Flocks of birds have been arriving in the garden

The birds in my garden are slightly different this year, writes Dick Warner

My birdwatching at this time of the year tends to be a very lazy affair. There’s a comfortable chair beside the kitchen fireplace which gives me a perfect view of the feeders hanging from a branch outside the window. I can sit in the warmth with a cup of coffee and watch birds to my heart’s content.

Most of the usual species have turned up over the past few days but I have noticed some differences. There are no siskins yet and the house sparrows and the goldfinches are arriving in twos and threes rather than in big flocks of 20 or 30 birds.

I’m delighted by a healthy number of greenfinches but there are less chaffinches than usual. The usual garden residents such as the tits — great, blue and coal — are in the same numbers as in other winters but there are no long-tailed tits yet. Robins are as normal but there’s been a shortage of dunnocks foraging on the grass below the feeders.

This, of course, is a very un-scientific study but it does provide me with some information. So far it’s been a mild and calm winter. This time last year the country was reeling in the aftermath of fierce storms and floods, along with some quite cold weather. I believe the difference in the bird populations visiting my feeders reflects the difference in the weather rather than any trends in the overall numbers of birds.

Many small songbird species react to bad weather by forming flocks. Sometimes these flocks consist of a single species and sometimes they’re made up of different but related species. Goldfinch flocks, for example, will often contain siskins and redpolls — all three are small finches and closely related. And all the four common tit species in this country will flock together. I’m a bit puzzled by the reason for this.

You would think that a large flock of up to 100 birds would exhaust scarce winter food resources much more quickly than a smaller foraging party. However, this obviously isn’t the case. There has to be some advantage to being in a big winter flock which I don’t fully understand.

Larger species such as rooks and jackdaws or wood pigeons do the same thing. As I write I can see through my study window a flock of 50 to 60 rooks and jackdaws foraging across the short grass of a pasture field. You seldom see such a large gathering in the summer.

My theory is that, although the rooks and jackdaws have formed winter flocks, the smaller songbirds haven’t and this is a reaction to the unusually mild winter. However, I expect that if we get a cold snap in January or February the finches, tits and sparrows will start arriving at my feeders in droves rather than in dribs and drabs. I’ll wait and see in my comfortable fireside chair.


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