This weekend is the RSPB‘s 34th Big Garden Birdwatch across the UK. Eastlondonlines spoke to local bird expert David Mooney about what the capital’s birdlife is likely to look like in 2013, and why East London is a special place for our feathered friends.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is not just for diehard ornithologists - it’s a chance to celebrate the more unusual members of the UK’s international community. And, as I grill him about the wild green parakeets that inhabit Hackney’s Springfield Park, there is no question in David Mooney’s mind why these exotic birds are flocking to East London to find a home.
Mooney is Hackney’s manager for The London Wildlife Trust. It’s a charity dedicated to biodiversity in the capital and he runs one of their five city-wide hubs, arranging community projects and events to encourage local people to engage with nature within the borough.
He explained the history of East London’s parakeet community: “They are a consequence of our ancestral obsession with colour and the exotic. The Victorians brought them over from subtropical countries – India, Sri Lanka – after their expeditions and, after time, they escaped or were released.
“Some people are worried they may be an ‘invasive’ species, but you’ve got to be careful with language like that, else you start sounding like the BNP. Parakeets are as British as curry, and they’re both here to stay.”
This weekend the RSPB is asking people across the UK to help them keep abreast of changes in British wildlife by spending one hour watching bird activity throughout the nation’s gardens. It’s free to take part, and findings can be reported back simply through the RSPB website.
And with the snow still melting, this weekend could prove a real treat for Londoners, as the sudden low temperatures mean more birds will be taking to the cities.
“If it’s warm then birds will be less likely to come to the city because better weather means food is plentiful in rural areas,” explains Mooney.
“Due to this cold weather, there’s every chance that there’ll be more numbers and species of bird in people’s garden this weekend than at any time over the last six months.”
In fact, according to Mooney, things have been so cold over the past few years that in 2011 Hackney saw its first ever Siberian ChiffChaff – a very rare sight in Western Europe. “It was so cold in Siberia that it thought, ‘sod this, I’m leaving’ and it found a more habitable environment in Hackney”, he tells me.
You may not be lucky enough to spot Siberian chiffchaffs in your back garden this weekend, but you will see plenty of other birds if you keep your eyes peeled; and the RSPB provide a check sheet with the twenty usual suspects to help you keep track.
In addition to common blackbirds, robins and pigeons, Hackney also has a few winged wild-cards that have set up roost in the borough. There are a growing number of tawny owls who decided in recent years that the quiet, thickly wooded surroundings of Abney Park Cemetery would be perfect for starting families, and they can be heard hooting through the night. Owl boxes have now gone up along leafy railway embankments in the borough to encourage further nesting.
Along the banks of the River Lea you can see vivid blue kingfishers; and those oh-so-British parakeets share Springfield Park with great spotted woodpeckers.
Patriotism and birdlife hasn’t always gone hand-in-hand in Britain though: during World War II, birds-of-prey were culled to stop interference with state carrier pigeons. But recent protection and breeding programmes have led to an increase in the population and now kestrels and sparrow hawks can be found in housing estates in south Hackney, where they use the tower blocks to perch and look for food.
If you don’t fancy dangling a dormouse out of your window to attract the birds, then bird feeders are a good – and less gruesome – option. “It’s not fantastically ideal that birds can’t feed for themselves, but then the pressures we put birds under with our agricultural practices in rural areas, and our land grabbing and over development in the cities means bird feeders can be good,” says Mooney.
For more advice on seed, feeders and bird boxes, see our guide. And to get involved in the Big Garden Birdwatch, register at the RSPB website.
The London Wildlife Trust’s Hackney branch is based at the East Reservoir, where they hold bird watching activities and other events. For more details, and for information on volunteering with the Trust, visit their website.
Illustrations by James Tuitt
There are different views on the value of bird feeders, but for those who are interested in attracting creatures to their gardens and windowsills, they are the obvious tactic. The best time to put out bird food is between October and April, when natural sources of food are harder to come by. Here is what you need to know to get you started:
If you're lucky enough to have a garden then birds tables are a great way to encourage birds in. Make sure your bird table is easy to clean and has some kind of drainage for rain water.
Hanging bird feeders allow you to tempt birds to your windowsill, where you may get a better view. In this case, avoid hanging nuts up in the nylon mesh bags they are often sold in - these can be dangerous for birds, who get their legs caught up in them. Instead use a metal or plastic holder with mesh no greater than 6mm to avoid birds taking food that is too big for them. Seed requires a different type of holder, and will attract other birds (see below).
There three most common types of nut/seed used to attract British garden birds are:
Sunflower seeds are soft when dehulled, and good for birds that may be collecting food to take back to their young. They appeal to most small birds, including finches, sparrows and blackbirds.
Nyjer is the tiny black seed that comes from thistles and is usually contained in mixed seed bags in the shops. This is partly because it's quite expensive and also because it gets messy in large quantities. However, it is a firm favourite of lots of garden birds and will guarantee you visits from goldfinches and siskins.
Peanuts attract woodpeckers, along with smaller birds like nuthatches and tits. Make sure they are high quality though, as they can be high in aflatoxin which can be fatal for birds.
Bird boxes are a really helpful way of encouraging birds to nest without intefering with their diet or lifestyle. And now - late January and February - is the perfect time to put them up, so the birds can settle in time for Spring's breeding season.
Make sure bird boxes are north-facing so that chicks don't get burnt or overheated by the sun as the weather warms up.
If you want to do more than an hour's worth of bird watching to help the capital's bird community then here are some other things you can do:
1. Volunteer at the London Wildlife Trust, or become a member. This is a great way to learn more, and also be involved in a hands-on way with nature in the city.
2. If you have a garden, get some dead wood and leave it in a quiet corner or under a bush. It encourages all the creepy crawlies that birds love to feed off.
3. If you don't have a garden then write to your local parks department and ask them to introduce more 'wildlife areas' - patches of parkland left free from development so that wild flowers and animals can be left to flourish.
4. Get involved with Abney Park nature reserve. They have lots of volunteering opportunities, classes and activities like bird watching.
5. If you're worried about cats getting their paws on birds in your garden, grab a catwatch device - they send out a high-pitch noise not detectable by humans, but very unpleasant to cats, whenever they sense a cat nearby. This is meant to scare them off before they get a chance to pounce.