A little 'Birds in Winter' Q&A with Charlotte Owen, WildCall Officer
A blackbird sits in our Viburnum tree for hours on end. He’s not eating the berries himself but won’t let any other birds near them. What’s he up to?
This sounds like typical resource guarding behaviour. Mistle thrushes are probably best known for doing this but blackbirds will also find a tree bursting with berries and claim it as their own personal larder. They will defend it vigorously from all intruders, just in case other food sources become so scarce over winter that they need to rely on their berries as a backup. This means that they may not actually eat any of their berries but they will make sure that nobody else eats them either. So it sounds like this blackbird has claimed and is defending the Viburnum, whilst feeding on the as-yet-unclaimed, freely accessible berries elsewhere in the garden.
Different bird species also have different preferences for berries, often based on their size and whether they are physically able to handle them, and of course some berries are just more desirable than others if they taste better or have ripened sooner. Some, including holly, are not really palatable at all until the first frosts have softened them – and even then, they may remain untouched until very late in the season if other berries, particularly ivy, are still available.
I was given a new bird table for Christmas. Where’s the best place to put it in my garden?
When positioning a new bird table or feeding station, you’ll want to make sure that both you and the birds can make the most of it. Ideally the bird table should be in an open position so that the birds have a good view of their surroundings and can spot any approaching predators. Try not to put it right next to a fence or too close to bushes or trees as these provide the perfect cover for a cat to lie in wait – but a small bush or similar shelter two or three metres from the table will give the birds a useful lookout post where they can check to see if it is safe to feed, wait to 'queue up' for a place on the table or take cover if disturbed. It’s a good idea to consider human disturbance too, so choose a quieter spot away from the main household hustle and bustle, but make sure you can still see the bird table so that you can enjoy watching the antics of the birds while they feed. Birds can be wary of new things at first, so it may take them a little time to start using your bird table – but they are likely to be hungry in the winter months, so hopefully it won’t take long. If you can provide a shallow dish of water, they will be grateful for a drink and a bath as well.
I’ve had a pair of blackcaps visiting the garden but I thought they overwintered somewhere warmer – is this unusual?
The blackcap is a sparrow-sized bird and the male does have a black cap, whereas the female’s cap is chestnut-brown. Blackcaps are usually summer visitors to Sussex and like most warblers, they escape the British winter by heading south to Africa or the Mediterranean in the autumn. They wouldn’t normally be seen here in the winter but over the past few decades they've become increasingly common, particularly in gardens, where they can be surprisingly feisty around the bird table.
The first report of an overwintering blackcap in Sussex dates back to the winter of 1947/8, which signalled the start of a national phenomenon. Blackcaps were turning up all over the country and we now know that it was a result of birds from Germany accidentally migrating the wrong way. Usually this would end in disaster, with birds dying from the cold as their food supplies vanished, but these directionally-challenged blackcaps found conditions here to their liking. People were hanging bird feeders and fat balls in their gardens and supermarkets were planting berry-filled trees in their carparks, so instead of starving they returned fat and healthy to Germany the following spring. They probably arrived well ahead of the other blackcaps who had travelled all the way to Africa, so may also have gained a head start in claiming a prime breeding territory. It's fascinating that a quirk of human behaviour has been the primary driver of a major change in bird behaviour but climate change has also played a part as our winters get gradually milder, particularly here in the south east.
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