26/11/2009
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Shifty characters on your bird table?

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We've all been out of our comfort zones at work events or social occasions and not acted as confidently as we might amongst our friends. And it seems that some wild creatures behave just as suspiciously when visiting a new garden. Next time you see birds on your tables and feeders, look out for some shifty characters that don't seem to know how to behave.

Blackbird
Blackbird, Woodley, Greater Manchester (Photo: Steve Oakes, AEBS Limited)

They may look like your resident Blackbird, or the Song Thrush that's sung all summer, but their behaviour might give them away — as inter-continental interlopers. Wary birds that skulk in the undergrowth and lurk near feeders and tables, darting out for a quick feed before zipping off over the hedgerow at the slightest disturbance, are likely to have come from many hundreds of miles away in Scandinavian countries.

Although they look and sound almost identical to our summer residents, many of them will be a part of the mass migration that brings droves of birds into the UK in winter. Thousands of these will end up in our gardens, on the hunt for the additional food sources that we provide for them as natural food becomes scarce. And believe it or not, despite the winter chill here, some birds will have come to the UK for warmth as our climate is considerably milder than places like Scandinavia. They will take some time settling in after their incredibly long journeys. The change of scenery, along with their reactions to having people nearby, means that their behaviour can stick out like a sore thumb.

The RSPB is asking gardeners to consider the migrant birds that they will be feeding as well as the native birds that remain in the UK all year round. The wildlife charity hopes that if gardeners realise just how far some of their garden birds have come they will be even more eager to provide them with food and water, which is vital over winter.

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Val Osborne, RSPB Wildlife Adviser, says: "Look out for birds like Redwings, Fieldfares and Mistle Thrushes in your gardens at this time, which will have come from Northern Europe to our milder climate. And some Blackbirds, which we will likely assume are the same ones we see all year, could also have come from places like Scandinavia and central Russia."

Mistle Thrush
Mistle Thrush, Leasowe, Cheshire (Photo: Richard Steel)

Many of the visiting birds spend their summers in places that are a lot more sparsely populated than the UK and are less likely to come into regular contact with people. They are less used to the garden environment and being close to humans so they are less comfortable and may appear 'shifty'. They will also not be so used to visiting bird tables and feeders and will lurk closer to undergrowth, whereas our native birds are perfectly at home foraging in gardens and hanging from feeders.

Despite it appearing bleak in the countryside to us, winter bird visitors will find an abundance of natural food in the UK compared with what's available over winter back home. Many berry-bearing shrubs and hedgerows are still at peak production for a few weeks yet, and Christmas holly berries are particularly popular with Mistle Thrushes.

Val Osborne says: "Visiting birds don't need any different treatment to 'our birds'. We'd just like to make people aware of how amazing some of their journeys will have been to get to our tables and feeders and hope this will make them even more inclined to keep up their feeding. Many migrant birds simply aren't used to gardeners and people near their feeding sites and will 'skulk' in a surreptitious fashion. Our birds will dive straight into the feeding like they own the place but visiting birds may take a while to adjust. It's proof of how incredible our garden wildlife is."

In addition to the natural food that birds will find, the RSPB is urging everyone to step up the supplementary feeding they do in their gardens now too. As the weather gets colder many leftover berries will freeze and there will be fewer insects. The ground will be hard making it difficult to penetrate for finding worms, while snails take to hiding in watering cans and under flower pots. Feeding birds could help them through the winter. The RSPB suggests a mixture of seed mixes and leftovers from our own cupboards such as grated cheese, cooked potatoes, rice or pasta, porridge oats, fruit and biscuit and cake crumbs. For more information on what to feed birds visit www.rspb.org.uk/advice.

Written by: RSPB