All birds need to wash to keep their feathers in good condition and Mute Swans are a dramatic and accessible (being on many lakes in local parks) way to observe just how vigorous and thorough this process needs to be. A family of five Mute Swans were washing recently (alongside some synchronised swimming Mallards, as you will see) and the photo’s show how they separate their feathers so that water gets to every part. Surprisingly little research has been done into this process but when birds are deprived of water, they have been shown to be much clumsier in flight. Regular washing is essential to condition the feathers and helps reduce damage from mites, lice and bacteria. This is why it is worth having even a little bird bath in your garden if you don’t have open water nearby. Conditions: Alternating grey and bright days. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.
House Sparrows, the RSPB has announced, were the most frequent bird in last January’s 420,489 garden bird surveys, but these once ubiquitous, gregarious birds which have a varied diet, have nevertheless not recovered from their 71% decline between 1977 and 2008. We hardly see them in our Pitsmoor (North Sheffield) garden,
though a recent piece of research by the BTO found that suburban and urban gardens and allotment areas really help House Sparrows survive in numbers, while farmland is still a place of population loss. I was glad to be able to watch and listen to these noisy birds, fluffed up against the cold, recently. If you have a job telling House Sparrows from others, winter plumage isn’t the easiest time but the males have a grey cap and black bib, which becomes more pronounced in spring. I always thought of them as having a grey ‘roof’ which helped! Conditions: A beautiful frosty and bright day. Temperature: Max 6 Min 2c.
Listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme last Sunday, ‘Ash to Ash’ (available on catch-up) reminded me how devastating Ash die-back is going to be to the British countryside and ecology. Ash is the third most common tree in Britain, and valuable to at least 1,000 species, many of them specific to Ash trees. Its’ sparser foliage and early leaf-loss also enables light to penetrate woodland, enhancing wild flower species. The tough, shock absorbent wood has been here since the ice-age, with myriad uses, from Roman chariots to tool handles, hockey sticks to furniture construction. Ash can live for 400 years, or longer when coppiced, and yet it is dying over many parts of the country already and the only hope known to date is that some individual trees may
be resistant. Open Country suggested we should be planting similarly ecologically-rich trees now, as the disease has so far proved unstoppable. The arrival and speed of Ash die-back is also a reminder that many species are likely to be threatened by the increasing globalisation of plant diseases. Conditions: Grey, drizzly days. Temperature: Max 14 Min 8C.
Crab Apples are great small trees for the wildlife garden, with beautiful blossom in spring, feeding Bees and other insects, often good leaf-colour in autumn, and long-lasting fruits that can provide food for birds well into winter. Crab Apples can be kept pruned to shape and size if you have limited space, too. However, different varieties work better for birds, and the very prolific Golden Hornet here in our garden, very seldom attracts birds, probably because the fruits are smaller and harder than other varieties. Grey Squirrels will eat them, as they were today. John Downie and others Crab Apple varieties work better for birds. Conditions: Grey, dry and mild. Temperature: Max 10 Min 3c.
Lovely Mistle Thrushes, larger than Song Thrushes and standing more upright, with blotchier chests, greyer-brown backs. and longer tails, have been eating the berries from our Rowan Joseph Rock, as they do most years.(The BTO do a good comparison of Missile and Song Thrush if the differences confuse you). They are named after their habit of eating Mistletoe berries, though they will eat Holly, Yew and Rowan and you may know they are in your garden or park from their distinctive, rattling call, at any time of year. Mistle Thrushes are one of the species which ‘resource-guard’, where they will aggressively defend a source of berries from all-comers.Studies show that birds which do this have
than those who don’t ‘resource-guard’. Conditions: Mild, still and sunny. Temperature: Max 12 Min 7C.
While the drought caused a “false fall” for some of our trees which therefore lost their leaves early, the summer sun, extending into late autumn has led many trees to hold onto their leaves longer than usual, as has the relative lack of high winds and rain. Leaf senescence (leaf-drop), results from a complex set of relationships between climate, genes and chemicals, but whenever it happens, it is a result of the deciduous plant or tree redirecting its nutrients and chemicals away from leaves, from the tree-tops initially, shutting down fluids and corking over the leaf-ends so they fall. The autumn colours on some plants are a result of chlorophyll being broken down, the green fading and revealing the carotenoids and flavonoids, which glow red, orange, yellow etc. This year our garden colours, seen here,
are enhanced by the sugars built up from so much sunshine this summer and autumn. Conditions: Mild and cloudy. Temperature: Max 13 Min 5C.
There is nothing more beautiful visiting out garden, year round but resplendent in their new plumage right now, than male Bullfinches. Apparently, we are in the lucky 10% of people who have these normally shy birds coming to our garden feeders. Having declined by 36% since 1967, these stocky finches need all the help they can get and they come, characteristically for Bullfinches, in their loose family flocks, most of the year, to feed on our RSPB feeder-mix. We have three males and two females at present, one, as you can see, still just coming out of it’s moult. They used to be caged and astonishingly, some people played a special flute to them in an attempt to get them copy the tunes. Their soft, low whistle is beautiful enough for me. Conditions: Milder and greyer spell. Still very little rain.Temperature: Max 12 Min 7C.