Commonly asked questions about Irish Garden Birds
Increasingly, we live in urbanised areas where the lack of suitable nest sites or nest holes in mature trees is likely to be lacking. Nestboxes can fill that need
What makes a good nest box?
This depends on the species the box is intended for. Each species has its own requirements. All boxes should have a side, bottom, or roof access point for cleaning and checking contents.
Unless there are trees, foliage or buildings which shade the box during the day, face the box between north and east, thus avoiding strong, summer sunlight and the wettest winds.
Make sure that the birds have a clear flight path to the nest without any clutter directly in front of the entrance. Tilt the box forward slightly so that any driving rain will hit the roof and drain clear.
House sparrows and house martins will readily use nestboxes placed high up under the eaves. Since these birds nest in loose colonies, a special terrace design containing two or three nest sites can be used. Be aware that house sparrows compete with house martins for nest sites, so keep boxes intended for sparrows away from areas where house martins normally nest.
Open-fronted boxes for robins, flycatchers, wagtails and wrens need to be well hidden in vegetation. Those for spotted flycatchers need to be 2-4m high, again sheltered by vegetation, as they are more accessible to predators.
The classic nestbox is perhaps one intended for members of the tit family and they are the most frequently occupied. They are available in a variety of materials and all feature a small round hole of between 25 and 28mm diameter.
Nestboxes are best put up during the autumn or winter. Many birds will enter nestboxes during the autumn and winter, looking for a suitable place to roost or perhaps to feed. Unless they are colonial nesters, boxes should be spaced out and placed in quieter areas of the site.
Maintaining your box
Fixing your nestbox with nails may damage the tree. It is better to attach it either with long screws which can be adjusted or with wire around the trunk or branch. Use a piece of hose or section of car tyre around the wire to prevent damage to the tree. Remember that trees grow in girth as well as height, and check the fixing every two or three years.
Nestboxes should be checked and cleaned out in late autumn and early winter. The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. Wear disposable gloves to protect from parasites and fungi. Use boiling water to kill any remaining parasites, and let the box dry out thoroughly before replacing the lid. Insecticides and flea powders must not be used.
Place a small handful of clean hay or wood shavings (not straw) in the box once it is thoroughly dry after cleaning, small mammals may hibernate there, or birds may use it as a roost site in winter.Use water based preservatives or stains on the outside of the box, to prolong life.
Avoid inspecting nestboxes once in use, however tempting it may be to take a look! Simply watch and enjoy from a distance. .If you want to see eggs hatch and watch the chicks as they grow, you could consider installing a camera nestbox before the breeding season starts.
Top 13 Species / Nestbox Guide:
Blue Tit Small box, 25-28mm hole, site > 1.5 meters above ground.
Coal Tit Small box, 25mm hole, site < 1.0 meters above ground. Great Tit Small box, 28-30mm hole, site > 1.5 meters above ground.
House Sparrow Use a purpose built terrace, as they like to nest colonially. 32 mm hole, site > 2 meters above ground.
Tree Sparrow A very localised species, well worth encouraging if present. They will increase in numbers if a number of nestboxes are provided close together. Small box, 28mm hole, site > 2 meters above ground.
Pied Wagtail Small open fronted box, front panel up to 110-130mm high, >1.5 meters above ground.
Robin Open fronted box, front panel up to 110mm high, likes plenty of vegetation overhanging nest site, >1.0 meters above ground.
Starling Large box, 45mm hole, >2.5 meters above ground with clear flight path. Be aware that young Starlings make much noise in the box, from very early in the morning, so site away from light sleepers!
Swift Medium box with oval hole, nest site under eaves, requires a clear drop, colonial nester. Playing loop tapes or mp3 files encourages swifts to investigate boxes in towns and villages.
Wren Small open fronted box, front panel up to 140mm high, likes plenty of cover such as thorns or ivy, 2 meters above ground, likes plenty of vegetation with clear flight path.
House Martin Special cup shaped nest placed under eaves, >3 meters above ground, colonial nester.
Swallow Special cup shaped nest placed inside a shed or outdoor space with flight access, nests against wall or a narrow shelf, >2 meters above ground.
The Swift is sooty brown all over, but against the sky it appears black. It has long, scythe-like wings and a short, forked tail. You could mistake it for a Swallow, but the easiest way to tell them apart is to remember that Swifts don’t bend their wings while flying. Swallows are off white below and have a long tail. It’s also impossible to see Swifts land – their nesting places are hidden away in roofs and they fly in and out very quickly. Swifts have an unusually long lifespan for a bird – some can live to the age of 21!
Unlike Swallows, Swifts never perch. You might see screaming parties of them careering madly at high speed around rooftops and houses, mainly in towns and cities, especially towards dusk. Swifts are superb fliers, and spend almost the whole of their lives on the wing. They land only to breed – they even sleep on the wing!
They are easiest to observe in built-up areas, where they build their nests in the cracks and holes in buildings, and sometimes in specially provided nest boxes. Remember that Swifts are very common in towns and cities, but can be rather hard to spot in the countryside. Swifts are noticeably larger than Swallows, and their wings are longer, significantly narrower, and scythe-shaped. Unlike Swallows, Swifts do not bend their wings while flying. Also, a Swift’s tail is wider and shorter than a Swallow’s.
You should remember that generally you will see Swallows in the countryside and Swifts in the city or towns.
What do they eat?
Swifts eat nothing but flying insects and small spiders floating in the air.
Swifts place their nests in hollow spaces in buildings and ruins, in deep holes between bricks, air-holes, under tiles and in other well hidden cavities, between rocks, in hollows and in special nest boxes.
The nest is bowl-shaped and formed of light blades of grass, leaves, feathers, plant fluff, petals, moss, seeds and rubbish (e.g. pieces of paper etc), glued together with saliva.
Swifts spend the winter in Africa, south of the Sahara, and some fly as far as South Africa.
Swifts need warm weather to provide a constant supply of flying insects, so they spend only about three months in northern Europe each year. They arrive from central Africa in early May.
Swifts start their return journey in mid-July, before the nights become too cool. They can’t roost overnight during the journey, like Swallows do, so they travel quickly. Youngsters are independent as soon as they leave the nest, and set out immediately on migration.
By mid-August, most Swifts have reached central Africa. They do not spend the winter in one place, but travel around to find the best food supplies and weather conditions.
We see a baby bird on the ground and we think it is alone, helpless, small, cold, clumsy and fluffy. It’s hard to resist the urge to rescue it. But often people intervene when, in fact, most chicks are fledglings that should be left alone. Stop. Think. Is interfering the best thing to do in this situation? We might have the best of intentions, but taking a chick with you can be a bad thing, as it is messing with nature, and can even make things worse for the chick.
If the bird is a fledgling it is best to leave it alone, even if it looks awkward and cute and can’t fly properly. Unless, in the very rare cases that:
• The bird is bleeding or visibly injured by a cat/car/window. In that case, call your local wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian (not a conservation organisation).
• It is in immediate danger (e.g. from a road, or a cat about to pounce), in which case, move it a few metres to somewhere safe (e.g. into a bush off the ground) where the parent birds can still hear or see it.
Hand-rearing a bird is only ever the very last resort. It must be done by an expert, and is often not successful. Wild birds are not pets. Taking them to rear is often illegal. Only 30% of songbirds survive their first year, but this is a natural strategy so only the strongest survive.
Birds do not abandon their chicks because of how they smell, so if you do have to handle a chick, it’s ok! A bird is better in nature than in your care! For more advice on injured birds use the internet to find your local wildlife rehabilitator.
Binoculars: simply the best way to improve your experience of watching birds in the garden and beyond.
Binocular Specification and Terminology
01 | Magnification.
The binocular magnification specification is the first number in the binocular description. e.g 10 x 42 binocular has a magnification power of 10 times. That is to say, the viewed image will be 10 times larger than with the naked eye.
While a higher magnification will make the image larger and easier to view it will also reduce the field of view and make any movement of the binoculars more exaggerated.
Typically an 8 or 10 times magnification power is the preferred choice, but 12 and 15 times magnification are also available in some models.
02 | Objective Lens.
The objective lenses at the front end of the binocular. The width of the objective lens relates to the second number in the binoculars description. e.g a 10 x 42 binocular has a pair of objective lenses that each measure 42mm in diameter.
Larger objective lenses give better light transmission and allow for a brighter picture. A larger objective lens will allow the binoculars to be used in lower light conditions.
03 | Field Of View (FOV)
The width of the binoculars view. A larger FOV allows for a wider image to be seen.
This can be measured in terms of angle (degrees), or by a set distance. e.g the FOV of the Hawke Endurance ED 8 x 42 is 129m wide when looking at the image 1000m away. This is equivalent to 388ft wide when looking at an image 1000yds away.
04 | Exit Pupil.
The diameter of the viewable image when the eye is positioned at the correct eye relief. This is calculated by dividing the objective lens diameter by the binocular magnification. e.g for a 10 x 42 binocular divide the objective lens diameter of 42mm by the magnification power of 10 to get a 4.2mm exit pupil.
05 | Interpupillary Distance,
The distance between the two ocular lenses. This is measured from the middle of one lens to another. The interpupillary distance has a range, as the distance will change depending how open or closed the binoculars hinge is set.
06 | Eye Relief.
The distance from the pupil to the ocular lens. When at the correct distance the best viewing experience will be achieved. All Hawke binoculars are fitted with adjustable twist-up eye cups to help gain the correct eye relief distance and comfortable viewing experience.
07 | Close Focus.
The closest possible distance that the binoculars can be focused at. Binoculars with an ability to focus at close range allow for better viewing of nearby objects such as insects.
Glass Quality and Coatings.
01 | Extra-low Dispersion (ED) Lenses.
ED lenses are the most effective way to improve image quality and stop colour fringing (chromatic aberration). ED glass allows for better concentration and direction of light wavelengths, which give a significantly sharper image and improved contrast of colours and light.
02 | Fully Multi-Coated (FMC) Lens Coating.
There are many lenses within a binoculars optical system. Hawke’s FMC lenses ensure that both sides of every lens have multiple layers of coating which assist with light transmission and help produce brighter images with improved contrast.
03 | BAK-4 Roof Prism.
BAK-4 is a type of glass used within the prism, which is a system of glass elements inside the binocular that ensure the viewed image is the correct orientation after being magnified. A roof prism is a more compact and sharper version of older traditional Porro prisms.
04 | Phase Corrected Coating.
The light travelling through a binocular prism is reflected several times and as such can lose its “phase”, meaning that colours can appear overlapping and produce colour fringing, also known as chromatic aberration. A phase correction coating helps to stop chromatic aberration.
05 | Silver Mirror Coating.
A silver mirror coating can be applied to elements within the prism and increase reflection. This also improves brightness and colour reproduction. This silver coatings have a reflectivity of 95% to 98%.
06 | Dielectric Coating.
Dielectric Coating of the prisms improves internal reflection even more than a silver mirror coating. This maximises the quality of visible light and produces clear, high-contrast images, similar to those seen by the naked eye.
07 | Water Repellent Coating.
Water repellent coatings significantly improve optical performance in wet conditions. The extra lens coating encourages the water droplets to “bead” and form into smaller drops that are easier to clean and will more actively run off the glass lens.
Parts and Mechanical Features.
01 | Dioptre.
Each binocular is equipped with an adjustable dioptre which is used to correct any imbalance in eye strength. Typically the dioptre adjuster is positioned on the right hand eyepiece.
02 | Focus Wheel.
The focus wheel can easily rotated to change the focal distance of the binoculars. All Hawke binoculars feature a central focus wheel which accurately guide ad adjust the internal lenses while keeping them protected from outside elements and dirt.
03 | Twist-up Eye Cup.
With three different height settings, the twist up eye cups can be set to ensure the best eye relief for your use. Eyeglasses users often leave the twist-up eye cup in the downward position, while non eye-glasses users rotate the twist-up mechanism upright.
04 | Tripod Attachment.
All Hawke full-sized binoculars have a tripod fitting with a standard tripod thread (1/4-20 UNC). This allows for positioning and solid mounting to keep the binoculars still when in use.
05 | Strap Loop.
All Hawke binoculars are engineered with a low-profile strap loop that provides a secure attachment point for your beloved optics.
06 | Nitrogen Purged.
Binoculars are filled with nitrogen gas to ensure that no condensation or humidity is held within the optical system which can otherwise haze and cloud the optical view when moving between warm and old conditions. The nitrogen gas is sealed into the binoculars during manufacture to ensure no moisture can infringe the optics.
Focusing Your Binocular: Setting the Dioptre.
Set the dioptre adjuster to the centre position.
Close your right eye and rotate the focusing wheel until the image in the left eyepiece appears sharp.
Now close your left eye and rotate the dioptre adjuster until the image is sharp.
The binoculars have now been adjusted to your eyes.
If you like to watch wildlife in the garden you are probably well on your way to creating ideal conditions for birds and wildlife, including feeding garden birds. However, in winter and early spring, birds benefit hugely from food put out for them. The less time spent looking for food in winter, when days are short, the greater the chance of survival, especially in cold, freezing conditions. In spring adult birds have to prepare for the breeding season and the better their condition, the better the chance of them rearing a family. The aim is to provide a high calorie food (from 350-600 cals per 100g) that is easily edible to small birds.
What to put out and what not to put out?
Lets start with a few NO’s:
Salted food is bad for birds, so avoid putting out salted peanuts and similar salted, snack foods.
Avoid putting out larger grain such as Wheat and Barley: they are likely to attract crows, pigeons and Pheasants to the detriment of small birds. If these less popular grains are left uneaten at the end of the day, they will attract rodents..
White bread will be eaten, but is not nutritious.
Rice, if cooked and unsalted is fine.
Oats are great, but not cooked as porridge, which is glutinous.
Grated or whole cheese is good (not mouldy or stale: it will spread infection and bacteria) but milk is not suitable for birds.
Avoid cooked fats from the roasting tin such as Turkey or Chicken fat : it doesn’t solidify and smeared on plumage is harmful to birds.
Use hard Beef Suet or Lard, which can be melted and will re-solidify if you wish to add seeds and nuts into a mould or container. Use 1/3 suet to 2/3 nuts and seeds.
A halved, fresh coconut, drained of milk is good, but never use dried or dessicated coconut as it will well up inside a bird.
Hi Energy, No Mess Mixes.
These premium blends typically contain Kibbled peanuts, sunflower hearts and in our own blend, jumbo oats. Place in 2 or 4 port seed feeders.
All Season Mixes
An all rounder with Black or Striped sunflowers, husk on, millet, maize, Place in 2 or 4 port seed feeders or spread on the ground or on a bird table.
Sunflower Seeds & Sunflower Hearts
Popular with husk on, black is better than striped, which has less oil content; Hearts are husked kernels, thought by some enthusiasts as the best food currently available for garden birds. Place in 2 or 4 port seed feeders.
A very fine, black seed with high oil content. A favourite food of the smaller finches. Place in a specially designed Nyjer feeder, with much finer mesh or port holes.
A high calorie food, well liked by most garden birds, including Woodpeckers. Quality varies: avoid pale,wizened looking nuts, low in oil content and any product with a mould will spread disease. Place in a mesh feeder which will ensure whole nuts have to be broken down and minimises risk of young birds choking. Kibbled nuts are lightly crushed and can be added to no mess mixes etc.
Peanut Butter for Birds
A relatively recent option, very popular with the tit species. Made with peanut flower, it is low in salt content and high in calories and is sold in a glass jar. The jar is placed on its side in a feeder house, designed to take the jar fitted to a wall, tree, or screen.
Fat Blocks and Suet Balls
Fat mixes are a great winter food. The squares come in three different varaities: with fruit, with nuts and with seeds. Best value if bought in mixed packs. Place in a square mesh feeder. Fat or Suet balls should have nets removed and placed in a wide mesh cage feeder.
Dried Mealworms and Insects
Very popular with Robins and used in mixes or on their own. Place in a mesh or 2 port seed feeder.
Planting for wildlife will complement your efforts in feeding birds by providing shelter for nesting birds and food for young birds in summer through to winter berries.
Herbaceous Borders: a perennial favourite.
Hardy perennials in a mixed border offer some of the best value for gardeners and wildlife. They will grow best in a bed enriched with plenty of organic compost. The better the preparation, the better the results: perennials have no woody stems or permanent structure and though long-lived, have to grow from ground level, flower and set seed, all in one season. The foliage, as well as the flowers, support a wide range of insects and microclimates for insects such as bees, butterflies and hoverflies as well as birds and small mammals. If left to stand through autumn into late winter, the seed heads and decaying foliage of the herbaceous border will provide foraging and feeding opportunities for birds and insects. The herbaceous plants mix and match easily with small shrubs, alpines, grasses and bulbs.
Top 25 Herbaceous plants for any garden
shady: anemone, aquilegia, dicentera, digitalis, erythronium, geranium, hellebore, pulmonaria, trillium
dry: berginea, echinops, echinacea, kniphofia, sedum, stachys, verbena
damp: helenium, astrantia, astilbe, euphorbia, heuchera, hosta, achillea, ligularia, rudbeckia
A native hedge provides shelter and food and is much more interesting to wildlife (and the human eye) than a boundary fence or wall. Try to resist the temptation to plant easy-grow, evergreen species such as griselinia or leylandii; native plants are far more valuable to birds and wildlife, and there are attractive options. Depending on your preference, the hedge could span both side boundaries or just the end boundary, or all three. An area 2–3m by 1m is required to allow sufficient growth of value, though pruning is necessary to keep shape and provide a strong, dense growth.
The best deciduous native is Hawthorn, which when established provides fruit (or haws) in autumn and flowers in spring. With its thorny stems it is also stock-proof and can be purchased very cheaply as bare-rooted ‘quicks’ from nurseries in late winter for immediate planting. If evergreen cover is required, Holly ticks the boxes for berries and stock-proof foliage. A mixture of the two, with one or two plants allowed to develop into small trees, will provide song posts for thrushes and perhaps nesting sites. A number of berry-bearing trees and shrubs are suitable for inclusion in a mixed hedgerow.
If you are planting for wildlife, flowering and fruiting shrubs are a very important part of the planting scheme. A choice that encourages insect visitors is best. The amount of space you can provide will ultimately dictate your choice of plants; again, native berry-bearing shrubs are better for wildlife than some of the exotics, which are usually developed purely for gardeners’ delight and show. However, there are non-natives such as dogwood (Cornus), cotoneasters (C. cornubia is best) and Firethorn (Pyracantha), which serve birds and gardeners well. Most of the native planting options will require a space of 3–5m square for mature plants, but respond well to pruning. Even a small garden could accommodate a single specimen shrub or tree as a focal point. The best natives (for all-round interest and value) are Hawthorn (as a standard tree or hedge), Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus), Spindle (Euonymus europeaus) and Elder (Sambucus nigra)or S. racemose if space is at a premium. All provide flowers for insects and good autumn leaf colour and a show of berries for birds, and favour dampish conditions.
Most gardens can accommodate at least one small tree. You could start with a native Rowan, Sorbus aucaparia, with white flowers in spring and red berries in early autumn. For a damp site with space, Alder Alnus glutinosa is a top tree for birds with cones attracting Siskins, Goldfinches and Redpolls. Silver Birch, Betula pubescens, is a lovely tree that is pleasing to the eye and great for wildlife, with catkins attracting finches. All trees are potential nest sites for birds at some stage and a planting sets the tone for a layered, woodland look to the garden.
Climbers are a space-saving group of plants that are ideal for the modern garden, providing vertical cover that will soften the harsh boundaries of a new plot. Ivy is a very important food source for nectar-seeking insects in late autumn and the late winter berries are available when most other food supplies are exhausted. Ivy provides cover for nesting birds. The anti-ivy lobby claims that it will bring down trees and walls if left unchecked, and it can certainly hasten the demise of a diseased tree or unstable wall structure; however, it is not parasitic, its roots fend for themselves in the ground and the short ‘roots’ on climbing stems are for support only. Certainly, ivy needs space and is slow to flower until a significant area has been colonised and it reaches the top of its available support. The variety H. arborescens is slow-growing, but produces flowers and berries early on.
A seemingly endless range of decorative climbers such as clematis, honeysuckle, jasmine, potato plant and climbing rose all enrich the summer garden scene and are nectar providers for a wide range of insects in spring and summer. This range of plants requires partial or total support by way of a trellis or network of supporting wires. Most require sunshine for the showy foliage and shade or cool conditions for roots.
When we talk about birdsong, we cannot simply refer to a single “voice”. It is a great chorus of complex sounds, it is a real language in itself. The dry “teak” of a sparrow, the plaintive “gheck gheck gheck” of a woodpecker, the shrill “chirrip” of a lark – each sound has its own purpose and is used in very specific circumstances. For birdwatchers, learning how to ‘decode’ the secret language of birds is a great way to identify different species and to better understand their behaviour.
The language of birds
Just as vowels and consonants provide the foundation for our words and sentences, birds produce a series of calls, songs and melodies in a ‘language’ so nuanced it could rival our very own alphabet! This is all thanks to a special vocal organ called the syrinx – the size of a pea, it sits at the junction of the trachea and the bronchi in the lungs. Its structure – which varies with each species – makes such different songs and sounds possible. Each sound has a different purpose and this, in turn, makes it possible for birds to communicate with each other in different circumstances.
The warning calls
These involve sharp and penetrating sounds – warning signals used by birds whenever they feel threatened and want to warn companions of danger. They are usually short sounds strong enough to be heard at great distances. The same sound is often used by predatory birds as part of their attack.
The cries for help
“Mum Mum Mum!” Just as children call for their mother with arms outstretched, small birds emit little moans and chirps to attract their mother’s attention, often flapping their wings for good measure. The call intensity is low, but it can still be clearly perceived in the vicinity of a nest. Small birds frequently continue to use these calls after leaving the nest too – because mum is always mum!
The contact calls
“Hey, are you all right?” Contact calls for birds are more or less the equivalent of us making sure a friend is ok. They use contact calls when they travel in flocks, want to call each other or even just share news about a good food source. These calls are characterised by moderately strong chirps, similar to a “hum” but not as penetrating as the warning calls.
The mid-flight calls
We have business calls – the ones where you use a more formal tone because etiquette demands it. Similarly, birds have specific calls that are only used during flight – and, interestingly, these are the most accurate calls to go by when trying to identify different species. These sounds are highly musical, especially when they announce the passage of flocks during migration season.
Why do birds sing at dawn?
The singing of birds in the morning signals a pleasant awakening. But why do birds usually showcase their vocal talents at this time of the day? The answer comes down to simple “vanity”: it is so they appear to be fit and healthy. Birds mainly feed during the day, so the early morning – when they are unfed and hungry – is when they are weakest. Singing at dawn is a technique used by males to prove their health and vigour to potential partners. No wonder: the singing is strictly linked to the birds’ “love life” and it is important throughout every stage of the relationship, from courtship to nest.
When the song becomes music
The lark’s morning song is not the only melody to have inspired poets and composers. Sweet birdsong has always touched the heart of man, inspiring verses and immortal music. Grieg, Ravel and Prokofiev, amongst others – have been so fascinated by the melody of blackbirds, nightingales and doves that they have turned their calls into music.
Vivaldi composed the famous “Goldfinch” concert while Girolamo Frescobaldi’s “Capriccio sopra Cucho” is a testament to the charms of the cuckoo. Beethoven famously incorporated imitations of the nightingale and quail – performed by flute and oboe respectively – in the second movement of the “Pastoral Symphony No. 6”. And Wagner notably included the song “The bird in the woods” in his opera ‘Siegfried’.
How you can learn to recognise birds by their song
Of course, the best way to learn how to recognise birds by their song is to go out into the great outdoors and simply listen to the most beautiful music ever made. The chorus that you can hear in a forest or a national park is a true symphony, especially for those able to grasp the nuances. For starters, it can be useful to have a handbook that – together with maps and photographs of the different species – explains the different vocal characteristics. But rest assured, with a little bit of practice and patience, anyone can unlock the secret of birdsong.
Source: this article was first published in Italian by LIPU (BirdLife in Italy) http://www.lipu.it/articoli-natura/8-oasi-e-centri-di-recupero/889-perche-gli-uccelli-cantano and has been translated by Alice Paone, Communications & Strategy Intern with BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.