Nature 2020 April

Those little brown jobs

Until some twenty years ago my knowledge of and the ability to identify many of our common birds was lamentable. Give me an insect, mollusc, amphibian, wildflower or tree and I was able to identify it, or at least know what it was closely related to. Because birds were often hidden in a tree or just moving too fast I could not catch sight of them for long enough to look them up. Distinguishing the many similar and varied bird calls was and still is a blind spot.

Many birds, especially the smaller ones, can, in less than ideal situations, appear almost indistinguishable from each other. “Those little brown jobs” as Bill Oddie calls them. The key to identifying such birds lies not just in their size, shape and colour but through recognising some of their distinguishing habits and typical behaviours.

Thanks to hanging up a range of bird feeders with different seeds or nuts and scattering bird seed on the ground and in trays, good progress can be made with identifying both birds that inhabit our gardens or those that visit from the surrounding countryside.

Between the months of April and August are the best times of the year to get a close-up sight of the many different varieties of birds that frequent our gardens. I will concentrate on the smaller birds that congregate on our feeders. Though equally interesting, there is insufficient room here to tackle the antics of the many ground-feeding garden birds, the medium-sized thrushes and blackbirds and the much larger birds including the now ubiquitous red kites that visit us regularly.

For certain birds, securing sufficient food depends on controlling their section on the hanging feeder. This is achieved through a variety of strategies. Resilience to attack from more dominant birds, by using speed and agility to outwit an aggressor, becomes a new campaign of fending off, counter attacking and grabbing as much food in the time available. For birds not equipped with a sharp beak, dazzling plumage and genes maxed out for aggression, success is instead a matter of guile and opportunism.

From my observations the most assertive and dominant at the bird feeder is the nuthatch. The name has linguistically morphed from ‘nut-hack’ on account of its propensity to affix nuts between ridges in bark. One can observe them, characteristically perched upside-down, prising whole peanuts from the feeder. Any foolhardy bird joining a nuthatch will be given a beady eye, stalked or swiftly spiked by its bill and bullied off the feeder toute suite. Even the largest bird that regularly visits the feeder, the great-spotted woodpecker is regularly given short-shift by the nuthatch. Great tits are the largest and most dominant of the tit family tree and next in the pecking order. They often arrive in twos and threes, each staking out a segment and remain feeding for the longest period of all. Male great tits are the most assertive and often can be seen spreading their wings to prevent other birds access to ‘their’ nuts.

Of these gate-crashers, the blue tit is often the most numerous. These typically arrive in large groups and dart and dash as they circumnavigate the feeder, chipping away to extract a fragment of nut. The most acrobatic of the tits, they are as happy hanging upside down which aids their avoidance of great tits. The arrival of up to half-a-dozen blue tits may appear as a co-ordinated strategy. It is not. Step back a little and observe, using some binoculars, the surrounding nearby hedges or tree branches. You will likely see a pulsating throng of blue tits and other small garden birds that travel in groups of typically tens and twenty or more birds. Individuals then attempt to land on the feeder. But for every one that succeeds perhaps two or more abort their landing and return to the safety of the branches. Blue tits that have managed to stay long enough (maybe a matter of just 10-15 seconds) depart with a morsel of nut, using the hedge or branch as a safe refuge to manipulate the nut fragment between beak and foot before it disappears into the mouth. Interestingly (to me anyway!) in the adjacent container of fat balls blue tits are much more relaxed, avoid any bullying by more aggressive birds, and can happily remain there for a minute or longer.

I’ve seen three other tit species that regularly visit the peanuts. Long-tailed tits at the start of the year would arrive in groups of up to 15 or more. By April they have divided, not just into pairs but often into threes and fours. Two dominant paired adults and one or two unpaired who assist with nest building and rearing young. Long-tailed tits are regular but short- staying daily visitors but are timid and are easily disturbed by other birds, or if just one is frightened by a seemingly invisible threat all depart almost simultaneously, though usually only momentarily, before returning one after another. I have observed long-tailed tits’ behaviour when feeding and the rapid head movements could be them checking out their colleagues so if one becomes agitated the other bird or birds pick this up, which accounts for their balletic and almost synchronous flight.

Coal tits are the smallest member of the tit family. Distinguished also by a chalk mark along the crest of the head they always appear untidy with feathers askew, perhaps as a result of bullying, or maybe it is because they often rummage through the undergrowth for small invertebrates. I normally see them as solitary visitors to the feeders, though they flock with blue tits and other small birds for safety. Coal tits seem able to feed under the radar of the great tits, darting in between birds and even diving in to steal a morsel dislodged but not grabbed by other birds.

The final member of the tit family seen locally is the willow tit. A patient feeder, apparently untroubled by the antics of other peanut eaters. In contrast to the coal tit, the willow tit is neat, dapper cream- bodied and with a sooty-black cap. It is almost indistinguishable from the marsh tit that instead has a glossy black cap. I admit I have presumed I have seen some of each species but never knowingly side-by-side to allow a precise comparison. I am comforted in my confusion as the willow tit is said to have only arrived from the Continent around 1900 and was only identified as a different species to the marsh tit when studied in detail by one of Lionel Rothschild’s curators at his Natural History Museum at Tring.

I will mention briefly the goldfinches which appear the most laid-back of hanging seed and nut feeders. They are the most extravagantly coloured of our regular visitors with splashes of ‘gold’, red, black and white. As seed eaters they have the run of a different feeder, stocked usually with thistle. With goldfinches there is an apparent nonchalance about the chaos of nature around them. Though we have up to three pairs that visit, each pair takes its turn on the feeders while the others are content to await their turn, preening themselves and chattering away to their partners. Greenfinches are rare visitors to our garden at the moment but do try out either the peanuts or the goldfinches’ thistle seeds. Bullfinches have occasionally checked out the seed-filled feeder but find the dexterity required to extract a seed too much bother and prefer tumbling around on the seed heads of a nearby stand of thistles or willowherb. Blackcaps arrive in April. The female has a russet brown cap just to confuse matters. During the year they are mainly insect eaters and at the end of the summer, before departing these shores, they may gorge themselves on the pyracantha berries. However, it is a joy to see them take the opportunity to dissect a nut or two whilst the other birds have left the feeder temporarily unguarded. I regularly see one of our resident robins attempt to land and negotiate the squirrel defences of our bird feeders. They never seem to succeed in this and I can only think they have noticed other birds enjoying a feast and erroneously believe they will enjoy a peanut.

So, if like me of twenty years ago you find it difficult to identify “those little brown jobs” and many of the other birds that visit your garden, invest in a range of bird feeders set up close to the house so they are always in sight. Always keep them stocked-up with a variety of seeds and nuts. Have to hand at least one concise, and maybe one more expansive bird book with good drawings, but not photographs. Keep a pair of binoculars handy. Familiarise yourself, not just with the colours and sizes, but as importantly the habits and behaviours of the birds that visit your garden. Then whether seen in your garden or in the woodlands, commons and arable fields around us identifying them might just become a bit easier.