I’d like to begin by wishing a belated but very sincere happy new year to everyone taking the time and trouble to read this blog. It seems like an age since I posted my last offering, but other commitments, including our daughter’s wedding on Boxing Day and my venturing out of more-or-less retirement back into the world of work for the forthcoming next three months, have taken up much of my time and most of my energy. As a consequence, for the last few months most of my nature watching has been glimpsed through glass, either from the house or the car, but I’m still aware of what’s happening around me, although with less time to record it.
(To avoid confusion I should probably mention at this point that I am back in Rhos-on-Sea, North Wales)
I have been restricted in my freedom to roam thus far, but I thought that I would make that into an opportunity to have a closer look at some of the birds that are conspicuously present, but whose numbers or commonness we tend to take for granted.
The mild winter temperatures we have experienced during the first two weeks of January have given grace to the garden visiting birds to forage for natural food and there have been regular sightings of blackbird, robin, dunnock, house sparrows, great tit and blue tit doing just that. There were also a few visits from a beautiful song thrush earlier in the month, but I haven’t seen it lately. In the nearby trees there are regularly chaffinch, wood pigeon, collared dove,magpie and carrion crow. Then of course there are the herring gulls that regularly patrol the skies on the look out for a snack. They do make you think twice before putting out additional food for the garden birds, so is probably better offered confined to wire hanging feeders.
In the garden at the back of the house I often see two female blackbirds together that I think may be mother and daughter. This is the younger one with more mottled plumage. There is a male around, but I don't see him as often.
Starlings are everywhere, mostly sticking together in small flocks that travel around the area gathering in trees and on rooftops where they perch high on TV ariels and chimney pots. They also frequent the rocks of the breakwaters in the harbour to forage amongst the rocks.
Starlings with an 'ariel' view of the Little Orme
Hanging up a feeder filled with fat balls has given me some lovely close up views of the colourful and complexly marked plumage of individual birds.
The beautiful plumage of a starling feeding in the garden
European Starling – Sturnus vulgaris
Convervation status: Red
Still one of the commonest of UK garden birds, its decline elsewhere makes it a Red List species.
Family – Starlings (Sturnidae)
Smaller than blackbirds, Starlings are neatly shaped birds that have a short tail, a rather pointed head and triangular shaped wings. They appear to be coloured black at a distance, but when seen more closely they are in fact very glossy with an iridescent sheen of purples and greens. In fresh winter plumage they are brown, covered in brilliant white spots.
Their flight is fast and direct and they walk and run confidently on the ground. Noisy and gregarious, starlings spend a lot of the year in flocks.
Food and foraging behaviour
The European Starling is insectivorous, and typically consumes insects including caterpillars and moths, and also spiders. While the consumption of invertebrates is necessary for successful breeding, starlings are omnivorous and can also eat grains, seeds, fruits, nectars, and even rubbish, if the opportunity arises. There are several methods by which they forage for their food; but for the most part, they forage from or near the ground, taking insects from or beneath the surface of the soil by probing with their strong pointed bills. The bird plunges its beak into the ground randomly and repetitively until an insect has been found. Probing is often accompanied by bill gaping, where the bird opens its beak while probing to enlarge a dirt hole or to separate a lump of grass. Generally, starlings prefer foraging amongst short-cropped grasses and are often found between and on top of grazing animals out to pasture.
Starlings are also adept at grabbing invertebrates directly from the air.
Song & calls
The Common Starling is a noisy bird uttering a wide variety of both melodic and mechanical-sounding sounds, including a distinctive “wolf-whistle”. Starlings are mimics, like many of its family.
Songs are more commonly sung by males, although females also sing. Songs consist of a mixture of mimicry, clicks, wheezes, chattering, whistles, rattles, and piping notes. Even when a flock of starlings is completely silent, the synchronized movements of the flock make a distinctive whooshing sound that can be heard hundreds of metres away.
Starlings are resident all year round in the UK, with their population boosted by large numbers of migrants that arrive in autumn to spend the winter here.
As the shorter autumn/winter days draw to an end the birds head for their night-time roosts, gathering together in large numbers. Huge roosts may be found in a variety of locations including reed beds and city centres. In this area they head for the old pier at Colwyn Bay, performing their wonderful aerobatic display nightly and completely free of charge.
House Sparrow -Passer domesticus
House sparrow male
House Sparrows have always held a special place in my heart and I consider myself lucky that in each place I have lived there has been a little colony living alongside us, often literally sharing the building. The local House Sparrow population here seem to be thriving; they had a successful breeding season last year and on several occasions towards the end of last summer I counted up to thirty birds feeding on the berries of the pyracantha hedge. Their plumage also merits a closer look, the shades of brown range from almost black, chocolate and chestnut to creamy white on the male, with females necessarily being restricted to more subtle shades, but still attractively marked.
The male is duller in fresh non-breeding plumage, with buff tips on many feathers. Wear and preening expose bright markings of brown and black, including a throat and chest patch, called a “bib” or a “badge”. This patch is variable in width and general size, and some scientists have suggested that patches signal social status or fitness, although studies have only conclusively shown that patches increase in size with age. In breeding plumage, the male has a grey crown, and is marked with black on its throat and beneath the crown. The cheeks and underparts are pale grey. The female has no black on head or throat, nor a grey crown and its upperparts are streaked with brown. The juvenile is deeper brown, and the white is replaced by buff; the beak is pink to dull yellow.
House Sparrow female
The House Sparrow is a bird of the sparrow family Passeridae, found in most parts of the world occuring naturally in most of Europe, the Mediterranean region, and much of Asia. Its intentional or accidental introductions to many regions, including parts of Australia, Africa, and the Americas, make it the most widely distributed wild bird. A small bird, it has a length of 16 centimetres (6.3 in) and a weight of 24–39.5 grams (0.85–1.39 oz).
The House Sparrow is a very social bird. It is gregarious at all seasons when feeding, often forming flocks with other types of bird. It also roosts communally, its nests are usually grouped together in clumps, and it engages in a number of social activities, such as dust and water bathing, and “social singing”, in which birds call together in bushes. The House Sparrow feeds mostly on the ground, but it flocks in trees and bushes. For the larger part it is sedentary, rarely moving more than a few kilometres. Non-breeding House Sparrows roost in large groups in trees, gathering some time before and calling together.
At feeding stations and nests, females are dominant despite their smaller size
The House Sparrow is strongly associated with human habitations, and can live in urban or rural settings. They have been much persecuted in the past for helping themselves to our domestic crops and their numbers in towns and cities have declined massively. However, the intelligent little birds continue to adapt to our generally messy eating habits as sources of easy pickings and are often found around the areas where food is consumed outside, they inhabit zoos and wildlife parks; others gain access to the inside spaces of supermarkets and some birds have even learned how to operate the automatic doors.
To many people across the world, the House Sparrow is the most familiar wild animal. One of the reasons for the introduction of House Sparrows throughout the world was their association with the European homeland of many immigrants. Often it is regarded as a pest, since it consumes agricultural products and is blamed for the spread of disease to humans and their domestic animals. In most of the world the House Sparrow is not protected by law and attempts to control their numbers still include the trapping, poisoning, or shooting of adults; the destruction of their nests and eggs; or less directly, blocking nest holes and scaring off sparrows with noise, glue, or porcupine wire. However, attempts at the large-scale control of the House Sparrow have failed.
I came across this nature bulletin several years ago when researching the status of house sparrows introduced into other countries and loved it, so am passing it on.