2020 sure was a year like no other. As we entered a new decade, we found ourselves confined to our homes - many of us with extra time on our hands and looking for ways to fill it. We turned to baking, Zoom quizzes and online fitness classes. And our homes benefited from a spring clean and various DIY projects which we had been putting off.
With people around the UK urged not to venture out of their homes, bird watching became the perfect hobby to occupy time. We became fascinated with the world outside our windows, and started to appreciate nature - something which is sadly so often taken for granted.
Compared to the previous year, 2020 saw a 96% rise in the number of people looking up common and rare birds found in UK gardens. As well as an 89% rise in people searching online for bird watching binoculars. Internet search engines also saw a whopping 232% rise in ‘Bird with..’ related searches as Brits described the birds they were seeing to try and identify them.
Bird watching, also known as birding, has long been a popular pastime in the UK among nature enthusiasts, but it seems interest has soared during lockdown, as bored Brits looked for new hobbies to keep themselves entertained. In fact, the months of April and May 2020 saw the biggest spike in internet searches related to birding and spotting individual birds.
Bird watching is an ideal activity to do alone, and it’s great for the little ones to get involved with too - undoubtedly forming part of home schooling for many children across the country. And for those who were always on the go pre-pandemic, this past year has given us the opportunity to slow down, and truly appreciate the natural world around us.
The Most Common Birds in UK Gardens
The UK is home to a variety of birds, some common like the humble pigeon, and some more exotic like the parakeets found in parts of the capital - with the first birds rumoured to be released by Jimi Hendrix on London’s Carnaby Street during the swinging 60’s.
There are plenty of birds to be spotted in local parks, in back gardens, and even just by looking through your window from the comfort of our own home. But do you know which species of bird you’re spotting? Here’s a list of the most common garden birds found in the UK and how to identify them.
The UK’s favourite bird, the robin has been a frequent visitor to our gardens for decades. Easy to spot due to its signature red breast (which is actually part of their territory defence, warding off intruders), white belly and brown back, the robin can be seen all year round. Though young robins are mottled brown all over. At the bird table, robins enjoy mealworms and fat balls.
The largest of our tit species, a great tit is about the size of a robin. They’re very vocal birds and are identified by their black heads, white cheeks and yellow chests. You’ll often see them nabbing a seed and then dashing off to a favourite perch to eat it. They also enjoy sunflower hearts, whole shelled peanuts and fat balls.
It’s easy to spot the common blackbird pottering around, hoovering up seeds with their bright yellow beaks. The males are black in colour, while the females are actually dark brown. But both have a distinctive yellow/orange ring around their eyes. They enjoy eating mealworms and ground feeder mix, but are also partial to oats, apples and even grated cheese.
A common sight in UK gardens, woodland, hedgerows and parks, the blue tit is easy to spot with its blue cap and striking yellow breast. You’re more likely to see them in the winter time, so stock up on whole shelled peanuts, sunflower hearts and fat balls.
Chaffinches are beautiful little birds, with a pretty pink breast and blue-grey crown. Similar in size to a sparrow, the females are a little less vibrant, with their brown feathers and black and white wing-bars. A common bird in Britain and Ireland, it’s likely you’ll hear them before you see them with their loud, varied song. Look out for them hopping about under hedges and bird tables, feeding on seed mixes and peanuts.
Less colourful than some of its relatives, the coal tit has a grey back, black cap, and white patch at the back of its neck. It’s smaller than blue and great tits, and they will often collect food such as insects, seeds and nuts from bird feeders to store and eat later. In winter they join with other tits to form flocks which roam through woodlands and gardens in search of food.
Collared doves have a fairly large wingspan of around 50cm, and are a pale, pinky-brown grey colour, with a distinctive black neck collar. They have deep red eyes and feet, and you’ll often recognise them by their familiar cooing sound. They’re usually found on their own or in pairs, and like to feed on seeds, grains, buds and shoots.
The dunnock is a small brown and grey bird, often seen on its own creeping along the edge of a flower bed or bush. They’re usually quiet little birds, but when two rival males come together they become animated with lots of wing-flicking and loud calling. You’ll find dunnocks in well vegetated areas, largely on the ground and often close to cover. And they feed on insects, spiders, worms and seeds.
This distinctive bird is one of our most beautiful garden birds. They’re easy to spot with a bright red face, golden back and flashes of yellow on its wings. Their fine bills are perfect for extracting seeds from dandelions and thistles, and they also enjoy visiting gardens to hunt for sunflower hearts and nyjer seeds.
This vibrant little bird is recognisable by its twittering, wheezing song and flashes of yellow and green as it flies. The greenfinch is a regular garden visitor, and feasts on sunflower seeds and insects. They’re sociable birds, though they may squabble with other birds at the bird table.
Once one of the most common birds found in UK gardens, there is no mistaking the smoky cap and rich brown plumage of the male sparrow. And the female is brown all over, with grey-brown underparts. These tiny birds have seen a severe decline in numbers since the 1970’s, but providing food such as peanuts and small seed mixes can attract them to your garden.
The long-tailed tit will often arrive in large flocks of around 20 birds, and they’re easy to spot with their fluffy grey-pink feathers, round body, long tail and tiny beak. In the evening, these cute and fluffy little birds will snuggle up together to keep warm. They enjoy eating peanuts, but fat balls are by far their favourite. Though don’t expect these birds to stick around for long, as long-tailed tits tend to move on quickly.
Magpies are commonly seen in the UK, particularly in parks and gardens. They’re easily recognisable, with their long tail, and black-and-white plumage - which close-up takes on a more colourful purple-blue hue. You’ll often see them in pairs, though non-breeding birds will gather together in flocks. And as they’re scavengers, they will eat anything from beetles and caterpillars, to household scraps and pet food.
The UK’s largest and most common pigeon, the woodpigeon is grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches. Its cooing call is a familiar sound, as is the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away. Woodpigeons tend to eat most things if offered, but they mainly eat crops like cabbages, sprouts, peas and grain. As well as buds, shoots, seeds, nuts and berries.
Ever heard a car alarm sound coming from your garden? Well it was possibly the unmistakable sound of a starling. These little mimics have shimmering green-black feathers with white speckles. They eat anything from peanuts and suet cakes, to mealworms and fruit.
How to Attract Birds to Your Garden
A decline in natural habitats means birds need our gardens more than ever. If you want to attract birds, you need to ensure your garden is attractive to them. A bird-friendly garden will offer food and water, as well as shelter, nesting sites and protection from predators. If birds aren’t visiting your garden, there are a few things you can do to encourage them:
1. Offer good quality food
Birds will be grateful for supplementary food, especially in winter, as it helps them conserve energy and get through cold nights. Ensure your bird table or feeder is regularly topped up as birds will soon start to rely on them. It’s also good to ensure your garden has natural food too. Berries and seeds are especially important, and lawns make great feeding grounds for many birds.
You can put your bird feeder in all sorts of places, but ideally aim for somewhere quiet, safe and sheltered. And make sure you can see it when you’re indoors so you can take pleasure in spotting all the different birds visiting your garden.
2. Supply clean water
A bird bath is an important feature to have in your garden if you want to attract birds, as all birds need clean water to drink and bathe in - especially in winter as it makes feathers easier to preen, keeping them insulating and waterproof. Ensure the water is fresh, and that it doesn’t freeze over in winter.
3. Provide shelter
Birds need shelter from the cold, especially in the winter. Dense shrubs, bushes and trees are especially good, as is mature ivy. Consider hanging a couple of nest boxes in your garden as some birds, including tits, will shelter in them, snuggling together for warmth. You can remove old nests in the autumn, from September onwards, once the birds have stopped using the box.
4. Protection from predators
Birds will not visit your garden if they feel unsafe. They need to be able to check for predators like cats, foxes and other birds, and they need somewhere to retreat to quickly. It’s best to put feeders up high and next to some cover - hung on a tree is perfect! A prickly shrub beneath a bird feeder can help deter cats. And don’t forget to move your bird feeders now and again so predators don’t always know where to look.
5. Keep your bird feeder clean
Make sure you clean bird feeders, tables and baths regularly so birds have a safe place to feed, drink and bathe. Dirty feeders and baths can soon be covered in bacteria and fungus which could be extremely harmful to visiting birds. And don’t let bird food go off. Just put out small amounts of fresh food at a time, and increase the supply during the cold weather when birds feed more.
If your garden provides food, water and shelter but the birds aren't coming - be patient as it can take time for birds to routinely visit your garden. Even if you don’t have a garden, just a feeder attached to a window will look inviting to hungry birds.
What do birds eat?
There are lots of different bird foods available, including mixes for bird feeders and bird tables, as well as for ground feeding.
Nuts and seeds
Black sunflower seeds are an excellent year-round food for many species of bird. The oil content is high, which is good for birds, and sunflower hearts are also a popular no-mess food.
Peanuts (crushed or grated) attract robins and dunnocks, and coal tits may hoard peanuts to eat later. Though don’t use salted or dry roasted peanuts as they can be toxic to birds, and never put out loose peanuts during the spring and summer months, as they pose a choking hazard to young chicks. Always place whole peanuts in a suitable mesh feeder.
Nyjer seeds are small and black, rich in fat and have a high oil content. But as they’re so tiny, you’ll need a special bird feeder with equally tiny holes so that seeds do not fall out or blow away. Nyjer seeds are particularly popular with finches, tits and house sparrows.
The best mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules.
House sparrows, dunnocks, finches and collared doves are attracted by small seeds. Flaked maize is a favourite with blackbirds, and pinhead oatmeal is great for many bird species. You’ll often find wheat and barley grain in seed mixtures, but they’re only really suitable for pigeons, doves and pheasants which feed on the ground and deter smaller species. And mixes that contain chunks or whole nuts should only be offered for winter feeding.
Avoid seed mixtures that contain beans, split peas, dried rice or lentils. These are added to some cheaper seed mixes, but only large species can eat them dry. Also avoid mixes containing green or pink lumps as these are dog biscuits, which can only be eaten when soaked.
Food bars and bird cakes
Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are excellent winter food for many species, including robins and tits. Just remember to take fat balls out of their mesh bags and place them into feeders, to stop birds getting their feet tangled.
You can make your own bird cake by taking an empty coconut shell or a plastic cup and pouring melted fat (suet or lard) into a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit and oatmeal. Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture, stir well and allow to set. Just beware that homemade fat balls can go off in warm summer weather, and should be avoided.
Meaty tinned cat and dog food is a good substitute for earthworms in summer. Blackbirds are a particular fan of dog food, and even feed it to their chicks.
It’s important not to use dry biscuits as birds can choke, but you can pre-soak dog biscuits to make them soft. Just beware that pet food can attract larger birds such as magpies, and also neighbourhood cats, which could cause a problem for smaller birds and their chicks.
Rice and cereals
Cooked brown or white rice is a great source of food for a variety of birds in winter - just make sure you don’t add any salt as this can be harmful to small birds.
Any dry breakfast cereal makes a tasty meal for birds, although you should only put out small amounts at a time, and make sure there’s plenty of clean drinking water close by. Uncooked porridge oats are also great for a number of birds, but never give birds cooked porridge oats, as this makes them glutinous and could harden around a bird's beak.
Bird watching is a great hobby that will get you out in the fresh air, making you more aware of the world around you. You don’t need any special equipment to begin with, and you can start by just looking out your window, or relaxing in your garden with a cuppa while seeing what curious little visitors pop by.
If you’re unsure which birds you’ve spotted, the RSPB has a handy tool to help you identify them.