By now, the nesting season is well into its swing, and if you keep your eyes peeled throughout late March and April, you may well be able to see evidence of (some!) birds’ remarkable workmanship taking place around you.
Most birds only take a few days to build a nest, and instinctively build them to a design that is unique to their species. Few garden birds are ground nesting, just using a scrape.
Rooks have been building for a while, and you may have seen their untidy nests at the top of various still-bare trees. They start by collecting sticks and dropping them on the branches they have chosen as their home, often the remains of a previous nest. To begin with some twigs will drop through, so look out below, but gradually they lodge in the tree and a rather unruly nest begins to form. Being on the large side, they can afford to nest where they can be seen, but most birds are much more secretive about it.
Most birds are quite cautious when approaching their nest site, and you may see them stopping to check they are not being watched before they plunge into a hedge, bird box or shrub. However, there is a limit to how subtle a bird with grass and moss in its beak can be!
Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes build nests in the ‘classic design’ –neat cups of woven grasses and small twigs, camouflaged with moss and lined with mud.
Chaffinches nest in tree forks and use cobwebs to stick it in place. You may see them flitting around fences and window frames, picking off webs. Spiders are of great importance to birds in spring, not only are they food for adults and chicks, but their webs are an essential ingredient of many nests.
Long-tailed tits make the most intricate and delicate of all our garden birds’ nests – which they couldn’t do without spiders. They spend three weeks creating their pouch-shaped luxury home, beginning with a cup and dome of moss stuck together with cobwebs; next comes lichen on the outside for camouflage, and finally a filling of feathers for insulation. Studies have shown that they can use up to 2,000 feathers in a nest, and in collecting all their materials, need to fly some 600 miles!
All this nest building requites a lot of time and energy, so providing nesting material can help, as well as giving you a chance to see them collecting it. You may be surprised when you see which species choose your garden to nest in.
You can leave nesting material out for birds in many ways: maybe using a peanut or suet feeder, or leave it in piles around the garden, or hang it from trees. Try several different methods to find the best for your garden.
Avoid using any material whose source you are not sure of, or anything that has been treated with pesticides or fertilisers. Be careful too with pet hair – don’t use after flea or worm treatments. Moss raked from your lawn is good too, as long as you have not treated it first. If you put out wool or cotton, cut it into lengths no more than a couple of inches long, to avoid entanglement. Never put out any plastic materials, they can harm both birds and the environment in many ways.
House Martins, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds use mud in the construction of their nests, so a small, wet, muddy patch in your garden, may make it easier for them, particularly if it has been dry.
If you find the lives of our garden birds to be of interest, and would like to join in and count the feathered occupants of your garden, please contact me or visit the BTO Garden BirdWatch website (www.bto.org/gbw).
If you know of an organisation no more than 30 miles from York which would like a talk on garden birds call: Mike Gray 07596 366342 or firstname.lastname@example.org.