Understand winter garden bird behaviour

Discover the key signs to look (and listen) out for when watching birds through your kitchen window. 

Understanding garden bird behaviour, January 2014

Observing garden birds can be extremely rewarding – especially when you understand the action being played out on and around the feeder. And it’s never easier to learn about their behaviour than in midwinter, when birds flock to gardens in search of food.

Short days and long nights pile on the pressure for both resident British birds and winter visitors. They must feed as much as possible during daylight hours to lay down fat reserves to sustain themselves after dark.

For example, a wren weighing about 10g can lose 10 per cent of its body weight during one cold, wintry night. By stocking up at garden feeding stations, the wren can quickly replace those reserves rather than expending lots of energy foraging elsewhere.

So what are birds really up to in your garden? Get your binoculars and notepad ready – we’ve spoken to experts and examined key behaviours for you to spot and record. Watch the back-yard drama unfold in your own private nature reserve.


Body chemistry and birdsong

At this time of year, the birds in your garden may appear to be completely preoccupied with survival. But as winter wanes and daylight hours increase, hormonal changes are preparing them for the breeding season.

You’ll hear a few songs as the year gets underway, and the air gradually fills with melodies throughout January as birds begin to sing to mark out prospective territories, starting with early-breeding species.

Collared doves can sometimes breed as early as January, when their repetitive ‘coo-cooo-coo’ call is one of the first to listen out for.

An exception is the robin, which can be heard singing nearly all year – except during March, when the birds become preoccupied with raising their young. 


When to watch

According to the BTO, there are three distinct peaks in birds’ feeding during a winter’s day.

First, breakfast. Birds must feed soon after emerging from their roosts to top up energy reserves used in the night.

The second peak takes place in the middle of the day, when subordinate birds – juveniles or smaller species – may visit in an effort to avoid competition.

Finally, another peak happens near the end of the day, as birds top up reserves to survive the night ahead.


Feeding habits

It is fascinating to observe the range of strategies birds use to maximise food intake during the coldest months.

Nuthatches, jays and coal tits are known for caching food, particularly in the latter part of the year. During the harshest winters, jays have been recorded digging through snow nearly 0.5m deep to retrieve a cache of acorns below.

Some species adapt their behaviour to secure a meal. Robins, which usually swoop down to catch worms and insects, have learned to hang on a feeder instead. And blackbirds have been seen fishing minnows out of ponds, pecking at cat faeces and prodding at carrion. 


Let’s stick together

In winter, small birds such as blue tits, long-tailed tits, great tits and goldcrests may band together while foraging.

Each of our tit species must devote nine out of every 10 waking minutes to finding food. The tiny goldcrest must forage from dawn to dusk to survive the season.

By forming a group, the birds can spend more time feeding and less keeping a watch for predators such as cats.

Communal roosting also reduces heat loss, so conserving energy. It is thought that roosts can act as information centres, allowing individual birds to assess the condition of others nearby. Why? Following a well-fed neighbour can lead to good feeding grounds.


Preening and cleaning

It’s vital for birds to keep their feathers in good condition, for flight but also – at this time of year in particular – insulation.

Watch how a bird behaves at the bird bath. It will moisten its feathers rather than soaking them. The aim is to spread its preen oil across its plumage, after which it preens to work the oil into the feathers.

To rid themselves of parasites, birds can be seen ‘nibbling’ flight feathers and spreading out their wings and tail in the sun. 


Pecking order

Birds use display as a way of settling disputes over food or territory, and to maintain a dominance hierarchy.

Aggression between species is common. For example, a blackcap will intimidate a greenfinch, but will itself be seen off by a larger bird such as a great spotted woodpecker. In general, might is right – bigger birds take priority.

However, there are exceptions: blackcaps are notably aggressive and will chase other birds away from feeders.


Visting birds

Only a handful of British birds, including tawny owls and house sparrows, are highly sedentary – the vast majority are migrants to varying degrees.

Open your door on a cold winter’s morning, and a flock of blackbirds may take flight. But one bird remains a little longer than the rest. This is your resident male, who has adapted to the garden over the summer: it’s his territory. The Scandinavian visitors, however, are more wary: this is still new ground for them.


Fluffing up

If you are lucky enough to have house sparrows in your garden this winter, look at them closely. Sparrows increase the weight of their feathers by 70 per cent between summer and autumn, after their autumn moult.

This plumage doesn’t just insulate – it can also be fluffed up, creating heat-trapping air pockets. Robins also tend to appear fluffier in winter, likewise trapping heat to stay alive.


Feathered friends

Birds often attain their adult feathers in just three weeks, or 1 per cent of their life expectancy. By contrast, large mammals develop over the first 30 per cent of their lives, which explains why we see lots of play in apes, for example, but so little in birds.

Most interactions at feeders involve squabbling, not play. Younger birds in particular are fighting to put on weight, and the same is true of minute, hyperactive species such as long-tailed tits, goldcrests and wrens, which have very limited fat reserves.


Berry guarding

In a larger or leafier garden you may well have mistle thrushes, which in winter are particularly abundant in areas such as Kent, Hampshire, the Pennines and South Wales. Mistles often select a berry-bearing bush, holly or yew in autumn, then defend it until its crop has gone – birds that guard berries get into breeding condition earlier in the year and lay more eggs. 

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