogamy. Very occasionally, there are only a few males around, and then a male may mate with several females. Usually, however, the males have only one mate and sire all the eggs in their clutch. They are diligent about their paternal duties.

They sometimes adopt chicks from another brood, and sometimes two males will attend to the same offspring.

Dotterel's quirky behaviour

So, what do the females do when the males are working? Well, one thing is to feed up and fatten up. The long days on the high tops are a time of plenty, and one of the Dotterels’ favourite foods is an insect known as the Mountain Cranefly, which abounds in the summer on the short turf.

 Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

The birds eat a variety of insects and spiders, particularly flies, and in the late summer they take a few nutritious berries, too. Feeding is easy for females, and probably does not constrain them in any way. However, the summer doesn’t pass in a picnic-like feast for all individuals.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Dotterel has a very strange behavioural quirk that is only found in a small number of species worldwide
(as far as is known). Dotterels, it seems, routinely move around in the breeding season, almost in a migratory sense.

They will leave the scene of their nest and eggs and fly away to another place. This might well be elsewhere in the Highlands, but there is increasing evidence that some birds leave the country altogether and end up on the continent, in Norway or Sweden. The truly unusual aspect of this is that, once they have arrived in a new place, many of these birds set out to breed again.

In other words, they attempt to pair up as if nothing had happened earlier several hundred kilometres to the south.

If successful, they could be laying new eggs in their new location before their previous brood has fledged. Hardly any other bird species do this.

Of course, a second breeding attempt is much easier for a female. Having laid its clutch, a female is essentially free to fly away and do whatever it wishes, leaving the parental male in charge of the clutch, which is standard Dotterel behaviour.

You might view such an arrangement as highly advantageous to a female to increase her seasonal productivity, and expedient for the species as
a whole. There might, for example, be a good number of ready and willing high quality individual males available in Norway that happened not to be present in Scotland.

Furthermore, Dotterels have a long breeding season; arriving initially in mid-May, sometimes already paired, they have been recorded still displaying in the second week of July. They have plenty of time to relocate and start all over again.

Interestingly, though, this intra-seasonal movement is not confined to females; males have been recorded doing the same. The sex ratio is probably the trigger. If a male finds itself unpaired through a lack of available females in one location, then it would also make sense for it
to make a journey somewhere else.

 Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Nature Picture Library / Alamy

Dotterels are powerful and swift flyers, easily able to average 70km/h over many hours in the air, so a transfer to another part of the Highlands, or over the North Sea, is very easy for them – they are also thought to fly to the wintering sites in North Africa in a single hop.

Nonetheless, a transfer also holds risks, particularly for an unpaired male. It might not be able to find a suitable population with plenty of grateful females, and it might miss out on females making the same later-season movements mentioned above. So, most males, if they are going to move at all, do it very early on.

More precise details about the within-breeding-season movements of Dotterels are still being worked out. But they do beg a question. Although complete role reversal is quite rare, with phalaropes and Dotterels being the best known British examples, it is very common, among waders in particular, for chick-rearing to be left almost entirely to males.

In such circumstances, why shouldn’t females of many species simply leave the area and try to start another family in another place?

Perhaps they do. As many of us are aware, waders, and many Arctic-alpine breeding species, are nothing if not practical.

Where to see Dotterel

In summer months, Dotterel is found only on Scotland’s high tops. You can look for them on spring and autumn migration. Passage birds can be seen at traditional stopping points in eastern England, such as the Chosely Drying Barns in Norfolk, not far from RSPB Titchwell Marsh. Another good spring site is Pendle Hill, Lancashire. They arrive from mid-April to mid-May and leave breeding areas in July and August. Autumn passage birds can be seen in August and September.

Dotterel factfile

Scientific name: Charadrius morinellus
Length: 20.5-24cm
Wingspan: 57-63cm
UK numbers: 510-750 breeding males
Habitat: Mountain areas
Diet: Insects and worms

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Numbers of this bird are falling and, unusually, more individuals die during spring and summer than they do in the autumn? But why is that?

Words: Dominic Couzens

 Emil Enchev/Alamy

Emil Enchev/Alamy

It is almost an article of faith among us to think that birds struggle to survive in the winter, with all its challenges, such as frost, snow, cold and starvation. In which case, I have got a surprise for you. The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, our smallest bark-tapper and a bird whose population is plunging throughout Britain, does not struggle. In fact, it positively thrives; its cold-season mortality is almost negligible. If birds expressed a preference for season, the Lesser Spotted would plump for winter every time. 

There are several reasons for this. One is that, from October through to March, the Lesser Spotted feeds almost entirely on insects and their larvae obtained from boring wood (along with the occasional visit to a garden bird feeder.) 

So long as there is enough dead or decaying wood around, the woodpecker manages just fine. Apparently, the surface of bark is one of the most reliable habitats there is. In contrast to many small bird species, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers also have no problems with finding a roost site – they simply dig their own hole. Food and shelter are sorted.

 John Keates/Alamy

John Keates/Alamy

The birds don’t have problems with overcrowding, either. Have you ever worried that a site has too many Lessers for the space? Of course not. 

These midgets are found at naturally low densities, as anybody who has tried to find one knows only too well. A study in Norway found that, on average, an individual occupies a home range of 742 hectares in the winter. Winter, then, is blissful. The Lesser Spotted’s needs are all covered. In many instances, any pairs that have successfully bred the year before remain in close proximity right through the season, living more or less as a couple, albeit with separate beds (roosting holes.) 

There is evidence that, chivalrously enough, the sexes divide the foraging habitat between them, the females foraging on smaller-diameter trunks and branches, and the males specialising in bark-stripping and pecking, while the females specialise in probing. The picture is happy and harmonious. 

But there could be trouble ahead. There have been many recent studies conducted on Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, many of them probing into the reasons for its decline, down more than 60% in the 30 years to 1999, and perhaps even faster since, and they all reach the same broad conclusion. Breeding is tough for these birds, most especially the females. 

As already mentioned, more individuals die in spring and summer than they do in the autumn. And even when they do survive, adults quite often abandon their breeding attempts in the middle, seemingly unable to cope.

The picture could almost be painted of a pair of woodpeckers having a look at the fading daffodils, exchanging glances, sighing and thinking: “Let’s just not bother.” And while this is obviously fanciful, a study in Sweden found that a significant number of pairs held territory, alright, but didn’t even get as far as laying eggs – the proportion was as high as 22% in one year. That figure, approaching a quarter of all pairs present, is unusually high.



And it is often the weather that determines this. For a bird that breezes through the coldest months, it seems odd that the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker might suddenly become susceptible to inclement conditions in spring and summer. This, though, is exactly what does happen. The birds just cannot function as breeders when it is cold and wet, despite the fact that the species itself occurs well into the sub-Arctic taiga belt throughout Europe and
Asia. It seems that they suddenly go soft.

In truth, it is hardly unusual for birds as a whole to suffer during poor weather in the breeding season; exactly the same thing occurs in many common species, such as Blue and Great Tits. In these birds, the cold weather restricts the ability of the female to get properly into condition to face the rigours of breeding, and then makes it hard for both parents to forage for their nestlings. 

In the case of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, it is frequently the first stage that proves insurmountable.

Imagine, then, that you were a social worker for pairs of Dendrocopos minor and it was your job to examine conditions at home. Time and again you would find that, throughout the early season, whatever the weather, the females were suffering, and the males were trying to bail them out. 

The heaviest burden of work often falls upon paired males. It is they that do most, if not all, of the nest-building, on average 65%. They incubate more than the female does, taking the whole night shift and half the day shift. 

Unusually, they also do more brooding of the hatched young; again, this is throughout the darkness and for half of the day. And they often end up feeding the young more, too. The regular routine of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers incorporates an extraordinarily unbalanced division of labour.

 Richard Osbourne/Alamy

Richard Osbourne/Alamy

Despite the male’s best efforts, still the females struggle. In one study, at a remarkable 42% of nests, the female abdicates feeding young during the late nesting stage, when the young are almost ready to leave. For a week or so she forages for herself and, if all goes well, will often resume helping when the young have left the breeding hole. 

Even when both sexes feed the young for the duration, the male still brings in food more often, 6.9 times an hour as opposed to 5.6 times an hour. 

Over the course of the last 10 days of the nestling period, from which these measurements were taken, that is a significantly greater effort. The truly odd thing about this is that these small woodpeckers are feeding themselves and their young on an abundant food source at a premium time. 

This species impeccably times its egg-laying with the bud-burst of oak leaves in a wood, which should allow the habitat to overflow with food when the young hatch. 

Yet, despite bringing a wide variety of insect food to their chicks, including moth caterpillars, aphids and beetle larvae, this period of life is truly fraught.

Perhaps not surprisingly, females sometimes take an unconventional route to success by pairing simultaneously with two males at a time and using two nests – this occurs in 10-20% percent of cases. It certainly solves a female’s troubles: individuals so paired produced 39% more young. This, though, only occurs when the sex ratio is already skewed. On the whole, these woodpeckers are extremely faithful to their mates, with a ‘divorce’ rate of only 3%. Established pairs are invariably more successful in a season, compared to individuals trying for the first time. However, even in these instances, the males are much harder-working than the females. 

As previously mentioned, this delightful bird is seriously declining in Britain, and is now down to about 1,500 pairs, countrywide. 

Nobody is quite sure why it is happening, although one possibility is that the males are unable to compensate for the struggles of the females, maybe because of a general decline in habitat quality, with less dead wood available. 

Whatever the reason, we might one day have to write a Requiem for D. minor. It won’t, though, be a winter’s tale.

Mistle Thrush

Dominic Couzens on Mistle Thrush

 Steve Young/Alamy

Steve Young/Alamy

Mistle Thrush fact-file

Scientific name: Tardus viscivorus
Length: 26-29cm
UK numbers: 170,000 breeding territories
Diet: Insects, berries, worms and slugs

This is the thrush that embarrasses birders. It’s the large, barrel-chested spotty-breasted one that ought to be simple to identify, but somehow isn’t. 

It perches high on the branches of trees in early spring, seemingly always with its body angled away, or with a branch in front of it, so we cannot quite see its features properly. It is the thrush that sings, but never quite clearly or close enough for us to be sure. It isn’t the poet Robert Browning’s bird: “That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over.” Instead it’s a wise thrush that makes fools of us all.

 Pic: INSADCO Photography/Alamy

Pic: INSADCO Photography/Alamy

For a large, bold bird with seams of aggression stitched into its character, a bird of dominance which can scatter smaller beings when it lands nearby, the Mistle Thrush is a remarkably overlooked species. It is found almost all over Britain, yet is barely noticed. Who would have thought that the species was once involved in a large-scale, Collared Dove-like invasion of swathes of the country? 

Admittedly, it was long ago; just before 1800, the Mistle Thrush was all but confined in this country to the south, but then something caused it very rapidly to spread all over northern England and Scotland over a few decades, until by 1850, it had conquered the whole realm. 

The BTO’s Bird Atlas 2007-11 records breeding in 96% of the 10km squares covering the British Isles. While we conquered Napoleon, parts of our country were quietly being invaded.

Low density breeding

It would have been invasion-lite, however. It is not as if we readily see a Mistle Thrush at every street corner. It has long been recognised that British Mistle Thrushes breed at bewilderingly low density. 

One well-studied suburban plot held 180 pairs of Blackbirds, 12 pairs of Song Thrushes and just one pair of Mistle Thrushes, while a broad estimate suggested that the density of Mistle Thrushes is only 10% that of Blackbirds. The impression is that there is plenty of room to expand, and the larger thrushes are not as numerous as they should be.

There are some explanations for the low density. In contrast to Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, Mistle Thrushes don’t tend to feed among leaf-litter, preferring open grassland, instead. 

Furthermore, they generally eschew the patchwork of small gardens that make up suburbia, needing wider expenses of sward to feed comfortably. They also prefer tall trees for nesting. Despite these drawbacks, they still could be more abundant. And this is particularly odd when you bear in mind that, in some parts of the continent, Mistle Thrushes can be colonial. 

Most pairs nest singly, but in countries such as Denmark, Germany and Russia, some do breed in close proximity. For some reason, this just doesn’t seem ever to happen here.

 Pic: Sandra Price/Alamy

Pic: Sandra Price/Alamy

The low density of breeding pairs ensures that it is always a treat to hear the song of a Mistle Thrush percolating through the soundscape of a neighbourhood. Some consider it one of the finest of British bird songs, combining the Blackbird’s virtuoso content with the Song Thrush’s proclamatory style. 

It does combine elements of the two, with a repetitive style redolent of Song Thrush but with tone closer to Blackbird. Listen long enough, however, and you can pick up its own unique flavour. 

It has an unforgettable melancholy quite lacking in the other two species, and the singer also has a curious knack of sounding much further away than its actually is. Invariably, it stays longer on its perch than the other thrushes, almost always close to the very top of a lofty tree. 

Famously, it seems unperturbed by inclement weather, and will sing lustily in the rain and wind, when most other birds take shelter. I am not sure there are any statistics indicating that Mistle Thrushes sing more often than other thrushes in challenging meteorological conditions, nor indeed that they sing more frequently in the afternoon, as is claimed. Perhaps these impressions stem simply from the reality that Mistle Thrush phrases are easily drowned out by other songs? But it would take a hard heart not to be stirred by the wild, haunting utterances from the ‘Storm Cock’, fighting against an irksome wind on a stuttering spring day.

Another strange fact about Mistle Thrush songs is that, at least in some places, they apparently are given in flight. This isn’t an aberration but instead, in Germany and elsewhere, it is a routine phenomenon. 

Personally, I have never seen this, and I don’t know anybody who has; neither do the usual bird books over here refer to it. Yet sometimes the bird evidently launches into the air and sings as it goes, as a Cuckoo often does. This aerial aria seems to be a continental oddity.

And what about their courtship-flight? Have you ever seen that? Again, though, it has been recorded in the literature many times. The choreography is similar to that of the Robin’s early courtship, the ‘song-and-following’; the male sings, the female darts away, the male follows and sings, and so on. 

Sometimes the (presumed) male flies around the potential mate and shows off his gleaming white underwings. Usually concealed within tree branches, this ceremony is undoubtedly an early spring secret, unknown to most of us.

 Mike Lane/Alamy

Mike Lane/Alamy

One piece of behaviour that is much easier to observe, however, is the Mistle Thrush’s aggression, coupled with its very loud, discordant calling, an angry and irritable rattle. While this is sometimes triggered by the presence of a bird of prey or other danger, or by the unwanted presence of rivals, look closely and you might see that it is frequently all about berries.

You might have thought that squabbles over fruits might have finished by the end of autumn, but the fact that they can rage now, in late winter and early spring, unveils another interesting pastime of our largest thrush, the sequestration of fruity assets.

Mistle Thrush: A half-understood species

While many thrushes, such as Redwings and Fieldfares, spend the winter passing nomadically from district to district feeding upon berries that they come across in serendipitous fashion, some singles and pairs of Mistle Thrushes take a different approach to foraging. 

They select a tree or trees that have a crop of long-lasting fruits, such as Holly berries, and remain close by them, driving away any visitors that arrive to take advantage of the crop. 

Such is the dominance and intimidatory manner of Mistle Thrushes that, for months on end, they can keep rivals of other species at bay, unless there is a sudden arrival of a large flock. 

So long as that eventuality doesn’t occur, the birds can ensure the preservation of a significant, personal food-supply for them to pluck whenever they wish – and when it is mild, they can feed on soil invertebrates while keeping watch on their inheritance. 

Their actions mean that Mistle Thrushes will often have a useful crop of berries available to feed themselves and their subsequent young well into the spring. It works so long as they are vigilant and suitably petulant when challenged. And yet, as so often with the Mistle Thrush, this isn’t the whole story. 

Some individual Mistle Thrushes undertake long-term fruit-defence, while others don’t at all, but are nomadic. What causes some to be sedentary and others to move isn’t known. 

And we don’t fully understand the song-flights, or the nest-dispersion, nor do we understand the nature of late-summer flocks. We don’t understand why Mistle Thrushes typically nest very early, with eggs in March, either. 

True, the Mistle Thrush is often a half-seen and half-identified bird, of annoyance to many a frustrated birder. But, surely, to scientists, it is also a half-understood species.

Where to see Mistle Thrush

A bird widespread across the UK, it can be found almost everywhere but is absent from the highest, barest ground and also from the northern and Western Isles of Scotland. Look in gardens, woodland and parks.


By Dominic Couzens

 Pic: David Slater/Alamy

Pic: David Slater/Alamy

You can imagine the scene. A Hawfinch perches upright in a tall forest tree, looking out over the canopy, well out of sight of any human being. As with every bird, everywhere, it is hungry, and here among the twigs and branches of its favourite woodland giant, it knows there is plenty of food

After a brief glance down, it manoeuvres its massive bill, opens the mandibles and plucks what it needs – a juicy caterpillar. Hang on, is that a mistake? A Hawfinch is eating a caterpillar? Is this the same Hawfinch that is famous for little more than having an outsize bill, capable of exerting enough force to crack a cherry kernel, or even an olive stone? Yes, this is the same species, alright. But this is the surprising Hawfinch, the real bird, which has a quiet lifestyle that very few people know about.

In the summer, oddly, it almost entirely forsakes its winter diet of nuts and fruits and feeds instead on soft-bodied invertebrates. The famous bill, its prized asset, is rendered less useful than usual and might even be a hindrance at such a time. But in the summer forest canopy, insects roll off the trees and times are easy, so the specialist becomes a temporary member of the ranks of ordinary insectivores, competing with Blue Tits and flycatchers. 

Young Hawfinches, in their first few weeks of life, must wonder what their bill is actually for. Of course, the Hawfinch’s mandibles do come into their own in the depths
of autumn and winter, when seeds are everywhere. 

With so many species competing for the nutrition they bring, it pays to have an dvantage, and the Hawfinch bill is simply more powerful than that of any other finch, allowing it access to larger and harder seeds and stones. And while the sheer size of the bill is what every birdwatcher can see, easily, it is the internal structure that is the marvel. 

Finches are defined by their bills, and the family as a whole is highly adapted for de-husking of seeds. Just inside the rim of the outer (cutting) edge of a finch’s upper mandible is a sharp bony ridge which juts out below the palate, but not as low as the outer edge – the arrangement is like the two ridges of a molar tooth. 

Hawfinch: packed with muscle

Using its tongue, a finch can lodge a seed in the gap between the cutting edge and the inner ridge. Meanwhile, the cutting edge of the lower mandible articulates into this gap, meaning that the sharp point of the lower mandible pierces the husk of any seed that is lodged there. A quick roll of the seed with the tongue peels off the pierced husk.

Hawfinches have this arrangement, but in addition their bills have a pair of bony, serrated protuberances at the back of both upper and lower jaw, either side of the mid-line of the bill. Once clenched on a seed, all the strength of the muscles closing the bill is concentrated on these four knobs jutting on to the husk.

It is this concentration of force that causes the seed casing, however hard it is, to rupture. And what force it is. Scientists have measured the crushing force of a Hawfinch bill and found it to exceed 50kg, which is a weight equivalent to more than twice the baggage allowance an airline might allow you. Think of those heavy bags at the airport and you will appreciate the extraordinary might of a bird that itself weighs only 0.05kg.

No wonder this finch has such a large, bulging head, packed with all that muscle. It is a bird that could, if circumstances allowed, probably crush your finger. Perhaps surprisingly, the bill isn’t the only part of a Hawfinch that is physically unusual. If anything, the flight feathers are even odder, indeed unique. 

Too much bird bling?

 Pic: imageBROKER/Alamy

Pic: imageBROKER/Alamy

The four inner primary feathers are a completely different shape to the conventional outer primaries that make up the wingtip. They are shorter than they ‘should’ be, truncated in length and curved at the ends. The secondaries are also slightly curved and, when the bird is perched, the wing looks somewhat damaged. It is hard not to think that this bling must impair the birds’ flight. Hawfinches are top-heavy and awkward in flight as it is! But what is the function of these ornaments? It is widely assumed that they play a role in sexual selection, since the modifications are more strongly pronounced in males than in females and, more tellingly still, are most fully developed in older, presumably socially dominant males. They are shown off in the subtle displays of Hawfinches

in winter flocks, the scene for pairing up. Males ruffle their plumage and droop and spread the wings, and these wing manoeuvres are not seen in other members of the finch family. 

Hawfinches also have an unusual ‘bill-touching’ display, in which the prospective pair lean over to touch the tip of each other’s bill, almost falling over while doing so. Another of the many curiosities surrounding this magnificent bird is the fact that it is so unobtrusively quiet. In the spring the woodlands resound with Chaffinch song, gardens fizzle with Greenfinch song and hedgerows chatter with the efforts of Linnets. But the woodland canopy remains quiet. 

Hawfinches do have a song, but it is soft, halting and unmusical, barely worth the effort – and besides, it seems that its function in pairing up and holding a territory is minimal. 

You hardly ever hear it. The call note, a loud, slightly spitting ‘pix’, is also easily missed, so much so that this bird, shy and quiet for most of the time, is famously difficult to find.

 Pic: Nature in Stock/Alamy

Pic: Nature in Stock/Alamy

A peculiar quirk of Hawfinch breeding behaviour is that there are two quite different types of ‘housing’. Some pairs nest entirely alone, hundreds of metres away from anybody else, seemingly alone in their ‘country estates’.

Others, however, the more successful birds, nest together in what be described as desirable cul-de-sacs, with a reasonable gap between nests (a few tens of metres), but in definite clusters. The reason for this distinction in breeding density isn’t known. As mentioned at the start, young Hawfinches in the nest are fed mainly on soft-bodied invertebrates, together with some seed paste crushed in the parents’ bills. This is fed bill-to-bill by both sexes. 

When the young leave the nest, they may stay with their parents for much longer than most young finches do, because the unusual bill takes time to develop. It is some months before the first-year birds can handle tough seeds – indeed, they might not be proficient until deep into the winter. Thus, if you see a flock of Hawfinches this winter, you might actually be seeing one or more family parties, because in addition to the young sticking around for a while, members of a pair frequently overwinter together. 

In common with most finches, they are highly sociable, although they form only modestly sized flocks. Last autumn was a bumper year for Hawfinches in Britain, with much large numbers than usual flocking to our shores. 

It is a great time of year to see this charismatic and colourful bird, a species which can be very surprising in many aspects of its lifestyle.

Hawfinch fact-file:

Scientific name: Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Length: 16.5-18cm
UK numbers: 500-1,000 breeding pairs, 10-15,000 wintering birds
Habitat: Deciduous and mixed woods
Diet: Buds, seeds and shoots

 Pic: Danita Delimont/Alamy

Pic: Danita Delimont/Alamy

House Sparrow

By Ian Parsons

 Pic: David Tipling Photo Library/Alamy

Pic: David Tipling Photo Library/Alamy

The House Sparrow, thanks to deliberate and not so deliberate introductions, is the most widely distributed bird in the world. In Britain, we have a population of more than five million pairs, making them one of our commonest species; they are familiar to us all, whether we live in the heart of the city or deep in the countryside. Yet, if you look at the data, these are birds that are in big trouble, especially in England. So what is going on with the House Sparrow?

The sad truth is that this common bird has experienced a drastic decline in numbers since the 1970s, it may still be a common bird, and a population of more than five million pairs sounds impressively large, but when you compare it to the 12 million pairs that we had in Britain in the 1970s you start to see there is a problem. A big problem. 

If the humble, ubiquitous Sparrow continues to decline at that rate it will be extinct in Britain within my lifetime. Surely, as I sit here writing this, listening to the House Sparrows in my garden squabbling over the food, that can’t happen, can it? The House Sparrow’s native range is large, extending throughout Europe and into Russia and Asia, down into the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as encompassing India and Bangladesh. Thanks to deliberate introductions, the bird has spread right across the globe. 

In America, it was first introduced from England into New York City to control the caterpillars of the Linden Moth which were ravaging the many Lime trees planted within the city. 

This wasn’t the best of plans, not least because, other than when they are feeding their chicks, the diet of the House Sparrow is very much seed-based (although they have now readily adapted to exploit our untidy ways when it comes to rubbish and food) and not caterpillar-based!

 Pic: Glenn Bartley/Alamy

Pic: Glenn Bartley/Alamy

House Sparrows have proven themselves to be prodigiously invasive. It was first introduced into New York in 1863 and is now the most abundant bird in North America, being found everywhere from the Arctic-hugging Northwestern Territories of Canada, down to the tropics of Panama. Just seven years after that North American introduction, House Sparrows were introduced to South America, being released in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1870. 

Nowadays it can be found right at the southern tip of the continent, in Tierra del Fuego, and all the way up the Andean coast almost meeting up with the North American birds in Panama.

Other introductions in Tanzania in 1900 have led to the bird being found across a large part of southern Africa and, following an introduction in 1863, most of eastern Australia is now home to these small birds. Once they have been introduced, House Sparrows are able to increase their range at an astonishing rate, sometimes expanding it by 140 miles a year! 

The House Sparrow, therefore, is a bird that can do extremely well in a variety of habitats. It is able to expand rapidly and is able to live alongside man in country and urban situations throughout the world. That makes the fact that the bird has had such a sharp decline in Britain extremely worrying; if the House Sparrow is struggling in Britain, what chance have other birds got? The House Sparrow is a brilliant little bird, but because it is so ubiquitous, so well known, it isn’t always appreciated, even by us birdwatchers, who can often be very dismissive of them when out birding. 

The fact is they are a very interesting species and because they are still relatively common and often live in close proximity to us they are an excellent species to study. Being able to watch a bird closely allows us to identify many aspects of bird behaviour. What better bird to practise your birdwatching skills on than the House Sparrow?

Studies have shown that this small bird is actually long lived for its size, with one bird in Denmark living for at least 19 years; the typical lifespan is between three and four years. 

This may seem low, but similar sized birds such as Dunnock and Robins have a typical lifespan of two years. House Sparrows form strong pair bonds, and are essentially monogamous. However, as is typical of many so called monogamous bird species, about 15% of the chicks that fledge are the offspring of a different male from the male bird of the pair. 

Not all the birds in a breeding population form pairs, though, and these unpaired birds often act as helpers to the paired ones, helping them raise their broods. This help is probably very important, as a breeding pair will often have three broods (sometimes four) of four-five chicks per brood, and without it, it is questionable whether the House Sparrow could be such a prodigious breeder.

As already mentioned, House Sparrows have a diet of mainly seeds, but the young in the nest have a diet of insects. They cannot survive on dry seeds, and as they have no access to water while in the nest, they get their moisture from juicy insects, which are also packed with vital protein. 

Many of our insect-feeding bird species have shown population declines as the sparrow over the same period and there is no doubt that our abundance of insects in Britain has been severely diminished in recent years.

 Pic: Tim Gainey/Alamy

Pic: Tim Gainey/Alamy

As a child, I remember what we used to call ‘Insect Rain’ – the splatter of insects hitting the car windscreen as you drove along on summer evenings – making a real mess of the windscreen and front of the car. This still happens in many parts of Europe, but you may have noticed that it hardly ever happens in England now. The intensification of agriculture and the subsequent development of newer and more lethal insecticides are blamed.

Fewer insects in the environment means less birds that depend on them. Changing agricultural practices are more than likely the cause of the decline of Sparrows in the countryside, but House Sparrows are also declining in our cities and urban environments, too. In fact, the decline in these areas is more rapid than the decline in the countryside, at the moment no one is quite sure what is causing this decline, but it is extremely worrying. 

They might not be yellow and they might not sing a pretty tune, but if such a successful bird is declining in our urban environments then perhaps they are fulfilling the role of the canary in the coal mine, warning us of impending danger.

House Sparrows may be very common, we may see them regularly, but we most definitely cannot take them for granted. They are in trouble, and that should concern us all. 

House Sparrow fact-file:

Scientific name: Passer domesticus
Length: 14-16cm
UK numbers: 5,300,000 breeding pairs
Habitat: Varied, from cities to farmland
Diet: Seeds and scraps


By Ian Parsons

 Credit: Ann and Steve Toon / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Ann and Steve Toon / Alamy Stock Photo

It won’t be long before the species that won last year’s Vote for Britain’s National Bird will be staring at you from the corner of your living-room. The Robin, quite possibly hopping around in the sort of snowfall we rarely see in December, and maybe even sporting a Santa hat, will be the star of a good many of the Christmas cards that you receive.

We’ll talk about the reasons for that seasonal association later, but, in fact, Robins will already have been stealing the show for several months. There are many indicators that summer’s over, autumn has been and gone and winter is here. 

From the leaves of Ash trees turning yellow, to the sloes on the Blackthorn darkening to a deep purple and the Swallows and Martins gathering on the wires in ever-increasing numbers, nature heralds the turning of the seasons in several different ways. But for me, nothing beats the autumnal and winter song of the Robin. 

Winter singing is unusual in British birds, but the Robin’s melancholic song is heard throughout the country as the temperatures drop. With other birds quiet, it is a great time to really get to know the song of this common bird. It is a melodic, fluty song, beautiful and sad at the same time. With everything else quiet, the beauty of the song seems extra special.

So why are they singing? Well, as in the spring, it’s to establish a territory, but, unlike in spring, they’re not singing to attract a mate to it. This territory is not for sharing. The Robin is well known for being a belligerent defender of its territory, and in early autumn they’re at their most aggressive as they compete with one another to establish the ownership of their autumn and winter quarters.

Robins defending their territory

It is estimated that 10% of all adult Robin deaths are caused by other Robins, and it is when the birds are establishing their autumn and spring territories that these fatalities are most likely to occur. A Robin singing on a cold morning may well be music to our ears, but it can be very dangerous for other Robins nearby.

If the birds are not looking to attract a mate to their territory, why are they expending energy in defending one? The obvious answer that comes to mind is food. The theory goes that the bird is defending a territory that will be able to provide it with sufficient food to see it through the non-breeding season. It sounds entirely plausible, but unfortunately it isn’t the case.

The territory in early autumn is full of food, so you’d expect the territory holder to be more relaxed when it comes to defending it, but the opposite is true; the birds are more aggressive, constantly driving off intruders.

Then, when the weather turns colder in December, and food is harder to come by, you’d expect the territory holder to be extremely vigilant and aggressive, yet they become more relaxed, allowing intruders to feed openly within the area.

 Credit: Dave Zubraski / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Dave Zubraski / Alamy Stock Photo

In extreme weather, several Robins can be seen feeding in the one spot. This suggests that the setting up of territory in the autumn has nothing to do with food provision.

The males of the previous breeding season’s territories tend to remain resident within them, although the boundaries may be slightly modified. The female will sometimes also defend a territory near to the breeding one, but they are more likely to move away.

In fact, the word ‘move’ doesn’t really do this justice; a better word would be migrate. We don’t tend to think of our humble Robin as a migratory bird, but in the east of its range it is a true migrant, with Scandinavian, eastern European and Russian birds all leaving their breeding areas for milder winter ones.

But there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to what the female British Robin does in the late autumn; some stay where they are, some move short distances and others migrate to Europe, going as far as southern Spain.

I live both in Britain and Extremadura in central Spain, and from the end of September onwards, the Robin population in Extremadura goes through the roof. These birds have to come from somewhere and at least some of them will be birds that bred in Britain.

The puzzling behaviour of Robins

 Credit: Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

I often wonder whether the Robins I see on my Extremadura patch in the winter are the same Robins I see on my British patch in the spring and summer! They start this southerly journey at the same time the birds that are staying behind start their autumnal song. 

Those that head for some winter sun in Europe, then return to their breeding areas by the beginning of March.

It’s not that unusual for the males and females of a migratory species to winter in different areas from one another. Waders, in particular, exhibit this behaviour, with the Black-tailed Godwit being a good example, but the Robin is unusual in that it is (mainly) just one sex, the female, which migrates, while the males stay resident.

How or why this behaviour has evolved is something of a mystery. Perhaps in the past, Britain’s population of Robins was more migratory than today, and the female behaviour now is a throwback to that time, but that still doesn’t explain why just the females do it, and even then not all of them. 

One thing for certain is that there will be a reason – small birds are not going to expend vast amounts of energy flying hundreds of miles on a whim. It goes to show that we have lots to learn when it comes to bird behaviour, even for our most familiar species.

The other puzzle is why the males expend lots of time and energy in establishing and defending a territory in the autumn. If it’s not for breeding purposes, or food, what is going on? There are a number of theories, but none are conclusive.

In the period just before the onset of this autumnal territorial behaviour, Robins are hard to find. We tend to think of the Robin as just being there, but if you keep notes on the birds you see in your garden or on your patch, you may well have noticed that in the second half of the summer these common little birds are not so easily seen.

Robins undergo a comprehensive moult in July, and when they do so they become far more reclusive in their behaviour. As they are vulnerable to predation while they are moulting, they spend much of their time skulking in thick cover. They even stop singing in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

With the moult finished and the Robins resplendent in their new plumage, they emerge from the shadows and once again become the bold bird that we all know. At this time, the day length begins to noticeably shorten and the temperature can start to drop, both factors corresponding to the conditions found in spring. Is it possible that the Robin’s physiology is tricked into thinking that spring is here again? 

It is a theory put forward by many, and similar behaviour is seen in other species in different parts of the world at the end of the summer, but if this is so, why is it that the Robin is virtually unique among British birds in this?

Another theory relates to the fact that the Robin is not the cute, friendly bird of Christmas card fame, but a rather aggressive species that readily enters into disputes.  Could it be that after spending several weeks skulking and hiding away while it went through the moult, the Robin feels the need to reassert itself over its neighbours and the now adult-feathered first-year birds?

By singing and defending a territory, it could be re-establishing the pecking order, so to speak. I don’t know the answer, but what I do know is that I am glad they do it, as listening to the song of the Robin when the rest of the bird world seems to have fallen silent is definitely one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Why is is the Robin a Christmas card star?

One theory is that, at the time the sending of Christmas cards first became popular, in the 1860s, postmen wore bright red uniforms, and were so sometimes called ‘Robins’ – early Christmas cards include designs in which the bird bears an envelope in its bill.

But, there seems to have been an earlier association between the bird and the Christmas period, and Christianity more generally.

One fable holds that when the baby Jesus was in his manger, the fire lit to keep him warm blazed up very strongly. A brown bird placed himself between the fire and Jesus, fluffed out his feathers, but got its breast scorched by the fire, and the Robin was the result.

Another story is that a Robin pulled a thorn from the crown of Christ while he was on the cross, and that it was Christ’s blood that created the bird’s red breast.

Robins also crop up in the stories of several early British saints, such as St Mungo (also known as Kentigern), who is said to have restored one to life, so the religious links extend back into the early medieval period and perhaps beyond.

But maybe the reason is much simpler. Their red breasts mean Robins are noticeably colourful at the darkest, dullest time of year, and their habit of singing throughout autumn and winter embeds them in our consciousness just as the festive season approaches – perhaps the cards are our nod to their role in lifting our spirits when we need it most.

Robin factfile:

Scientific name: Erithacus rubecula
Length: 12.5-14cm
Wingspan: 20-22cm
UK numbers: 6.7 million territories
Habitat: Woodland, hedgerows, parks
and gardens
Diet: Insects, worms, fruit and seeds


By Dominic Couzens

 Pic: Alamy/Alan Grant

Pic: Alamy/Alan Grant

It was a bitter late autumn day with a gale blowing so hard that any words you tried to speak were whisked unceremoniously from your lips and deposited as junk in the outbox of the airwaves. I caught myself murmuring: “There shouldn’t be a Kingfisher here.”

At this moment, the Kingfisher concerned would probably have echoed the sentiments. It was perched on what looked like a tin can, beside the meandering creek of an estuary at low tide. It was hunkered at the bottom of a mini-downland of raised mud just above the water level, doing its best to find shelter. 

Its neighbours were Redshanks, similarly huddled and hunkered under the brow of mud. They should have been feeding on the super-fertile shallows along the creek, but, in the howling westerly, they risked being blown off their feet. 

Their bejewelled neighbour risked being blown to oblivion. The wind ruffled contemptuously at the gorgeous plumage, still colourful through a rain-lashed telescope lens. The dandy looked incongruous here, like a glamorously dressed woman disgorged from a nightclub in a freezing dawn.

The last time I had seen a Kingfisher looking so out of place was many years ago, when I was birding in the middle of an oak woodland. It was one of those days when all the trees seem bored of summer, the spring green long faded and the hum of activity hushed. 

There came the loud, whistling call and the familiar cerulean flash of diminutive Kingfisher-dom, blue out of the blue. There was no stream through this wood, nor any water within a 20 minute walk. Yet, there was no doubt about the bird’s identity, only incredulity in its wake. These observations, taken in isolation, would prove nothing about Kingfishers except that, in common with any bird species, they can surprise us. However, the truth is that neither observation would even raise the eyebrows of a Kingfisher expert. 

To us, an estuarine Kingfisher might seem out of place, but it is our expectations that are wrong. Kingfishers are routinely found on estuaries. And Kingfishers also wander during the late summer, when they can turn up in the middle of woods and other peculiar places.

Kingfishers suffer from Breeding Bird Syndrome, when our perceptions of a species are wrapped up almost entirely in their summer programme. The same applies to Swifts, which probably spend far more of their lives flying over Giraffes than they do over English cricket pitches, and Puffins, which spend the smallest fraction of their lives carrying sand-eels in their bills, while endless days they are floating in the open ocean. We expect to see Kingfishers by glinting rivers, on a lazy bend with luxuriant growth and dancing mayflies, not on a windswept estuary.

Kingfisher life in the 'off-season'

 Pic: Wild Birds, Alius Imago/Alamy

Pic: Wild Birds, Alius Imago/Alamy

None of this takes into account a Kingfisher’s life in the off-season, when everything from the weather to the social climate is different and unsettled. For one thing, all the youngsters have been booted out of their parents’ territories and are on the look-out for a place that they can defend for their own. 

At the same time, adults evacuate from territories that cannot sustain them in the winter months, such as small brooks in the uplands. A few individuals might even enter the country from abroad. All are seeking the nirvana of a smooth, slow-flowing stretch of river where the water is shallow and productive. 

Demand outstrips supply, the best areas are quickly bagged and there is an almighty halcyon reshuffle. Displaced birds fly hither and thither, some just a short distance, some for much longer distances (250km has been recorded). Some individuals find themselves in what might almost be termed experimental territories. They try out fishing in garden ponds; birds plant themselves in brooks in the middle of woods; and a good many are forced into salt water, to estuaries, harbours, even to rocky shorelines, where they fish the rockpools like human toddlers.

These places seem to be a far cry from the ideal, but it is not as though these birds are landing on Mars. Kingfishers eat fish, and their skills are fully translatable from fresh to salt water. British Kingfishers are actually quite one-dimensional in their feeding behaviour – it is ‘dive into water to snap up fish’ or nothing (one exhaustive study on nearly 17,000 prey items found that only 0.07% were non-piscivorous.) The birds are perfectly capable of diving after a brief hover, or even plunging in straight from horizontal flight, but their method is really very simple. Would they need to adapt much to the supposedly sub-optimal habitat of salty or brackish water?

The real question is, perhaps, why don’t we see many Kingfishers on our estuaries and coasts? There are plenty of fish in the sea. If you look at the Kingfisher family as a whole, quite a number of species are coastal specialists, and a few are routinely seen by the beach – I watched a Pied Kingfisher accompanying gulls and terns on a beach off southern Israel just recently. 

The same species has been recorded three kilometres out to sea. Even our own species of Kingfisher may show different behaviour abroad, where it occurs east to Japan; it often occurs in mangroves, for example.

Presumably something isn’t quite right, because otherwise we would all see these birds more frequently on our visits to coasts. Perhaps there isn’t enough shelter, or there is too much disturbance from other bird species? 

Perhaps the fish themselves stay deeper in the water and are more difficult to catch. There are certainly many more foragers on estuaries than along rivers. But, for the moment, we can still be surprised to see these gaudy birds there.

Kingfisher quirky behaviour

A couple of recent studies have unveiled another interesting quirk of Kingfisher non-breeding behaviour, one that I haven’t ever witnessed myself. It throws a harsh light on the difficulties young birds face when they initially leave their birthplaces, and suggests a novel way of dealing with it. It seems that, on occasion at least, siblings settle in a new place together and look out for each other.

 Pic: Naturfoto-Online/Alamy

Pic: Naturfoto-Online/Alamy

On a river in Poland (ie central Europe), the observers found that, while adult Kingfishers always dispersed singly to their winter territory, in four out of 24 cases, juveniles came in twos. 

Under the pressure of competition from other birds using the river, youngsters were often displaced from the first few territories into which they had settled, only remaining for a short time. 

However, when the birds arrived as pairs, they occupied the best territories and remained for a much longer period of the non-breeding season. Working co-operatively, birds making up these pairs were able to fight off the competition for longer. It is believed that such pairs are probably from the same family. 

In the Kingfisher family, blood relatives often occur in permanent groups (kookaburras, for example), so perhaps European Kingfishers are exhibiting a family trait. The makeup of these pairs (and occasional small groups) is still not fully understood, though, so it could be a fascinating area of study.

For now, though, we can all contemplate an even stranger sight than a Kingfisher cowering in the bowels of a bitter winter estuary – two Kingfishers cowering together. 

Kingfisher factfile:

Scientific name: Alcedo atthis
Length: 17-19.5cm
UK numbers: 3,800-4,600 breeding pairs
Habitat: Alongside still or slow-flowing water
Diet: Fish and aquatic insects

Long-tailed Tit

By Ian Parsons

The Long-tailed Tit is not a typical tit, in fact it isn’t actually a tit at all! It turns out that the long-tailed visitor to your bird feeders is actually more closely related to the babblers of India and South-east Asia than it is to the Blue Tits and Great Tits that we associate it with. But the long tail is longer than the rest of the body, so other than not being closely related to the true tits, the Long-tailed Tit is a very well-named bird indeed!

They are also on the increase, which is an unusual thing in British birds and one that is definitely worth celebrating, especially as a main part of their preferred habitat is towns and cities – meaning that these delightful little birds are an increasingly common sight for many of us. 

 Pic: David Chapman/Alamy

Pic: David Chapman/Alamy

Feeding the birds in your garden is a great way to see lots of species close up, it is a rewarding experience for us and one that many people are rightly enthusiastic about. It is also very important for many bird species, with the Long-tailed Tit being a great example: the reason that this bird is doing so well in the urban and semi-urban habitats of our towns and cities is because of us feeding the birds in our gardens.

But, just because the Long-tailed Tit is doing well doesn’t mean that life is easy for it. The population in the UK is extremely vulnerable to the weather, with very cold winters resulting in large drops in numbers the following year. 

But it isn’t just the winter weather that can cause problems for the bird, the weather in spring and autumn is also strongly linked to the bird’s survival, with studies showing that warm weather in both seasons has a positive effect on numbers, whereas wet springs and cold autumns have a negative effect on numbers.

However, Long-tailed Tits are able to bounce back relatively quickly from periods of bad weather thanks to their potential breeding output. The result is large fluctuations in their overall numbers year on year; thankfully though, the trend is an upward one at the moment.

The winter is the time that Long-tailed Tits are at their most obvious. They form loose flocks ranging from five to 30 birds (even up to 50!) that rove the local area looking for feeding opportunities. Sometimes these flocks intermingle with other small birds, while at other times they are purely Long-tails! 

 Pic: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy

Pic: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy

Being in the middle of one of these feeding parties is always a delight. Their soft, bubbly contact calls fill the air and you find yourself surrounded by these great little birds, hanging off the branches above your head or flitting past your face as they move from tree to tree, seemingly oblivious to your presence.

Birds form flocks for many reasons. For example, the more eyes there are, the better the chance a predator will be spotted early enough for the flock to take avoiding action. More birds can also mean more chance of finding food (although it then has to be shared!), but it seems as if Long-tailed Tits form their flocks for another reason. They form them to keep warm. 

While, undoubtedly, the birds get other benefits from grouping together, it seems that a major reason behind this behaviour is to help the birds get through the long, cold winter nights.

The threat of winter for Long-tailed Tit

Long-tailed Tits are tiny birds. Their long tail makes them look bigger than they are, but the reality is they are very small. Small bodies lose warmth far more quickly than larger ones and, therefore, Long-tailed Tits are prone to hypothermia during the chilly nights of winter. 

To combat this, the group of Long-tailed Tits get very busy as dusk approaches, feeding up before selecting a nice thick shrub or tree to roost in. Within the confines of the branches the birds huddle together. By getting up close and personal with the other members of the flock, who are often related, they minimise the amount of heat that they lose. It is a brilliant and sociable adaptation. 

 Pic: FLPA/Alamy

Pic: FLPA/Alamy

Come the spring, with its warmer nights, the flocks disperse and the birds pair up to breed. The breeding season starts early for these little birds, often in February, but the reason for the early start has nothing to do with maximising the broods it can produce in the one year – it is all about their fabulous nest, an avian architectural wonder. 

The nests are basically a large pouch with a small entrance hole towards the top, constructed by both the male and female. They can take up to three weeks to make. They are made by using moss, lichen, feathers and spider silk, which the birds gather from the silk egg cocoons of various spider species. There are around 6,000 individual components used to make these wonderful structures. The spider silk is the glue holding together the moss, lichen and feathers, but it is even cleverer than that. 

A study of the construction of the nests revealed that the spider silk is used to form small loops that snare the tiny, hook-like leaves of the moss, creating a strong bond that prevents the nest falling apart, even when it is full of youngsters. You have to wonder if the person who invented Velcro ever watched Long-tailed Tits make a nest...

Once the nest is constructed, the birds then need to line it, and this itself is a mighty task. The tits line it with soft downy feathers, but they don’t just use one or two, they use about 2,000! It is amazing to think that they are able to find that many downy feathers, but find them they do, and the nest must be really comfortable as a result. 

I remember, many years ago, approaching a Goshawk nest site early in the season to check occupancy (under licence of course). On my way in to the site, I passed the raptors’ main plucking post (always a great thing to check out!) and, as I did, I flushed up a Long-tailed Tit. 

At the time, it didn’t register with me what this bird was doing, but as I think about it now it makes sense. A plucking post is going to be a great source of downy feathers. Nothing is wasted in nature.

 Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

Pic: Mike Lane/Alamy

Despite the care and attention that goes into building the nest, many actually fail. When this happens, the adults involved sometimes help out with a nearby nest, helping to provide the young with food and to keep predators away. 

The birds that do this are often related to the birds that they are helping, so they benefit by ensuring the future of related offspring. It is also thought that they gain experience, which may mean that the following year they are less likely to suffer a nest failure again. 

One thing is for certain, this behaviour greatly benefits the young in the nest. Studies have shown that they have much greater survivability if their parents have been helped out in rearing and defending them. The Long-tailed Tit is a social bird. Whether they are helping a relation rear their young or snuggling up to them in the depths of winter to keep warm, these are birds that look out for each other.  

Where to see Long-tailed Tits

You can see these little birds pretty much anywhere, except for the far north and west of Scotland. Look (and listen) for them in woodland, farmland hedgerows, scrubland, parkland and also in your garden – check your feeders! 

They will form a flock with other tit species during the winter months.

Alternative names for Long-tailed Tit

Old English names for the Long-tailed Tit include: Long-tailed Pie, Mumruffin, Bottle Tit, Bum Barrel, Bum Towel, Oven Bird, Bag and Hedge Jug to name a few!

Long-tailed Tit fact-file

Scientific Name: Aegithalos caudatus
Length: 13-15cm (8cm of which is the tail!)
UK numbers: 340,000 UK breeding territories
Habitat: Towns and cities
Diet: Mostly insects, occasionally seeds in autumn.




By Dominic Couzens

 Pic: Alamy

Pic: Alamy

Whatever you have learnt about ducks probably isn’t true about the Goosander. This is a very different animal from your quacking park staples, and almost everything they do, it doesn’t do. 

If you take a list of unusual duck facts, many of them will be true of Goosanders. The Goosander is a duck apart, a thoroughbred and a maverick. Far from being a portly, bread-ivorous consumer of benefit handouts, the Goosander is
a big-game fishing duck. 

Instead of occupying slummy waters in the urban sprawl, this bird is at home in fast-flowing, highly oxygenated, supercharged wild rivers and deep pools. It lives, in many parts of its range, among forests full of bears and wolves. It is the antithesis of the duck that is, if not domesticated, then domiciled. It is wild and untamed.

My first experiences with these characters always led me to assume that people, in the view of Goosanders, were to be avoided. From deep reservoirs in winter to streams in summer, you tended to see the back end before you saw the front, the big, torpedo-shaped bodies whistling off and away, not a thought for pleasantries. There is no breaking bread with a Goosander.

Their diet, too, is the opposite of a handout. Many species of ducks, throughout the world, take an extremely leisurely approach to feeding. Mallards, for all their adaptability, give the impression that they are never making any more effort than we would to dig up carrots. Shovelers bulldoze the water surface, Teals pick seeds from the mud; Pochards graze underwater and sleep for much of the rest of the time; even Eiders in the sea only dive down to yank immotile cockles from the sea bed. 

Goosanders, though, are birds that chase, and their prey is both fast and reluctant to be caught. They are among the very few ducks that catch fish for a living, along with their ‘sawbill’ relatives, the Red-breasted Merganser and Smew. These ducks need pace underwater, and they need unobstructed space in which to spot and snatch their prey. 

Almost any fish species less than 20cm in girth may be consumed, anything from a stickleback to a salmon. They catch what is most abundant; in extreme cases they can swallow a fish 36cm long. They will search among the sediment and among stones, in a submarine world it is hard for us to imagine. They have excellent vision and will hunt well into dusk, or even after dark. 

The serrated edges of their mandibles allow them to hold slippery prey.

Goosander: Hunting and homes

 Pic: Alamy

Pic: Alamy

Where fishing is good, Goosanders will gather. In contrast to the quarrelling Mallards spitting over bread, these sleek hunters will hunt co-operatively, and with deadly effectiveness. Sometimes they dive as one to startle fish into rash decisions, and sometimes they will form a line to drive shoals of prey into shallow water. There is no jostling in this classy species.

Goosanders don’t follow the duck trail in much of their breeding behaviour, either. Despite being large, they nest in holes in trees, or sometimes rocks or strange sites, such as hollow logs on the ground, or in buildings. 

These holes may be anything from 1m above ground to an impressive, decidedly lofty 30m. True, that epitome of duck-hood, the Mallard, will sometimes nest in tree-holes as well, but among duck species as a whole it remains unusual. Most types, from Tufted Ducks to Gadwalls, nest among vegetation on the ground. 

One might immediately sense a problem for Goosanders, when looking for nest-sites: where can they find anywhere big enough? You could fit a Mandarin or a Smew into a small space, but not a Goosander. The penthouse suite must be spacious. Fortunately, in most parts of their range, Goosanders can call in large woodpeckers to provide housing. 

In Europe, it is Black Woodpeckers and in North America, Pileated Woodpeckers, both of which are impressively bulky, and the woodpeckers’ habit of continuously excavating holes means that the ducks can keep their numbers up. 

In Britain, where Black Woodpeckers are absent, Goosanders can use other holes and hollows, perhaps where branches have broken off. They will also use nest-boxes.

Almost all duck species’ progeny are quickly led to water almost as soon as they hatch. Nestling Goosanders spend their first day or two in the hole and then conform to type. 

Of course, this arrangement comes with a snag, if you are 30m above ground. The chicks might be lightweights, physically, but they certainly aren’t in courage; necessity urges them to make the jump to ground, and then the mother urges them on, during the walk to water, however far that might be – 1.5km has been recorded. 

It is quite a jolting start in life. In their early days, the mother may treat the chicks to a parental quirk which is unusual among wildfowl, a ride on her back. Presumably this has some survival value, but she isn’t always able to accommodate the whole brood, which can number 12, and occasionally as much as 17.

 Pic: Alamy

Pic: Alamy

Goosander mystery solved

Looking at the Goosander’s overall behaviour, it seems to follow almost every unusual lead in the world of wildfowl, from hole nesting to ferrying young to chivvying fish. 

Yet another strange behaviour that it exhibits might qualify as the strangest of all, and it is taking place at about the time you are reading this article, or just after.

You are probably aware that some birds perform special migratory movements for the purposes of moult. The most famous of these birds is the Shelduck, which flies from Britain to Germany in the summer, while Barnacle Geese sometimes fly north of the breeding grounds to moult. They go for no other reason than to change their feathers in a safe environment.

It has been discovered quite recently that Goosanders also have a moult migration, yet extraordinarily, it is confined to the males. For many years, it had been noted that the drakes were absent from their Scottish rivers from June to October or so, even where the mothers and broods were feeding, and for many years their whereabouts was a mystery. 

It has now been shown that these drakes undertake a remarkable journey, travelling all the way to the North Cape of Norway. Here they mingle with 35,000 other males from other parts of western Europe and loaf about, moulting their plumage.

It is well known that ducks commonly show differential migration, with each gender exhibiting a different migratory strategy – for example
male Smews remain close to the breeding grounds in winter, while in Britain, further away, we see more females and immature males. 

However, for the male Goosanders to migrate such a significant distance, leaving the females behind, is of a different order of magnitude.

On the other hand, for such a remarkable, unconventional duck, it is just another example of doing everything in its own way.

Goosander facts:

Scientific name: Mergus merganser
Length: 58-68cm
Wingspan: 78-94cm
UK numbers: 3,100-3,800 breeding pairs /
12,000 wintering birds
Habitat: Upland rivers in summer, lakes, gravel pits and reservoirs in winter
Diet: Fish