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You might not think London is the best place to look for birds, but the city is full of surprises. Ecologist Joe Beale tells us more.
Over 300 species of birds have been recorded in London at different times of the year. Some are year-round residents while others migrate from as far away as Siberia or sub-Saharan Africa.
Birds are good at adapting, which enables them to thrive in our urban metropolises. They become tolerant of humans passing close to their nests, most of them aren't bothered by street lights and traffic noise only makes them sing louder.
Even peregrines and other birds of prey are becoming more common in cities, as they quietly adjust to urban life. So keep your eyes to the skies to glimpse an icon of true wildness right outside your door.
Though your best chances of seeing birds are in green spaces such as parks, cemeteries and wetlands, you can see them almost anywhere in London. The trick is to look up and look around.
You could even turn your sightings into science and help experts understand how wildlife is faring in our city, by taking part in The Big Garden Birdwatch in January.
Urban areas are excellent places to watch birds and their behaviour. The Museum's ID and Advisory Officer, Florin Feneru, provides his top tips for becoming an urban birder.
Contrary to what you might expect, it's not just small birds you can see in the city: raptors are becoming more common.
Buzzards sometimes soar overhead. Red kites glide by occasionally, their forked tails giving away their identity.
If you're lucky, a peregrine may put in a dramatic appearance. With a magnificent 30 or so pairs nesting in the city, London now has the second-highest urban peregrine population anywhere in the world, after New York City. But it wasn't always like this.
Thirty years ago, seeing any of these impressive raptors in the capital this regularly would have been unthinkable. Red kites were still confined to Wales, buzzards were much scarcer in the east and peregrines had yet to re-establish themselves in London.
These birds have now largely reclaimed their historic range thanks to reduced persecution in some areas, legal protection, the removal of pesticides such as DDT from the food chain and, for the red kite, reintroduction programmes.
Recovering peregrine populations have embraced our cities as a new habitat. Cities offer a plentiful supply of tall buildings with suitable ledges to nest on - urban cliffs - as well as abundant pigeons (their favourite prey) and, increasingly in London, the ring-necked parakeet.
But it's not only pigeons and parakeets that fall victim to these powerful birds of prey. In November 2018, there was a murder mystery in the Wildlife Garden when the body of a fieldfare was found on the path. It was presumed that a peregrine had caught it, possibly at night, then landed on the craggy Waterhouse building and dropped the remains to the ground.
Peregrines are increasingly using urban light pollution to help them catch migrating birds at night. The lights illuminate the flying birds from below just enough for the sharp-eyed falcons to seize their opportunity. In this way, urban lighting is actually giving peregrines an advantage.
Unfortunately, light pollution affects many other birds negatively, in particular migrants travelling at night. Woodcocks, for example, are shy woodland waders that arrive in the UK in late autumn from northern Europe and Scandinavia. They are easily disorientated by urban lighting and sometimes crash into buildings.
When winter is just around the corner, cold winds blow in a host of exciting avian visitors to our Wildlife Garden, most of which are on migration.
A flock of redwings, comprising up to 30 birds, often overwinters in the garden. The first of these beautiful, orange-flanked thrushes fly in from northern Europe or Scandinavia in October or November. They rummage for invertebrates in the leaf litter and feast on holly berries.
A spell of bitterly cold weather and frozen ground will drive many birds to seek new feeding areas. It's at this time that different birds can turn up in our garden, such as a pair of mistle thrushes seen feasting on our juniper berries.
In September 2018, the high-pitched song of one of Britain's smallest birds, the firecrest, was heard here. Some lucky visitors even saw it feed. Its equally tiny cousin, the goldcrest, regularly winters in the Museum's garden.
Many birds migrate during the autumn and spring months, and the Wildlife Garden offers these weary travellers the chance to rest and feed during their long journeys.
In October, birds include chiffchaffs, which sing from the trees and shrubs on their way to the Mediterranean region.
In spring, we've also seen a reed warbler, a common whitethroat and a lesser whitethroat singing its dry rattle song. All three of these species feed in our garden before travelling onto their breeding grounds.
During winter, we survey and collect old nests that birds would not use again. The invertebrates that live in the nests are identified by the Museum's experts to increase our knowledge of the Wildlife Garden's biodiversity.
If you're in the UK and are having trouble identifying a bird, you can send your photos to the Museum's Identification and Advisory Service. Providing details of where and when you spotted the bird will help.
Anyone can contribute to research and conservation by posting their observations to databases such as iNaturalist.
A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of the Museum's Members' magazine, evolve.
... or that it helped you learn something new. Now we're wondering if you can help us.
Every year, more people are reading our articles to learn about the challenges facing the natural world. Our future depends on nature, but we are not doing enough to protect our life support system.
British wildlife is under threat. The animals and plants that make our island unique are facing a fight to survive. Hedgehog habitats are disappearing, porpoises are choking on plastic and ancient woodlands are being paved over.
But if we don't look after nature, nature can't look after us. We must act on scientific evidence, we must act together, and we must act now.
Despite the mounting pressures, hope is not lost. Museum scientists are working hard to understand and fight against the threats facing British wildlife.
For many, the Museum is a place that inspires learning, gives purpose and provides hope. People tell us they 'still get shivers walking through the front door', and thank us for inspiring the next generation of scientists.
To reverse the damage we've done and protect the future, we need the knowledge that comes from scientific discovery. Understanding and protecting life on our planet is the greatest scientific challenge of our age. And you can help.
We are a charity and we rely on your support. No matter the size, every gift to the Museum is critical to our 300 scientists' work in understanding and protecting the natural world.
From as little as £2, you can help us to find new ways to protect nature. Thank you.