London’s birds need you!

Goldfinches at the birdfeeder: John Bridges, RSPB Images

All of a sudden, it seems the birds are everywhere. It’s hatching season, which, combined with the arrival of spring migrants like swifts and cuckoos, means that birds are more active and visible than at any other time in the year.

But a dry spring has caused problems for many species, and the RSPB is calling on Londoners to step up their efforts to help look after the capital’s bird population  by providing an unusual commodity; mud.

“It’s that time of the year, when birds make themselves most visible by their actions,” said the Tim Webb of the RPSB, which has received calls in recent weeks from concerned Londoners who have found young birds apparently grounded, or have heard mysterious rustlings in roof spaces.

However, the recent dry spell is causing concern. House martins and swallows are struggling to find the damp mud they need to build their nests, or rebuild old ones.

The RSPB suggests putting wet mud in a shallow container like a dustbin lid, or creating damp mud at the edges of borders and ponds or in bare patches of grass. Native species like blackbirds and song thrushes also use mud for their nests.

Londoners can help welcome birds to their gardens in a number of other ways as well. A nest box, bird feeder or bird bath all provide much needed nourishment and shelter. Planting nectar-rich wildflowers in the garden is also a great help for insect populations, which in turn helps the hungry birds.

Meanwhile, all sorts of otherwise useless fluff material can be used by birds for their nest building; scruff like knitting wool scraps, and even hair from brushes and combs are often used to decorate nests, according to RSPB.

Londoners concerned about apparently injured or sick birds found on the ground would be best advised to let them be, however, says Tim Webb.

“It sounds cruel, but it’s usually best to leave wild animals to their own devices. Most of the time these are just young birds who haven’t yet mastered the art of flying. Their parents won’t be far away and are best placed to help the youngsters.

“Far better to step-up efforts to provide a healthy environment for birds, butterflies and bees; bringing benefits for nature and people too.”

Birds in your garden

Thousands of amateur bird watchers, 3,236 of them in the East London Line boroughs, took part in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds annual “Big Garden Birdwatch” survey, which monitors bird-sightings in Britain’s gardens.

Each of the boroughs had a slightly different Top 10 of the most commonly seen birds, which we’ve compiled for you below, complete with sound recordings of the each bird’s song, so you know what to listen out for in your area.

There were some surprising results. For example, the goldfinch, one of Britain’s brightest little songbirds, prefers the inner city gardens of Tower Hamlets to Croydon’s leafier suburbs. The survey proves that wherever you live, you’re never far away from hearing the same timeless songs and calls that have ushered in spring every year since long before the city was even here.

Contents (click on chapter headings to go straight there)

The Top 10 garden birds in your borough

Rarer garden visitors to look out for

London birds beyond your garden

Migrant birds arriving this spring

Top 10 most common birds in your borough

Click on a bird’s name to find out more and hear its calls and song

Figures indicate average number of sightings per garden per hour


1. House sparrow 2.50

2. Blue tit 2.23

3. Woodpigeon 2.02

4. Feral pigeon 1.86

5. Starling 1.82

6. Great tit 1.66

7. Blackbird 1.51

8. Robin 0.94

9. Magpie 0.69

10. Goldfinch 0.63

Tower Hamlets

1. Feral pigeon 4.00

2. Woodpigeon 2.44

3. House sparrow 2.37

4. Blue tit 1.82

5. Goldfinch 1.82

6. Blackbird 1.66

7. Starling 1.61

8. Great tit 1.32

9. Robin 1.02

10. Magpie 0.75


1. House sparrow 2.60

2. Woodpigeon 2.56

3. Blue Tit 2.40

4. Feral pigeon 2.23

5. Starling 2.05

6. Blackbird 1.77

7. Great tit 1.48

8. Robin 1.23

9. Magpie 1.13

10. Goldfinch 1.01


1. Blue tit 3.03

2. Woodpigeon 2.80

3. Blackbird 2.04

4. House sparrow 2.03

5. Feral pigeon 2.01

6. Starling 1.94

7. Robin 1.45

8. Great tit 1.39

9. Magpie 1.38

10. Goldfinch 1.08

Rarer garden visitors to look out for…

Wren: Steve Round, RSPB Images

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Where to find them: Most likely to turn up in suburban gardens.

When to hear them: All year round.

Diet: Insects, spiders

The tiny wren packs quite a punch. Listen out for its loud trilling song in your garden. Due to its size, harsh winters affect the wren more than other birds, so if you hear or see one let the RSPB know so they can see how the wrens have fared during the recent snows.

Songthrush: Chris Gomersall, RSPB Images

Songthrush (Turdus pholomelos)

Where to find them: Hedgerows, parks and gardens

When to hear them: All year round.

Diet: Worms, snails and fruit

This famed songbird has been in decline in recent years so if one turns up in your garden, be very accommodating. They’re more likely to be seen in city parks.

Green woodpecker: John Bridges, RSPB Images

Green woodpecker (Picus viridis)

Where to find them: Mostly in large parks, but sometimes makes garden appearances

When to hear them: All year round.

Diet: Insects

The sound most commonly associated with this brightly-coloured character, is the drill-beat of its beak on the trees where it makes its home. But its call is very distinctive too and might be heard in the dawn chorus in London, particularly if you live near open the open parkland habitat that woodpeckers prefer.

London birds beyond your garden

Black redstart: Mike Langman, RSPB Images

Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Where to find them: Brownfield sites

When to hear them: All year round, but they are rare, so you may be disappointed

Diet: Insects, spiders, worms, berries, seeds

This extraordinary little bird is one of Britain’s most endangered; there are less than a hundred breeding pairs left in the UK. It’s so rare that you’re not likely to hear its short sharp song even in spring. But, remarkably, the borough of Tower Hamlets is one of its national strongholds, so if you do want to go questing for this rarity, you’re in the right place. Brownfield sites are the best place to look. The black redstart has adapted to live in the very heart of the urban landscape. It likes rocky ground and solid surfaces, and flourished in London’s bomb sites during World War II. Since then the regeneration of such areas has driven its numbers down. If you do see or hear one let the RSPB know!

Peregrine falcon perched near St Pauls: Peter Kenyon

Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Where to find them: High buildings, often around the Thames

When to hear them: All year round. Raising young from April

Diet: Medium-sized birds, pigeons, ducks

More and more peregrines are adapting to the urban landscape and this spring you might well hear them screeching in the skies over London as they enter their breeding season. They use tall buildings instead of the rock crags and cliffs they are more used to building their nests on. Peregrines are the fastest animals in the world, sometimes reaching speeds of over 200 mph when diving after prey. What’s more, they eat pigeons! Since 2001 peregrines have been breeding in London, which is good news for a species that has suffered for decades from killings by gamekeepers, egg collecting and pesticides elsewhere in the country. Lewisham and Tower Hamlets residents should look out for them over the Thames, where they are most commonly spotted.

Tawny owl: Mike Langman, RSPB Images

Tawny owl (Strix aluco)

Where to find them: Parks and wooded areas

When to hear them: At night, all year round.

Diet: Small mammals, small birds, frogs, insects and worms

The unmistakeable too-twit-too-woo of the tawny owl can be heard in most of London’s larger parks of a warm spring night. If a pair moves in near you this spring, you had better get used to the eerie sound, because tawny owls mate for life and rarely leave a territory once it is established. Though they are hardly ever seen by daylight, look out for the distinctive pellet droppings near roosting sites.

Migrant birds arriving this spring

The warm days of spring lure a whole new cast of avian visitors to Britain’s shores every year, and many make their summer homes in London. Starting in April, migrant species like the martin, the swift and the cuckoo will appear in gardens and green spaces, newly arrived from their winter stay in the warmer climes of southern Europe and Africa. Listen out for these three as the days get longer…

Cuckoo: Mike Langman, RSPB Images

Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

Where to find them: Parks and wooded areas

When to hear them: Adults starting arriving in late March, and leave in July or August. Their young stay for a month or two longer.

Diet: Insects

There can be no surer sign that spring has come than the sound of the cuckoo. For centuries poets have welcomed the familiar sound as a herald of warmer days, as they return from winter nesting sites in East Africa. The cuckoo is also famous for its rather unorthodox approach to egg-rearing; laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and leaving the poor mother bird to raise the cuckoo chick. Once hatched, the chicks will even push the other eggs out of the nest. Cuckoo numbers have been declining in recent years, possibly because of droughts in East Africa. But their UK stronghold is in the south-east, so listen out for them in London’s parks this spring; a healthy population has been reported in Hackney’s London Fields.

Swift: Mark Thomas, RSPB Images

Swift (Apus apus)

Where to find them: Look up! Swifts rarely ever land, and nest high up in nooks and crannies of old buildings.

When to hear them: April to August, most often active at dusk.

Diet: Flying insects

Swifts are one of the bird world’s great travellers. Some of those that will be arriving in London over the next few months will have flown from winter nesting sites as far away as South Africa.

These remarkable birds spend the first three years of their life in constant flight, and eat, sleep and mate on the wing. The only time they use their legs is when raising eggs, which they have been known to do in the quieter nooks and crannies of some of London’s old buildings. Look for them flitting about the rooftops, especially at dusk. To find out how you can help protect swifts, visit the RSPB’s “Help us Help Swifts” campaign page.

House martin: John Markham, RSPB Images

House martin (Delichon urbica)

Where to find them: Around the nooks and crannies of older buildings in more suburban areas.

When to hear them: From April to September or October.

Diet: Insects

True to its name, the house martin depends almost exclusively on man-made structures to build its nests, so you can expect to see them in the more suburban areas of London this spring.

They start arriving in April and will feed over wetlands for a short time before setting up nests, often in the same places that their forebears have done before them. They are sensitive to air pollution, so don’t expect to see them in the central London boroughs.

For more information on all the birds featured here, and to find out how you can help London’s bird population this spring, and all year round, visit the RSPB website, or click here to become a member right away

All images and sound courtesy of RSPB.

One Response

  1. Jim Newcombe July 16, 2013

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