The Blackbird (Turdus merula) can be found almost anywhere in the UK from gardens to the countryside, in woodlands and even near the coast. The male blackbird can be easily recognised by its orange yellow beak and an orange yellow ring around each eye, but the female blackbird isn’t black but brown with dark spots and streaks on her breast. How confusing is that!
Blackbirds forage for food on the ground near dense hedgerows and bushes so that they are partly under cover. When looking for food they often run or hop for a short distance and then suddenly stop as though they are listening out for something and then they run and hop again until they find food. They have a varied diet eating such things as worms, caterpillars, insects, beetles and berries. On sunny days they like to sunbathe and often you will be able to see a blackbird with its wings spread out wide, with its beak open and eyes closed. They really do enjoy the sun!
At dusk time in winter small numbers of blackbirds roost together in dense hedgerows and shrubs to keep warm. During this roosting period and before they settle in for the night, they all sing together making a chink-chink-chink sound. They sing their loudest at this time so they are easily heard. In the day their songs are much mellower and more melodious with a slow clear warble, making listening very pleasant to the ear indeed. They can be heard March to July. However, the male starts singing around the end of February to attract a female and it is at this time that you may be able see a male fluffing out his feathers, then spreading out his tail which he moves up and down like a fan all to impress the lady.
Nesting can begin in February and the female Blackbird will build her cup-shaped nest in hedgerows or dense bushes. The nest is made of grass, straw and small twigs and is lined inside with mud and fine grass. Females usually lay three to five eggs which are a greenish blue colour with reddish black spots. After two weeks the chicks hatch and then after another two weeks the chicks get their first coat of feathers making them ready to leave the nest.
The Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) is the UK’s smallest bird and weighs as little as a twenty pence coin.
Its call is a high pitched tsee, tsee, tsee, this call is one of the first sounds to go as the ears fade in later life. The bird is specially adapted to conifers such as pine, spruce and fir, because of its small size and ability to squeeze between the needles where it can feed on small insects.
The bird is recognised by the golden, yellow crown stripe.
They build a nest consisting of spider’s webs, mosses, and lined with feathers, this is then suspended from a branch.
The Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) is the tallest bird in the UK and is almost lanky-looking because of its long thin legs. It can often be found standing very still near canals, lakes, slow-flowing rivers and estuaries. It is a wading bird and like its name suggests it is mainly grey coloured, but it has a white head, chest and belly. It has a wispy crest of black feathers on the top of its head and black feathers running down the length of its long throat. It also has black feathers above each eye.
When a Grey Heron rests near water it often places its head between its shoulder in an hunched up position and stands very still and silent so it is easy to walk past a heron. However, you may spot it more easily in your garden if you have a pond since it likes to steal goldfish! When the Grey Heron hunts for fish in natural water it can stand motionless for a long period of time holding its neck in an elongated ‘S’ position ready to strike. It uses its long and pointed dagger-like beak to stab at a fish several times before eating it. If it catches a large fish the heron takes it out of the water and breaks it up into small pieces on land. Sometimes Grey Herons will eat small mammals, small birds, frogs and insect larvae and in coastal areas they will eat eels and crabs.
The Grey Heron has a wingspan of nearly two metres and in flight it curves its wings into an ‘M’ shape and beats them very slowly. It flies with its head drawn back into its body, but with its legs trailing horizontally behind, and often in flight it makes a very loud and harsh ‘frarnk’ or ‘kaark’ sound. When the heron is in flight the black outer feathers on the wings can be seen.
During the mating season Grey Herons perform wonderful courtship dances for the females. The male stretches his neck to the sky and then bends it very elegantly backwards until it touches his back. If they like each other, they both snap their beaks at each other while they run and hop towards each other with outstretched wings.
The male and female like to build their nest together very high up in tree tops close to water in woodland areas. The nests are made out small branches and twigs and are shallow and almost saucer-shaped. Nests are often built close to other nests creating a heronry. The female lays five greenish blue eggs and the chicks hatch out about twenty six days later. The chicks are fed on regurgitated fish and after about twenty or thirty day they are able to leave the nest to climb up and down branches. When they are approximately fifty days old they get their first set of feathers making them ready to leave the nest.
Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) are resident and passage migrants, they nest on moorlands and move to the lowlands in winter.
Given the name ‘ringtail’, female and immature Hen Harriers are dark brown above with brown streaked breasts; they have a white rump and dark banding (rings) around the tail. The juvenile has more of a yellow tone to its underside. The male is blue/grey over much of its body, with a white rump and breast and black wing tips. They maybe confused with the less common (in the UK) Montagu’s Harrier, although the Hen Harrier has broader wings and lacks the black band seen on the upper side of the wings of the male Montagu’s; differentation is easier between the juveniles of the two species.
Length: 45-55cm; wingspan: 100-120cm
Population Trends By the first decades of the 20th century, Hen Harriers became restricted to the Orkney Islands. They have long suffered from persecution and didn’t return to breed in England until 1968. The Hen Harrier has been relentlessly persecuted ever since and in 2012 just one pair attempted to breed in the whole of the UK. The on-going conflict between the Hen Harrier and owners of Grouse moors is a contentious issue and although birds have been attempting to breed in this environment, tracking studies have discovered that even though nest sites are left undisturbed, breeding adults have been failing to return to the nests. The Hawk and Owl Trust have a strong Campaign Against Persecution
Habitat and Distribution Hen Harriers can found in a number of moorland locations in the north of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; however, as mentioned above breeding is becoming extremely rare.
Hen Harriers move to more lowland areas in the winter including coastal marshes, heathland, farmland and river estuaries. Recent research sponsored by the Hawk and Owl Trust has indicated that the majority of wintering birds are of UK origin and not from continental Europe as previously thought; if this is the case the link between breeding birds and over wintering birds will become even more important.
Breeding Hen harriers nest on the ground in heather and in young conifer plantations. Tree nesting occurs in Northern Ireland. Courtship display involves elaborate sky-dancing and food passing.
Feeding Small mammals, most commonly voles, and ground nesting, grassland birds, such as pipits, especially young in the nest and fledglings are all taken. They also take game-birds and waders, and their young. More birds are eaten in years when vole numbers are low.
The Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is a striking electric-blue and orange coloured bird but the feathers on the bird’s back can look blue or green depending on the angle you are looking at the bird. This happens because of the different wavelengths of light produced between the layers of feathers. Although the Kingfisher has these bright noticeable colours it very rarely seen as it is extremely shy and it can fly and beat its wings so quickly that it almost looks like a blur to the eye! But if you hear a shrill ‘chreee’ or ‘chee-kee’ it may well be a Kingfisher.
Kingfishers can be found throughout the UK near slow-flowing rivers and streams, canals, lakes and ponds. An ideal fishing perch for this bird in on a firm branch overhanging water. It prefers to perch motionless when hunting for fish, but sometimes the Kingfisher will hover over its prey and then quickly dive into the water. As it dives into the water the Kingfisher opens its beak and then closes its eye by using a third eyelid so when the Kingfisher grabs the fish it is in effect blindfolded. How clever is that! The fish is immediately taken back to the perch where the Kingfisher strikes it a few times against the branch in order to stun the fish. It does this because some fish have very sharp spines on the fins and it is only when the fish is stunned that the spines relax enabling the Kingfisher to eat it. The Kingfisher always turns the fish around so that it can swallow it head first. Kingfishers must eat at least their own bodyweight in food each day in order to survive, and although fish is their main diet they will also eat some aquatic insects such as mayflies, stoneflies and water beetles.
When the male Kingfisher wants to impress a female he offers her fish and if the female accepts they form a bond and courtship begins. Both the male and female dig a tunnel in a bank close to water so they can nest their eggs there. No material is brought to the nest. The female lays six to seven white glossy eggs around March time and both parents incubate them for about twenty-one days until the chicks hatch. Both parents feed the chicks and once a chick has been fed its moves to the back of the nest so it can digest its food and then the other chicks move forward which means every chick takes it in turn to get some food. Chicks are usually ready to leave the nest after about a month and then are fed for about another four days by the parents. After that though they are driven out of the territory and have to fend for themselves.
The Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) is the largest harrier found in the UK, the population is at its highest for 100 years, but still low and very localised. Since its recovery the Marsh Harrier has adapted its behaviour, with individuals wintering in the UK and breeding on farmland as well as traditional reedbed habitats. Marsh Harriers can be found in large numbers at the Hawk and Owl Trust’s, Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve in North Norfolk.
Slightly larger than a Buzzard, Marsh Harriers can be distinguished by their longer tail, slimmer body and narrower wings. Females are dark brown with a distinctive cream coloured crown and pale patches on the fore-wing and throat. Males have dark wing tips and grey tail, the breast and head appear yellowish with a brown belly, the upper-wing is a combination of black, grey and brown. Juveniles are dark brown with a golden crown and throat and a pale leading edge to the wing.
Length: 47-57cm; wingspan: 115-140cm
Breeding Originally nesting on the ground in reedbeds, Marsh Harriers also nest in crops. Breeding pairs carry out impressive displays of aerobatics, tumbling through the air with the male dropping food for the female to catch in mid-air.
Females have a single clutch of 4-5 eggs and start to breed at 3 years of age. Males are not monogamous and will sometimes mate with 2 or 3 different females.
Feeding Marsh Harriers feed on small mammas and birds, preferring prey that is easier to catch. They will also take reptiles, insects and carrion.
Habitat and Distribution Mainly found in areas of reedbed, although as mentioned they also now frequent and breed on farmland. Main populations are in Norfolk, Kent, Lincolnshire, Humberside, Lancashire and Southern Scotland.
The Merlin (Falco columbarius) is a speedy small falcon, similar in shape to the peregrine but only two thirds the size. Seen in the summer flying low over upland heath and moorland, moving to the coast in the winter. The Merlin often flies with very fast wing beats interspersed with short ‘closed wing glides’.
Adult males have a blue-grey tail with a black terminal band and grey upper wings with a darker outer wing. The breast is finely streaked and has an orange colouring, the throat is white. The female, who is larger than the male, has brown upper parts and a heavily barred tail, the breast is paler with darker, heavier streaking than that of the male. Juveniles closely resemble the female and are very difficult to differentiate.
Length: 25-31cm; wingspan: 50-62cm
Breeding In general Merlins are ground nesting birds; however, they will nest in the abandoned nests of other raptors or corvids. They have also started to make use of conifer plantation edges as nesting sites. Birds typically breed at one year of age, laying a single clutch of 4-5 eggs.
Feeding Small birds are hunted from perches and taken in flight.
Habitat and Distribution Mainly breeds in the uplands of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and northern England, although small numbers also nest in the SW of England.
Status in UK 1,330 pairs, increasing; AMBER listed; resident Population Trends The Merlin suffered badly from the effects of organochlorine pesticides in the 1950’s and did not show significant signs of recovery until the 1980’s; it still suffers from persecution and loss of habitat. Increases in population may be linked to a change in behaviour with some birds using forest edges as breeding sites as opposed to open moorland and heathland. Even though the population is rising slowly the Merlin still remains a rare and elusive bird.
The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – This large fish-eating raptor dives dramatically into water to catch its prey. The osprey has a slim body and long narrow angled wings. It is dark above and pale below on the body and wing coverts. The head is white with a broad dark stripe through the eye to the nape.
Length: 55-58cm; wingspan: 145-170cm
Feeding Fish are taken in clear, calm water diving from the air. Long talons with spikes on the underside of their toes help them grasp fish. Species caught are dependent on availability; in Scotland they mainly take brown or rainbow trout inland and flounders on the coast.
Breeding Ospreys build a large stick nest in the crown of a tree, often refurbishing an old nest. They will also use artificial platforms. The Hawk and Owl Trust has installed one at Pensthorpe, near Fakenham, North Norfolk but it has yet to be used.
Habitat and Distribution Ospreys favour well wooded country with lakes, rivers or near the coast with a plentiful supply of fish. They are found in the eastern Highlands, the Grampians and Perthshire and the Southern Uplands in Scotland; in the Lake District and Rutland in England.
Population Trends Ospreys became extinct as a breeding species in Scotland in 1916, having disappeared from England in the 1840s. A pair first nested in Scotland again in 1954. After much publicity and careful protection of nest sites, the species gradually spread, mainly in the Highlands, reaching 100 pairs by the mid-1990s.
Since they became established north of the border, ospreys had regularly visited Rutland Water in the Midlands on passage. In 1996 a translocation project began with young Scottish birds being released there. These birds returned to the reservoir for a number of years and finally bred successfully in 2001. In the same year a pair naturally colonised the Lake District and bred by Bassenthwaite Lake. In 2004 the first pair reared young in Wales; the male had been released at Rutland and the female came from Scotland.
Birds can be viewed in a number of places in Scotland as well as in the Lakes and at Rutland Water.
The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is a beautiful bird, it has buff coloured wings and upper parts, with pure white underside. When viewed in flight the impression is of a large white bird. Males and females look almost the same with females often having darker colours and small dark spots on the underside.
Barn owls like to roost in old farm buildings or hollows in trees. Being quite shy birds they prefer roosts and nesting sites that give them a place to hide. The ideal habitat for them is rough grassland that has a deep litter layer for their prey to live in. They prefer to stay in the same area their whole life and cover a home range of approximately 3km in which they will probably have one nesting site, a couple of regular roosts and a few that they will visit occasionally.
Reproduction Barn owls breed in late spring. Females lay a clutch of 5-6 eggs over a couple of weeks. The female will stay with the hatched owlets until the youngest reaches three weeks, at which point they have all developed a layer of downy feathers and can regulate their own temperatures. Owlets will eat the same amount as their parents so feeding a large clutch is hard work for both the male and female. By ten weeks old the owlets are fully developed and begin to venture out the nestbox. They then have just a few weeks to learn hunting skills before becoming independent at around fourteen weeks old.
Diet The majority of a barn owls diet is made up of small mammals such as the field vole, common shrew and wood mouse. They hunt by flying quite low to the ground and listening for their prey moving amongst the grass. Prey is swallowed whole. However, barn owls cannot digest the bones and fur and they regurgitate these parts as a tightly packed pellet.
Protection Barn Owls are protected under Schedule 1 on the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 when on eggs or have dependent young. Changes in farming practises over the last century have caused a large decline in the numbers of barn owls as suitable nesting sites and prey habitat is destroyed.
The Little Owl (Athene noctua) is the smallest owl in Britain, it is often seen during the day perched on a post, telegraph pole or exposed branch. It has a broad rounded head and short tail, which gives it a dumpy appearance. Grey-brown, speckled with white above and it has dense, brown streaks on white beneath.
Its bright yellow eyes with prominent white eyebrows give it a frowning expression. When agitated it bobs and moves from side to side. It flies with a series of fast wingbeats and looping glides. Length: 21-23cm; wingspan: 54-58cm.
Breeding Little owls nest in holes in trees, farm buildings and sometimes holes in the ground such as rabbit burrows. They readily take to nest boxes, especially those with a tunnel entrance.
Feeding Invertebrates, such as beetles, earwigs and earthworms, and small mammals form the majority of the little owl’s diet. Small birds are taken mainly in the breeding season.
Habitat and Distribution This owl is mainly found in farmland, around farmsteads and villages. Occurs throughout England, Wales and southeast Scotland, but populations are very patchy in southwest and northeast England and southwest and central Wales.
Status in UK 5,800-11,600 pairs declining; introduced; resident Population Trends The little owl was an occasional visitor to Britain before the mid-19th century, when a series of introductions occurred. Attempts in Yorkshire and Hampshire failed, but those in Kent in the 1870s and in Northamptonshire in the 1880s led to little owls establishing themselves in England, filling the vacant niche for a small nocturnal predator in agricultural landscapes.
It spread rapidly in the early part of the 20th century and by 1925 had colonised much of England south of Yorkshire and south Wales. By 1960, although it had spread north to southern Scotland and north Wales, the population increase had slowed. From then on numbers have declined as it was affected by cold winters in the ’60s and subsequently by intensification of agriculture. Since the mid-1980s little owls appear to have declined by at least a third, especially in the South-west.
A medium size long winged owl with long ear tufts and piercing orange eyes. it enjoys a large range from western Europe to north Africa, China and Japan. It winters as far south as Pakistan, southern India and southern China – it is also found in North America. Interestingly, it is thought to be the most nocturnal of all owls only hunting in the darkest and quietest part of the night.
The Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is our most diurnal owl, it is often seen sitting on a post or quartering open country. In flight it is paler, more stocky and longer-winged than the long-eared owl, and the tail and wings are more boldly barred. Its body plumage is brown, spotted and streaked with buff, yellow and white. It is pale beneath with a boldly streaked chest. The yellowish facial disc with bright yellow eyes set in black patches gives this owl a cross expression.
Length: 37-39cm; wingspan: 95-110cm
Feeding Field voles are this owls’ most important prey, but other small mammals such as wood mouse and shrews may be taken. They will also catch rats, especially in Ireland where voles are lacking. Birds, usually between the size of finches and thrushes particularly young ones, are also caught.
Breeding The nest is on the ground hidden among grass, heather or reeds. They are one of the few owls to make a nest. The female makes a scrape which she lines with whatever vegetation is available close by. One brood is usual, but when voles are plentiful, short-eared owls may have two broods or increase the number of eggs in the clutch.
Habitat and Distribution The short-eared owl is found on heaths, grass moors, marshes and sand dunes; in winter it is particularly found on coastal marshes and adjoining farmland. This species is resident in the north and east of England, north and west Wales and the south and east of Scotland. Summer visitors breed in the Highlands and west coast of Scotland. Scottish birds and those from Scandinavia winter in southern England and Northern Ireland.
Population Trends In the 19th century the main population was in the uplands of Scotland and the north of England with a second area in the fens and marshes of the east coast of England. The short-eared owl has always been a scarce, localised bird in most of these areas, except in the Outer Hebrides and Orkney. During the first half of the 20th century reduced grazing and the spread of plantations in the uplands favoured this species and allowed it to increase. It particularly liked these areas when the trees had just been planted but as they grew up the forest became unsuitable and numbers declined again.
This owl is very dependent on short-tailed voles, and so numbers increase significantly when its prey populations are high. There are also large influxes of wintering birds from Scandinavia after populations of small mammals peak there.
The Red kite (Milvus milvus) is a slender bird with long narrow wings with white patches on the underside of the primaries and a long, distinctive forked tail. Grey head, rusty wing coverts, back and tail, contrast with dark primaries and secondaries. The underside is red-rust with darker brown stripes on the chest.
Length: 55-60cm; wingspan: 160-180cm
Population Trends Red kites were widespread in the Middle Ages particularly in towns and cities were their important role as a scavenger led to them being protected by royal decree. But by the 16th century they were classed as vermin and their decline began. By the 1870s they were confined to Wales and by the beginning of the 1900s only a few pairs survived there. Wardening by committed volunteers, including those from the Hawk and Owl Trust, prevented complete extinction.
With protection a slow recovery began but the population was first limited by myxomatosis, drastically reducing its rabbit prey, and then by persistent agri-chemicals. By the late 1960s their recovery accelerated but, as their spread was very slow, a reintroduction project using young birds from Sweden began in the Chilterns in 1989. This was so successful that this population provided young birds for further reintroductions both elsewhere in England and in Scotland. The bird is now widespread in Britain and is beginning to be seen in Northern Ireland.
Habitat and Distribution Wooded upland valleys in Wales and well-wooded farmland in the lowlands. The original population is still confined to mid Wales. The majority of birds are still to be seen near the re-introduction sites: the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Yorkshire in England, and Dumfries and Galloway, Stirling/East Perthshire and the Black Isle in Scotland. Non-breeding red kites are now seen throughout Britain, especially young birds which range widely in their first year.
Breeding Display flights occur over the breeding site in March and April when the pair circle high in the sky, chase each other and grapple with their talons. They build a large stick nest high in a fork of a tree on the woodland edge, often renovating an old nest. They will use artificial platforms.
Feeding Much of the kites’ diet is made up of carrion. They will catch small mammals up to the size of rabbits and young hares, a variety of birds, as well as insects and earthworms.
The Robin (Erithacus rubecula) can be seen throughout the year almost anywhere in the UK in gardens, hedgerows, parks and woodlands. It is also known as the Redbreast Robin because it has a red face, neck and chest. Males and females look identical and both have large and prominent black eyes and a short thin black beak. Even though these birds look quite cute they can be very aggressive if their territories are invaded and have no problem at all in driving away intruders.
Robins are not shy and will follow you around in the garden if you are digging up soil because they know they will find worms more easily. And if you happen to have some mealworms they will even eat them out of your hand because these worms are their favourite food. However, Robins usually eat spiders, beetles, flies which they hunt for from a branch perch. They also like eating berries and seeds. Robins hop very quickly on the ground and often flutter their wings and tails giving them the impression that they are nervous, even though they are not really.
Robins can be heard singing sweet melodious songs throughout the year and throughout the day, but often you will hear them the most in the morning when they are singing out loud to mark their territories. They also like singing at night next to street lamps!
On a cold night a Robin likes to keep itself warm by tucking its head under its shoulder feathers and often the Robin will stand on one leg and tuck the other leg under its body to keep itself warm. The feathers on its belly also help to keep its feet warm while it is resting on a perch.
A male Robin also sits on a perch singing songs to attract a female and if the female likes the sound of the songs she will fly in and out of his territory many times to show him that she is a female and that she finds him attractive. Remember Robins look identical and even they have difficulty telling each other apart, and the female doesn’t want to be mistaken for a male because she knows she will be attacked! Once the male realises it is a female he starts to bring her food as a means of courtship and if she is happy with the food and the male she starts to build a nest.
Nests are dome-shaped and made of twigs, leaves, grass and moss and are built low-down in tree stumps, tree roots, gaps in walls and in open-fronted nest boxes. In April, the female usually lays five to seven eggs that are a pale blue colour with reddish spots. Incubation lasts for around two weeks and during this time the male brings the female food. Approximately two weeks after the chicks have hatched they can fly and then they become fully independent about 16-24 days later.
The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is a well-known bird seen all year round and found throughout the UK in gardens, parks, towns, cities and farmyards. It is the bird most connected to houses and humans as this little cheeky chappie is not shy and will hop onto your garden table looking for any scrap food even if you are sitting there. You may even find them rummaging through your rubbish looking for titbits!
These house visitors are friendly plump birds with a brown back with blackish markings. The male has a grey crown, pale grey cheeks and underparts, while the female is more pale brown. They both have a small thick bill which they use to eat seeds from plants. House Sparrows prefer to feed from the ground but they will also take peanuts and seeds from bird feeders and sometimes you will see them chasing flying insects. These birds are very fast fliers and can reach a speed of 50 km per hour!
House Sparrows are very sociable and like to feed and roost in flocks. If you see one you will know there are lots more hanging around. All you will need to do is throw a few seeds down in the garden and wait for the crowd to arrive. They can be quite noisy when they are together and you will hear them making a single chirping sound which they repeat over and over again.
During the mating season the male House Sparrow chooses a nesting site and chirps there to attract a female. When a female flies past he chirps even louder and quicker to make himself more noticed. Sometimes he will follow a lady for a short distance and quiver his feathers to grab her attention as he hops around her. Pairs usually stay together for life but if a mate is lost a new partner is found very quickly, usually within a few days.
House Sparrows are not territorial so nests may be 20 to 30 cm apart from each other. Nests can be made in holes in buildings where they are filled with dry grass and lined with feathers, hairs and paper. Sparrows can also build spherical-shaped nests under the eaves of a house, bird houses or in trees and bushes. These nests are made out of twigs, straw, grass, leaves, paper and any other available material. Sparrows can be very creative when they build their nests. And sometimes they even pluck feathers from a live pigeon. How cheeky is that!
The female usually lays four to five eggs and both parents incubate the eggs for about fourteen days and both feed the young. The young leave the nest after about two weeks but are fed further by their parents for another two weeks or more until they are able to fend for themselves.
Sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) are sometimes spotted as they try to catch small birds from the bird table, but their secretive behaviour means that they are not well known.
They are usually seen in flight. They fly fast with several wing beats followed by a glide, often close to the ground.
The Sparrowhawk has broad, rounded wings and a longish banded tail for maneuverability. The smaller male is blue-grey to slate above with reddish barring on body and wing coverts. The female is grey-brown above with brown barring below. She has a pale stripe above the eye, less obvious in the male. Young birds are browner than the adults.
Length: 28-38cm; wingspan: 55-70cm
Feeding Almost entirely birds, the species reflecting availability. In a study in south Scotland the most common species taken were chaffinch, thrushes, starling, robin, meadow pipit and wood pigeon. Males tended to take the smaller birds, while females took more thrushes and almost all the wood pigeons. They rely on surprise to catch their prey, which is often taken after a short flight from a perch or by flying low along a hedge or other cover.
Breeding The nest is made of loose twigs with a deep cup and is built in a fork of a tree often against the trunk, 6-12m from the ground. It prefers conifers if available. A new nest is built each year, sometimes on an old nest of a wood pigeon or other bird, often close to previous year’s nest.
Habitat and Distribution Typically a woodland bird but as it has increased it has colonised farmland with trees, copses and shelter belts and even suburban gardens. It is found throughout the UK except in the high Scottish mountains and treeless coasts, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland.
Population Trends Despite being heavily persecuted throughout the 19th century, its resilience and elusive nature allowed it to remain widely distributed though its numbers in the south-east and East Anglia were depressed.
It was in these areas that its populations increased in the first half of the 20th century. However its numbers crashed in the 1950s and ’60s as it was seriously affected by persistent pesticides. Numbers were significantly reduced everywhere and it was virtually extinct in eastern and south-east England. Once the chemicals were withdrawn the species responded quickly. Numbers have been stable since the early 1990s, suggesting that most areas have now reached capacity.
The swift is a summer visitor to Britain from Africa; it is a superb aerial bird and has scythe-like wings and a forked tail.
Look up in the sky in summer, often very high and you may see screaming parties of them twisting and turning at high speed around rooftops and houses, often low, especially at dusk. They spend nearly all their life in the air and can fly up to heights’ of 20,000 feet. They only land to breed and a young swift can spend up to the first three to four years in the air before landing.
They sleep, feed and drink on the wing. Swifts have for many years used manmade structures for nesting, since moving away from caves and cliffs. Artificial nest boxes and swift bricks are now available to encourage them, and they leave no droppings beneath the nest.
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