A robin in winter

Robins are a symbol of winter in Britain © Peter Trimming via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

British garden birds: autumn and winter highlights

You might not spend as much time in your garden during winter, but if you keep an eye out you'll still see plenty of bird activity.

Here are some of the birds you're likely to spot spending time in your garden in autumn and winter.

Robins

Robins (Erithacus rubecula) are often considered a British winter icon. They're so popular that in 2015 they were voted our first-ever national bird.

These birds can be spotted in gardens throughout the year. It's possible we associate them with winter because their striking red breast is more visible amid the sparse foliage.

Robins' song is also heard year-round. Unlike other songbirds which tend to just sing in spring and early summer to attract a mate, robins use their voices all the time to warn intruders to keep away from their territory.

Winter can be tough on little birds like robins. They have to build up big energy reserves to survive the cold nights. © xulescu_g via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Are robins aggressive?

These birds are quick to chase off other robins. Despite being thought of as friendly birds and often referred to as 'a gardener's friend', robins are actually quite aggressive and highly territorial.

Robins are known to attack taxidermy robins or even just tufts of red feathers. These observations suggest their territorial behaviour is triggered by the robin's red breast.

Winter can be fatal for robins. On cold nights these tiny birds can lose as much as 10% of their body weight, and they need to feed well every day to survive. Garden feeding stations can be a vital lifeline for birds during winter.

Starlings

European starlings migrate to the UK in winter, joining resident birds to form enormous flocks © 4burakfe via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are another permanent resident of the UK, found almost everywhere except parts of the Scottish Highlands. In winter, their numbers are boosted by migrating starlings from northern Europe.

Their plumage has a glossy purple and green sheen, but they can be confused with blackbirds (Turdus merula), another common garden bird in the UK. In winter, however, starlings are easily identifiable by the addition of white speckles all over their bodies - although these wear away over winter.

These are noisy, social birds which feed together during the day. They take advantage of garden feeders and can empty them with ease, particularly when a group descend on a single station.

What is a starling murmuration?

Starlings gather in communal roosts at dusk during autumn and winter. Sometimes there can be up to 100,000 birds in one roost.

© National Geographic
 

Before they settle down for the night, the birds perform synchronised aerial acrobatics known as murmurations. You can spot them in action between November and February.  

Why starlings perform their whirling, hypnotic flight is still a bit of a mystery. Flying in a large group probably provides safety in numbers, with predators such as peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) unable to pick one bird out of the mass. Or perhaps starlings use murmurations to help monitor approaching predators.

When spring arrives, the European birds return to the continent while the year-round residents return to their breeding areas. 

Blue tits

Blue tits are very common birds in Britain, particularly in towns, villages and deciduous woodland © xulescu_g via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Like robins, blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) are another easy spot in winter due to their bright cerulean and yellow-green colouring. These are remarkably common garden birds - since the 1960s their numbers have risen considerably, although there has been a slight decline since 2010.

During daylight hours, you'll often see them spending time on bird feeders, consuming large amounts to get them through cold winter nights. They also search out insects and spiders and can eat up to 30% of their body weight in food each day.

If a blue tit seems to be attacking a window, it's probably just hunting for food around the frame.

(Left to right) Great, coal and long-tailed tits are found widely across the UK. In winter they form flocks that search for food together. © Great tit and coal tit: Marek Szczepanek via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Long-tailed tit: Jac. Janssen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In winter, blue tits and other tit species - including great tits (Parus major), coal tits (Periparus ater) and long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) - form flocks that travel together searching for food.

At this time of year, to help them save energy when it gets really cold, blue tits and other little birds often use nesting boxes as a warmer place to roost overnight.

Sparrows

House sparrows are one of two sparrow species seen in Britain © hedera.baltica via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Two species of sparrow are found in Britain. The tree sparrow (Passer montanus) is found predominantly in the Midlands and southern and eastern England, whereas the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is found more widely, only absent from Britain's highest mountains. In their respective ranges, they can be seen year-round.

Just because a sparrow is in a tree, it won't necessarily be a tree sparrow. Tree and house sparrows can be distinguished by their plumage. Although they may seem quite alike there, are key features to look out for.

Tree sparrows are smaller than house sparrows and can be identified by their chestnut crowns and black cheek spots © hedera.baltica via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tree sparrows are identifiable by their chestnut-brown crowns, white collar and black cheek spots. House sparrows have a grey crest and cheeks, and are slightly dumpier. Both have unmarked grey-buff underparts.

If you see a sparrow, it's more likely to be a house sparrow as they are far more common than tree sparrows.

Reed buntings' (centre) winter plumage makes them appear sparrow-like. But they are much more stripy, particularly on the underside, than tree and house sparrows. © Tree sparrow and house sparrow: hedera.baltica via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Reed bunting: Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

During winter another sparrow-like bird ventures into gardens: the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). In summer, male reed buntings have a distinct dark head, but their winter plumage is much duller. The females and juveniles have sparrow-like colouration throughout the year.

Reed buntings have different proportions to sparrows and can be distinguished by their longer tail and smaller body. They also have lots of dark stripes on both their upper and undersides.

Blackcaps

A male blackcap. These birds are becoming more frequent in Britain winter.  © hedera.baltica via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) were once just summer visitors to the UK, but more and more of them can be seen in Britain year-round, with an increasing number migrating from mainland Europe to spend winter in our gardens.

Males have the eponymous black cap, whereas females sport a chestnut quiff. For both, the rest of their body is generally grey, with a lighter underside. Males can be mistaken for willow tits (Poecile montanus) or marsh tits (Poecile palustris) which also have black crowns, but both species also have a black bib. 

(Left to right) Willow tits, blackcaps and marsh tits are easy to confuse with each other. But if your garden visitor has a black bib as well as a black crown, it isn't a blackcap. © Willow tit: Francis C. Franklin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Blackcap: Kathy Büscher via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Marsh tit: xulescu_g via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What do blackcaps eat?

Food sources decline in winter, but ivy berries are still available and a good option for many birds, including blackcaps. In general, birds can digest the pith and the juice, but not the seed. This may be one of the reasons ivy often grows close to places where a bird might perch, such as fence posts.

Once the fruit supply runs low, if you provide feeding stations in your garden you may see blackcaps making regular visits. The Garden Blackcap Survey in 2013 found that they are most fond of fat-based foods like suet and sunflower seeds.

Blackcaps may shoo other species off feeders. In the survey, blue tits were most likely to be scared off and robins the least likely, although participants generally didn't witness any aggressive interactions between blackcaps and other birds.

A female blackcap feeding on berries. This species will likely switch to bird feeders in a garden if supply runs out. © Kathy Büscher via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Over the last 60 years, blackcaps from central Europe have increasingly spent their winters in Britain, particularly the south and west, instead of migrating further south to the Mediterranean. An increase in bird feeders and warmer winters are thought to be driving this change in behaviour.

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