Moulting Wild Birds

Feathers are incredibly tough. However, despite this, and frequent washing and preening, they will eventually wear out, becoming discoloured or damaged. Feathers do not grow in the same way as human hair or nails do, and they must be replaced naturally through the moulting process. As older feathers become loose, fresh new feathers will push through the follicles and dislodge them.

In a lot of species, especially the smaller birds, moulting first occurs in the autumn after they hatch, and it is at this time that the juvenile feathers are replaced with the first winter plumage. This is usually not a full moult, but the outer wing, head and body feathers will be shed and replaced.

There are species for which the first winter feathers are no different from the adult feathers. Conversely, for a variety of species there may be quite a few differences between the eventual plumage of the adult bird and the first winter plumage. Blackbirds, for example, will retain some brown wing and tail feathers as juveniles, before loosing them in adulthood, to be replaced with their black plumage. Other species can take significantly longer to make the transition from immature to adult plumage. Gulls and other sea birds may not develop their adult feathers for around four years.

It is also not unusual for some species, such as the greenfinch and the lapwing, to have different feathers for different seasons. During the breeding seasons, the adult male bird will often have brighter, showier feathers in order to attract the female. Each time their feathers change, the bird will almost always go through the process of moulting.

Moulting costs the bird a significant amount of energy, so it usually takes place in the late summer months when there is still enough wild bird food and the weather is still quite mild. Even so, the moulting usually occurs over a period of time, rather than suddenly all at once. For smaller species, such as the blue tit, a full moult might take about six weeks, while larger birds will take a lot longer. The herring gull is known to moult over six months and the buzzard over a number of years. Most species will lose the flight feathers in the tail and wings in a very specific order. However, this order differs from species to species.

Supplying wild bird food can be really helpful for garden birds and helps them during times of added stress or when they require extra energy.

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The Coal Tit

The coal tit, also known as Periparus Ater, is the very smallest of the European tits. They are approximately 4.5 inches (11.5 cm) in length and have a wing span of 7-8 inches (17-21 cm). They weigh about 8-10 grams. The coal tit is similar to both the willow tit and the marsh tit, and therefore is often confused with these two almost indistinguishable species. In terms of behaviour, the coal tit is very like the blue tit, but does not have the distinctive blue plumage. Their repetitive song, which sounds like ?pee-chew?, is not unlike the song of the great tit, although it tends to be faster.

The under parts of a coal tit are buff-coloured, while the upper parts are a green-grey colour. It has a black crown and bib and bluish-grey legs. The most noticeable differences between the coal tit and the willow and marsh tits are the coal tit?s white nape and striking white wing bars.

Juvenile coal tits can be identified by their brown upper parts and yellowy cheeks, wing bars, nape and under parts.

Coal tits are resident in the UK and tend to be sedentary, often joining woodland flocks in winter that consist of a mixture of tits.


Coal tits enjoy insects as well as a variety of seeds found naturally. They like wild bird seed and will appreciate a supply of sunflower hearts, black sunflower seeds and, during the colder months, suet. They will often be spotted dashing to feeders to grab food before scuttling off to enjoy it in private or to hide it somewhere for later.

Coal tits will hoard food when there is plenty available, hiding it for the future when food is harder to find. However, they do not have the best memory and will frequently forget where this hiding place is. Great tits will rather cleverly watch for coal tits hiding food and retrieve it themselves later!


As with blue tits, coal tits will use empty mouse holes or tree hollows to nest in, lining them with moss for comfort.

Their eggs are white with red-brown spots or speckles. They are small and smooth and have a glossy appearance. The female bird will sit on the eggs until they hatch, and then the chicks will be looked after by both the male and the female, who will take turns to feed them.

Breeding will start around mid-April and there will typically be one to two clutches. Each clutch will be anything from seven to twelve eggs, for which the incubation period is 14-16 days.


In the past, coal tits have suffered as a result of several harsh winters. However, more recent milder weather and the provision of wild bird seed in gardens have led to a slight population increase. There are an estimated 610,000 breeding pairs of coal tits in the UK. They are currently on the green list and, as such, there is no conservational concern about them at this time.

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Feeding Wild Birds

Helping wild birds is extremely rewarding and can make a big difference to them. Setting up hanging feeders, bird tables and ground feeding trays will attract a variety of wildlife and watching the activity around them is fascinating.

Many people will put wild bird food out in the winter months, but in fact wild birds benefit from additional supplies all year round. In the coldest months, particularly when there is ice or snow on the ground, it is a good idea to put food and fresh water out more frequently.

There are lots of different types of wild bird food available to buy. You can also put out various kitchen scraps. However, take care as there are some foods that are unsuitable for wild birds or that might present a danger to other animals and wildlife. For example, artificial sweeteners, raisins, sultanas and grapes can be toxic for dogs.

Soft fruits, sultanas, raisins, pears and apples are very popular with many wild bird species and are particularly nice in the autumn. Grains and seeds, such as millet, sunflower seeds, oats and nyjer, are a really good choice, as are cooked rice and pasta, mild cheese and boiled potatoes. If you are providing bacon, remember it must be unsalted and uncooked. Peanuts should be unsalted and only use those which are free of toxins. Place peanuts in mesh feeders to ensure birds are not able to take them whole, as doing so could potentially pose a choking hazard for young chicks. Suet and fat balls are another favourite and during winter are good sources of extra calories. Insect-loving birds will appreciate a supply of waxworms and mealworms.

Don?t forget to provide fresh water. Water bowls should be placed away from closed cover, such as trees and bushes, where predators might lurk. Regularly clean water bowls using a mild detergent to prevent the spread of infection. During the winter months, check water bowls frequently to ensure they have not iced over.


Unfortunately, a lot of birds die due to disease and infection. To prevent transmission of infections, feeders should be cleaned and properly dried before being refilled on a weekly basis. Rotating feeding stations and drinking areas will help to reduce the risk of disease spreading among local garden birds.

A fact sheet has been produced by Garden Wildlife Health (GWH) detailing some of the most common diseases that affect garden birds in Britain, including avian pox, salmonellosis and trichomonosis.

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Wild Bird Song

Bird vocalisations are categorised into calls and songs. Calls are used to raise the alarm, ask for food or to contact the rest of the flock. Songs serve to defend territories and to attract the opposite sex. Making the distinction between the two sounds can help with species identification.

Calls generally have a very definite purpose. Examples of this include the constant contact calls back and forth between goldcrests and the fast scolding sound the blackbird makes if there is a predator nearby.

A few species of bird, such as the kingfisher and some gulls, do not have songs. However, most other species do.

The Dawn Chorus

A good example of bird song that we all know and love is the dawn chorus. This can be heard bright and early in the spring and summer months. Starting even before sunrise, the dawn chorus may begin with just a couple of birds with a gradual crescendo of song, until by mid-morning a beautiful symphony can be enjoyed as more and more birds from different species join in.

The reason for the dawn chorus is not clear. However, there are a number of potential explanations.

– Nest building and the reproductive cycle may be influenced by the singing.
– Conditions at dawn are less favourable in terms of finding food.
– The dawn air is colder and as such sound travels more easily.
– Males use the dawn chorus to defend territories.

It is mainly the male of each species which sings. However, in some cases, such as the robin, both the male and the female will join in.

Learning to Sing

Evidence suggests that birds are born with an innate ability to sing. It would also seem that they mimic the vocabulary, songs and calls of mature birds around them.

When a juvenile is first learning to sing, it will vocalise what is called a sub-song, which is a somewhat subdued mixture of notes and pitches. It is particularly common to hear a sub-song in the autumn and winter months. A sub-song often sounds very much like the bird is mumbling or singing very quietly to itself, as if to practise their performance.

Starlings and a few other species love to mimic and will show off their ability to do so in some amusing ways, copying the sounds made by other species or even machines.

Scientists believe that males with an extensive range of songs and notes will impress the female. A good repertoire may also serve to scare away other males.

Birds have fairly simple vocal chords, which are found close to the lungs. Air flows through the syringeal passage, causing vibration of the tympanic membrane, which generates sound. Pitch is controlled by the muscles as they alter the tension. Birds are actually able to sing two notes at once. The syrinx, situated at the top of the bronchi, amplifies the notes even in very small bird species such as the wren.

If you enjoy the sound of bird song, you can tempt a variety of species into your garden by providing wild bird seed. Wild bird seed will attract a whole host of visitors all year round.

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Creating a Wildlife Friendly Space

Creating a really effective wildlife space ideally involves more than simply allowing an area to grow wild and supplying a bit of wild bird seed. When deciding what to grow in the space, all sorts of factors will need to be taken into consideration, from climate to the type of soil and how well it drains. Depending upon how it has been handled previously, there may already be a variety of flora and fauna established, and this again will influence how the area is managed in future.

Those establishing an entirely new plot might find it helpful to note what is growing in the local area. This will offer some ideas as to the types of plants that are likely to flourish given the conditions and those that do less well.

If the space already has some established plants, it is a good idea to work around these, as big changes can be harmful to the existing wildlife. It is important to avoid moving mature shrubbery where possible. If large-scale pruning or removal of foliage is absolutely necessary, this should be undertaken over the course of several winters, allowing ample time for wildlife to adjust to the change.

While it is good to create a variety of different habitats, careful thought should be given to what can reasonably be achieved in the space available. Overfilling the area can prove counter-productive.

Key habitats include trees, lawns, flowers, water and shrubs. Within these, microhabitats can flourish.

Trees, shrubs and flowering plants can provide a year-long source of food and nectar. Rotation of cutting and pruning will result in a range of structures which are suitable for a variety of different birds and other wildlife.

Long grass can be a great habitat for caterpillars and leather jackets and also for birds, especially when they are laying eggs.

Providing some sort of water feature will benefit all sorts of wildlife. A bird bath or simply an upturned dust bin lid with sloping edges will attract birds, dragonflies, aquatic insects and amphibians. Ensuring the depth is varied will cater for the many different types of visitors.

Setting up a bird table and supplying wild bird seed will be a life saver for many birds, especially during very cold or very hot weather.

Wildlife has two essential needs. The first is a safe place to shelter and breed and the second is a place to forage year round. Garden owners can facilitate this.

Training climbing plants to grow up walls will provide shelter and perfect nesting sites for birds. Well-established hedges and trees are also great shelters for birds and other animals, while dead wood can provide a home to a host of insects, moss and fungi.

Developing a variety of habitats will create different opportunities for wildlife to feed at different times of the year. Planting an assortment of flowering plants, annual plants and fruit bushes will help to achieve this.

Above all, it should be remembered that the actions of humans have a significant impact upon wildlife. As such, care should be taken when choosing and using materials to build a wildlife garden or area.

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Protecting British Wild Birds

All wild birds in Britain are protected by law. Despite this fact, many cases of cruelty and mistreatment of them are recorded every year. Each year birds are poisoned, shot or trapped unlawfully. Egg theft and nest disturbance or damage are also frequent occurrences. Unfortunately, the result of this is a serious decline in the wild bird population, and unless action is taken to prevent such crimes, some species are even facing extinction.

Wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This legislation describes a wild bird as any species of bird, not including game (grouse, partridge, pheasant or ptarmigan) or poultry, which is a visitor to or resident of the European territory of any member state.

General Protection

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects the wild bird themselves, as well as their eggs and nests.

It is considered an offence if an individual (or group) is found to be carrying out, or have carried out, any of the following:

– Intentionally take, injure or kill a wild bird protected under the act.
– Destroy, damage or remove the nest of a wild bird protected under the act while it is being built or is in use.
– Intentionally (or recklessly) destroy or remove the egg of a wild bird protected under the act.

Anyone found to be intentionally disturbing the nest of a protected wild bird when it’s building a nest or attending to eggs and/or young, or disturbing the dependent young themselves, will also be prosecuted under the act. Those found to be in possession of a live or dead bird protected under the act will be liable for prosecution.

For more in depth information about the act, refer to

Helping to Protect Wild Birds

There are a number of places to go for more information about wild birds. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB ) is one of them. Not only can they provide details of what to do in the event of discovering a crime against wild birds, but they can also advise about other things, from what sort of wild bird food to put out to how to identify garden visitors. Additional information, such as which birds feature on the Red List of endangered wild birds, can also be found by visiting their website –

DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) can provide additional advice, including lists of wild birds protected under the two acts, information about providing wild bird food and other ways of helping the wild bird population –

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The Beautiful Song Thrush

The song thrush differs from the blackbird and mistle thrush in both size and posture, as it is smaller and stands less upright.

Both the male and the female look very similar, with brown uppers, pale, speckled under parts and just a hint of golden brown around the breast area. They have light pink legs and brown bills. They also sport small dark spots on their white bellies. As with other ground-feeding woodland birds, such as robins, the song thrush has largish eyes. The juveniles can be identified by the pale buff streaks across their backs.

Unlike the mistle thrush, song thrushes will usually stick to low-level flying, below tree height and between bushes. They will often sit absolutely motionless for quite some time within the bushes or another carefully chosen spot.

The song thrush has a distinctive song which it likes to project across the garden from a nice prominent perch. It is repetitive but very clear. For many, it’s a favourite.


The song thrush enjoys insects, worms and berries. They will also feed on snails if access to worms is limited due to the ground being hard or frozen.

If you are putting out wild bird seed, also supply some soft fruit such as raisins and apples, which song thrushes love. They are ground feeders, so it is a good idea to place these goodies on a ground tray. They like to feed near close cover and will frequently be spotted running to collect scraps before running back to their cover, where they will enjoy the treat in seclusion and away from prying eyes.

Always remove any remaining wild bird seed or other scraps provided before it gets dark, as leaving them out can attract rats and other unwelcome visitors to the garden.


Song thrushes will choose a shady location, in or near trees or bushes. The female will construct the nest by fashioning earth, twigs and grass into a cup shape. Song thrushes will line their nests with saliva and dung or mud to ensure it is comfortable and smooth.

The Song thrush lays eggs that are a beautiful blue colour with black spots which the female will incubate alone. Once they are hatched, both the male and the female will work together feed the young.


Although song thrushes are resident to the UK, they will migrate south in the autumn and may travel as far as Spain, France and Portugal. Many remain in the UK throughout the winter months and may even be joined by distant relatives from Scandinavia and further afield.


The song thrush is now a Red List species of bird, as the population has declined significantly in the last few years. It is thought the change is due to agricultural intensification and the subsequent hedgerow loss, as well as differences in the way woodlands are now managed. However, there is some evidence to suggest this decline may be stabilising. Although the song thrush is a fairly infrequent garden visitor, when they do show up, most often in the winter and spring, it is a pleasure to watch them.

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Why Windows Can Be Dangerous for Birds

Unfortunately, windows are a hazard for birds and are the cause of a great many fatalities and serious injuries. This is mainly due to the risk of window strike. In addition, some birds develop a habit of eating the sealant putty found around the outside of the window.

Window Strike
If you see a bird fly into a window, or find one dazed or passed out beneath one, it may have concussion. It is very rare for window strike to cause broken legs or wings, but it might result in internal injuries. The best course of action is to place the bird in a safe, dark place and allow it to rest for a few hours. Over the course of this period, it will recover or the injuries it sustained will prove fatal.

Birds will frequently fly directly into windows because they do not realise they are there. The reflection of surrounding trees or the sky confuses them. This has become even more of a problem in recent years as clearer double-glazed windows increase in popularity.

Homeowners or residents can help to reduce the risk of window strike by following a few simple steps. This will not eliminate the risks completely, but will certainly help.

The first step is to make the window as obvious as possible for birds. Sticking or hanging objects on to the outside of the glass can achieve this. Almost any shape or image will be effective in making the window more visible to birds. However, bird shapes, such as the self-adhesive stickers and silhouettes that can be found in local garden centres or online, have proved the most successful.

Hanging blinds, preferable the vertical type, can change the way the window looks to birds, thus preventing them from colliding with it.

Do not place feeding stations or wild bird seed too close to windows, especially if local cats are likely to make the birds jump. Startling the birds while they are eating wild bird seed could cause them to accidentally fly into a window if it is very close.

Many birds like to spend time pecking at putty around doors and windows. It is particularly common for tits to do this.

One reason why they enjoy this activity could be that insects hide in the wood of older-style window frames. The bird may be able to see or hear the insects and will peck at the putty in order to eat them.

Another common reason for putty pecking is the fact that many types of putty contain linseed or a variety of fish oils. If the bird is deficient in one of these mineral substances, due to a scarcity of it in its natural diet, it will attempt to ingest the putty.

Although not dangerous for the bird, it is certainly not good for the windows. Unfortunately, however, it can be difficult to discourage such behaviour. Covering the putty with paint or plastic strips can help. It is also possible to buy synthetic sealant, which does not contain the linseed. Aluminium ammonium, which birds find distasteful, can also be brushed around the whole frame to deter them.

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Preventing the Spread of Disease

When you are putting out wild bird food for birds visiting your garden, it is a good idea to keep in mind that as numbers increase, so too does the risk of disease. However, taking a few preventative measures will help to ensure your visitors remain as fit and healthy as possible.

The majority of diseases in birds are spread via their droppings. Often infected droppings will mix with food, putting the birds at risk. In addition, rats and other animals attracted by wild bird food can also transmit infections to birds. As such, it is a good idea to protect against potential infection from all possible sources. Follow these tips to keep birds happy and healthy in your garden.

Practising good hygiene is very important, especially in the summer when the hot weather can encourage the growth of harmful bacteria and food goes off quickly.

Keep a careful eye on any food you are supplying. You should only set out enough food for one or two days. If food takes longer than this to clear, reduce the amount you are putting out.

To make it easier to keep the area clean, place food in feeders, on ground feeding trays or on a bird table rather than directly on to the ground. Remove any ground food each evening to discourage rats, which often carry diseases that are harmful to humans, birds and other animals.

Mouldy food and droppings can be a breeding ground for bacteria and parasites, so it is vital to keep feeding stations clear of these.

Frequently wash bird tables and feeders using disinfectant. To prevent the accumulation of droppings, move feeding stations regularly.

Clean out containers and refresh the water every day so droppings do not contaminate supplies.

It is extremely important to look after your own health and personal hygiene. Never bring feeders into your home ? instead clean them in your garden using an outside tap. Ensure utensils and other tools are not used for anything else. Always wear gloves when handling feeding equipment or when dealing with birds that are sick or injured. Similarly, if you are disposing of dead birds or large amounts of droppings, wear gloves and remember to wash your hands afterwards.

Despite all of the warnings, there is no need to worry unduly. Following all of the above steps will minimise the risk of disease and make looking after and observing the birds in your garden more enjoyable. If birds in your garden do become unwell, stop putting food out temporarily while you clean and disinfect feeders.

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Photographing Garden Birds

Many people who provide wild bird seed for the birds visiting their gardens enjoy watching the activity around the bird table or hanging feeders. Often they like to try to capture the scene by taking a few photographs. Unfortunately, however, due to the fact that birds are rarely still, it can prove difficult to get a really good shot.

Until fairly recently, wildlife photography required the use of professional equipment, such as a 35mm SLR camera and a telephoto lens, not to mention the skills to go with it. However, the digital revolution of the 1990s has enabled amateurs with significantly less experience and relatively basic equipment to take up wildlife photography quite successfully.

Digital cameras, including digital SLRs, are now considerably more compact and typically perform much better in low-light conditions than traditional film. The resolution is also significantly improved and the equipment required to capture the finest detail is now far more affordable. In addition, a lot of the equipment people have to watch birds, such as tripods and telescopes, can be utilised.

An example of this is a spotting scope, which can become a telephoto lens if the user points the digital camera down its eyepiece. For optimum results, a small external lens on the camera and a wide eyepiece on the scope are best. It may also be necessary to make an adjustment to the vignette and focusing on the cameras optical zoom. This will ensure the camera focuses on the intended image and not the inside of the telescope.

Even the smallest movement from the birds may cause camera blur. Luckily, in contrast to old-fashioned film, digital cameras enable the user to pick and choose the images they wish to keep and to delete unsuccessful ones from the memory card. There are also some additional steps that can be taken to reduce camera blur.

Increase Shutter Speed

As a rule, shutter speed will need to be at least 1/500th of a second when photographing wildlife. When photographing birds, a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second is advisable. Not only will this help to improve the image if the animal is moving, but it will also reduce the effects of camera shake caused by an unsteady hand. This is useful as it is not always practical to use a tripod when photographing wildlife.

Use the Continuous Focus Mode

If you are photographing something that is not completely motionless, such as birds or other wildlife, focus blur can become a problem. This happens because the AF motor gets confused. Some cameras, especially the more modern ones, have enhanced programmes for auto-focus. However, even in makes and models of camera that do not, switching the camera to continuous focus mode can reduce focus blur and maximise efficiency. Continuous focus mode is sometimes known as AI Servo (Canon) and AC-C (Nikon).

The main thing to remember is to have fun watching the garden birds tucking into their wild bird seed. It is important not to disturb them while they are eating, as this could deter them from visiting again. However, by following some of the tips outlined above, it is possible to capture some wonderful images which can be enjoyed for many years to come.

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