Your wildlife garden part 4 – Cleaning your feeders

Using birdfeeders in your garden is, of course, a good thing for our garden birds, however, it’s important to make sure they are maintained and kept clean at all times. Attracting large numbers of birds to feed in one area increases the risk of disease, due to the fact that their bird droppings have a higher chance of mixing with the food they’re eating. These diseases, when picked up, can then be spread around much quicker than usual as the birds pass between feeding stations in different gardens. So what are the best ways of reducing the risk of disease being spread amongst your garden birds?

The obvious answer is to ensure that your bird feeders are kept clean, the trick is just in being meticulous about it.

  • Clean regularly: You should clean your feeders at least once a month, or more regularly if they are busy feeders. Make sure that food isn’t left in the for too long, empty out the unwanted seed at the bottom of feeders and if the food takes too long to clear then reduce the amount you are putting out.
  • Clean thoroughly: Make sure that you clean all parts of the feeders, inside and out. This means cleaning all feeding perches, lids, poles and hooks, as anywhere that the birds come in contact with can harbour faeces and therefore disease. Also make sure that you clean any surrounding areas of ground that faeces and mouldy food may accumulate.  Water containers should be rinsed out almost daily as they are often full or droppings.
  • Use the correct products: It’s important not to use too concentrated a solution of disinfectant as this may also harm the birds. Around a 5% disinfectant/bleach solution is ideal for cleaning the feeders, with a more ecologically friendly solution being preferable to those with higher chemical levels. Instead of leaving bare ground under the feeders you can line the ground with EVA foam (as we do here at the Visitor Centre). This is waterproof, easy to keep clean and catches droppings and food over a larger area. The foam can be easily swept and washed on a regular basis, before being re-used.
  • Rinse and dry feeders: Once you have cleaned your feeders it’s equally as important to remember to rinse them and dry them thoroughly before replacing them. They should be rinsed under clean water for at least ten seconds to make sure all chemical residue is removed before being left to dry completely. Any remaining moisture may lead to mould or mildew, rotten food and therefore illness for any birds that eat the affected food.
Cleaning Bird Feeder (c) birdfoodstore

Cleaning Bird Feeder (c) birdfoodstore

One final point to remember is to be conscious of your own hygiene whilst cleaning your bird feeders. Make sure that you wear rubber gloves, never bring your feeders into the house when cleaning them and always remember to wash your hands after.

Craig Shepherd,

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager.

Posted in Birds, General, People |

50th Anniversary Celebrations

50th Anniversary

50th Anniversary


To celebrate the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s 50th birthday we are hosting a weekend full of FREE activities here at the Visitor Centre. Along with free entry to the Visitor Centre on both Saturday and Sunday the activities are as follows;


Free pond dipping sessions –

Free guided walk at Tayock – Meet at Tayock car park at 2.30 pm

Free birthday themed wildlife trail around the Visitor Centre grounds, with prizes!

Free birthday themed craft activities – biscuit decorating, birthday card making, balloon decorating and make your own bunting

Raffle with a range of great prizes to win 


Free guided walk around Tayock – Meet at Tayock car park at 2.30 pm

Free birthday themed wildlife trail around the Visitor Centre grounds, with prizes!

Free Easter family fun day event – pin the tail on the bunny, Easter card making, ,make your own bunny ears and make (and eat) your own Easter chocolate nest.

Raffle with a range of great prizes to win.

There’s no better time to introduce your friends or family to our Visitor Centre and reserve, so we hope to see you all at the weekend!

Craig Shepherd,

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager.






Posted in Uncategorized |

Migration Update – Ospreys

We have just seen our first Osprey of the year here on the reserve. An individual was spotted at around 2pm this afternoon near the Old Montrose area of the reserve, before flying eastwards and past the Visitor Centre, being mobbed by a group of Herring Gulls. Hopefully this will be the first of many sightings this year, but we will keep you updated with any further sightings.

Craig Shepherd,

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager.

Posted in Birds, Sightings |

Summer Migrants

Sand Martin (c) Richard Blackburn

Sand Martin (c) Richard Blackburn

Over the past few weeks our staff and volunteers have been focusing their well-trained eyes towards the Visitor Centre windows and out onto the reserve, hoping for a glimpse of our fist migrants. Yesterday (5th April), finally saw that hard work paid off with the first Sand Martins seen flying over their breeding wall and around the Visitor Centre grounds. With Sand Martins being seen as early as the 21st of March in the local area (Murton Loch), it has seemed like a long wait! Although this arrival date is slightly later than we would expect (they usually arrive in the last week of March), it’s still over a week earlier than the first sighting made last year. Last year’s cold snap that started in March and went on into April delayed many of our summer migrant species, with Sand Martins not arriving until the 14th of April. Although not nearly as bad this year, the weather has still been slightly colder than usual and is probably the explanation for this year’s somewhat delayed arrival.

Ospreys, as the second of our main migrants to arrive, are usually close to follow, with sightings expected around the beginning of April. Being larger and not so dependent on insect availability for food, their arrival dates are usually less affected by the weather, as proven by our first sighting on April 1st last year. With Ospreys having arrived as early as the 25th of March in the local area, we should be expecting a sighting any time soon. With the reserve here being so large, and the Ospreys feeding and resting across the whole reserve, it is, however, a possibility that we have thus far been unfortunate and missed the first arrivals. One Osprey that has arrived home is the resident female at Loch of Lowes known to many as ‘Lady’, who arrived back at the reserve on the 31st of March, for her amazing 24th breeding year. For all the latest updates of the goings on at Loch of Lowes just visit their Osprey blog at

Other sightings on the reserve over the last few weeks have included a Red Kite, seen at the Lurgies on the 24th of March and a Kestrel flying past the Visitor Centre on the 23rd. We are also seeing high numbers of waders and wildfowl species staying later on the reserve this year before they either head inland to breed or begin their migration north. Pintail numbers have continued to stay around 100 over the past month, with up to 56 Scaup and 4 Tufted Ducks also being counted. Numbers of Redshank, Curlew, Oystercatcher and both Godwit species have also been high with a small number of Greenshank also still using the reserve. There have been numerous Water Rail sightings, with the latest being today (6th of April), a Kingfisher on the 26th of March and a Blackcap at the Mains of Dun on the 5th of April.

For any further news on our arriving migrants and other sightings just keep checking the blog, or like us on Facebook at ‘Montrose Basin Wildlife Reserve and Visitor Centre’.

Craig Shepherd,

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager.

Posted in Birds, Events, General, Sightings |

Your wildlife garden part 3 – Feeders and plants.

Now that you’ve decided which birds you want to attract to your garden and bought the right food to attract them, the next step is to choose the right feeder. This will not only ensure that you feed your birds responsibly, but also means you can choose where you place the feeders in your garden to help give you the best opportunity to watch the visiting birds . Which type of feeder you buy will depend greatly on the types of food you want to provide.

If you want to start attracting garden birds straight away, but don’t have any feeders, then feeding on the ground is the easiest option. The food should be scattered over a wide area and out in the open, reducing the chance of predation by ground predators. It’s also important to regularly change the area where you scatter the food for hygiene reasons and clean any hard surfaces that the food is placed on. While most British bird species will happily feed on the ground, in fact dunnocks and thrushes prefer it, many will prefer feeders if they are available. Bear in mind, though, this method of feeding also feeds other wildlife as well, including foxes, badgers, and hedgehogs, as well as rats and mice. Raised feeders allow you to target mainly birds, but its still worth encouraging ground feeding on a smaller scale to still attract ground feeding species.

Ground feeding resized

Ground feeding birds.

Bird tables are suitable for most types of bird food, and attract a range of species, including robins, blackbirds, and sparrows. Bird tables should be at least 1m2 in size with the food spread out across evenly across them to ensure that a number of birds can feed at the same time. Look for tables with rimmed sides to reduce the amount of food lost during feeding and with gaps in the corners to drain away rain water. Keeping them 1 – 2m off the ground and out in the open will ensure that cats and squirrels can’t jump onto them. Ensure that you regularly remove any uneaten seed and that the table is cleaned thoroughly on a weekly basis.


Starling on feeder (c) Andy Wakelin

Hanging feeders are now the most popular form of holding bird food and are great for attracting birds such as greenfinches, siskins, blue and great tits, and even greater spotted woodpeckers. For the most part, these come in two varieties. The steel mesh feeders are for nuts and are the only way in which this food type should be offered to wild birds. Mesh size is important here, especially if you are making your own feeders. It needs to be small enough to prevent the birds from removing the nuts whole, but large enough to ensure that they do not break their beaks while eating, with 6mm being the recommended size.

great spotted woodpecker resized

Great spotted woodpecker at peanut feeder.

Seed feeders are made from plastic tubes containing holes through which the birds can feed. They are designed to hold large seeds like sunflowers and mixed seeds. Smaller seeds, such as Niger seeds, tend to require more specialised feeders, to reduce the amount of wastage, and here at the Visitor Centre we make our very own Niger bags. While these feeders usually hang from hooks, feeders can be bought which attach to your window, allowing you to watch them much more closely (as long as you remain still). But remember to place feeders around the garden to also benefit shyer species. As with all feeders, old food should be removed regularly, the feeder checked to ensure it is well drained, and cleaned on a weekly basis.

goldfinch on feeders resized

Goldfinch on Nyger bags.

If you want to make your own feeders, half-coconuts, tit bells (made from flower pots and string), and plastic cups can all be filled with a fat mix. Hung from other feeders or trees these will attract house sparrows, tits, and greenfinches. Thick branches and logs, drilled with holes and hung off the ground, can be filled with lard, fat mixture, or peanut butter. These will attract the more agile birds, such as tits, woodpeckers, treecreepers, and sometimes wrens.

Through the spring and summer months it’s also important to ensure that there is a steady supply of insects in your garden. As pollinators and decomposers, insects play a critical role in a healthy ecosystem and could be the main focus of your gardening endeavour in their own right. However, they also play an important role in the breeding behaviour of many birds, being the main source of food for their chicks, leading many bird species to coincide their breeding patterns with that of their insect foodstuffs emergence.

There are some key, but simple things that can be done to any garden to ensure that its insect friendly. Firstly, a pond, even a small one, is great for all wildlife and will attract pond-skaters, water beetles, dragonflies, and damselflies a lot faster than you might expect. Allowing some of your lawn to remain untrimmed provides longer grass for a variety of egg laying insects, such as butterflies and moths, and leaving areas of the garden where vegetation is allowed to decay naturally also provides a home and food source for a number of beetles. Taller flowering plants, especially those with flat flower heads, will attract flying insects like bees and dragonflies, and of course, it’s important to plant species that flower at different times to ensure that insects visit your garden throughout the year supplying a steady source of food for the multiple broods many birds will have throughout the summer. Some of the plants recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Plants for Bugs include sunflowers, foxgloves, thyme, lavender and honeysuckle. In exposed gardens along the coast, putting up wind breakers with trellises and wall climbing plants, will not only shelter many invertebrates from the worst of the weather, but also provide a link between gardens for many pollinators. Reducing the use of insecticides is also key and now is a great time to start building your own bug home to provide insects with shelter over the winter, ensuring a ready supply of food for next years’ chicks.

Georgina Bowie, Visitor Centre Assistant

Posted in Birds, Uncategorized |

Reserve sightings – March 2014

Tufted or Scaup Pair

Tufted duck (c) Andy Wakelin

March is usually a great time to watch waders and this year has been no exception.  With the usual abundance of redshank and oystercatchers, greenshank, curlew, snipe, bar-tailed and black tailed godwit have also been regularly spotted. 

We’ve also been lucky with the wildfowl.  The male eiders are in full breeding plumage, and both scaup and golden eye have been spotted in the centre of the Basin on the 2nd and 9th.  Wigeon and teal have also been observed feeding at the Salt Pans, with the most recent sighting being today. A group of pintail ducks have been seen daily, with as many as 72 individuals, and the long-tailed duck is still making its appearance.  A pair of tufted ducks were also observed on the 12th.  It’s still possible to see pink-footed geese at the Basin, with around 1,500 being counted on the 11th.

With the warmer weather the kingfisher has moved back to its spotted at the Old Montrose Pier, being sighted at this spot on the 6th and 10th, and the water rail has been spotted twice beside the feeders last week.

On the predator front, a red kite was seen at the Lurgies on the 24th, a sparrow hawk has been making regular visit to the bird feeders on the 11th, 22nd, and 23rd, and a stoat has been spotted around the sand martin wall and salt pans.

Georgina Bowie, Visitor Centre Assistant

Posted in Uncategorized |

Your wildlife garden part 2 – Feeding birds

Bird feeding is not only a highly popular activity, with the UK spending around £200 million a year on this particular habit, but also plays a vital role in helping wild birds stay healthy and active throughout the year.  In this blog we’ll be looking at the most frequently asked questions about feeding your garden birds.


Goldfinch on a Nyger feeder (c) Andy Wakelin

The most common question is when should you put out food for wild birds?  The answer is a simple one, all year round, as winter is not the only time birds are under stress.  Feeding during spring time helps the adults with a steady source of food for their young, the warmer summers dry out the ground making it harder for many bird species to source food, and during the autumn months birds will need the extra resources for moulting and preparing their bodies for the harsh winter.

The next question is what type of food should you supply?  While this will depend greatly on which species you want to attract to your garden, but if you want to attract a greater variety (and why wouldn’t you?) you need to remember that birds have evolved to take advantage of different food sources and you need to mirror this with your food selection.  So here’s what you can feed your birds:

  • Mixed seeds:  These vary greatly in quality and content so always check the ingredients before buying a pack.  The best mixtures contain flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanuts.  Small seeds, like millet, are great for sparrows, finches, and dunnocks, while larger peanuts and sunflower seeds will attract tits and greenfinches.  It’s worth noting that the cheaper mixes usually contain a high level of cereal grains, only really favoured by starlings, pigeons, doves, and pheasants which can frighten off smaller species.  Also avoid any mixes containing green and pink lumps as these are dog biscuits and can only be eaten if soaked in water first.

Starling at a mixed seed feeder (c)Andy Wakelin

  • Black sunflower seeds: These are high in oil, making them a great source of food all year round.  Especially favoured by greenfinches and tits, the only downside is the pile of husks that will accumulate underneath the feeder.
  • Sunflower hearts: With the same oil content as the black sunflower seeds, but without the husks, these are a good alternative.  They are on the pricier side, but the upside is that the birds are able to consume these seeds faster and there are less husks left for you to clean up.
  • Peanuts:  High in fat and protein, peanuts are a great source of energy and attract a large variety of birds including tits, greenfinches, great spotted woodpecker and siskins.  Providing crushed nuts at ground level will increase the variety to robins, wrens, and dunnocks.  Make sure that the peanuts provided are not salted or dry roasted, always stored in a cool dry place, and brought from a reputable dealer to ensure they don’t contain a natural toxin called aflatoxin which is deadly to birds.  If you are providing whole peanuts always ensure that they are kept in a metal mesh feeder to prevent the birds from removing the nut whole.  This is especially important during the breeding season as chicks can choke on whole nuts if unwittingly fed one by their parents.
great spotted woodpecker - Richard Blackburn

Great spotted woodpecker (c) Richard Blackburn

  • Nyger seed: Also high in oil, these are great for birds with delicate bills like goldfinches and siskins.  Just remember you will need a specialised feeder for this seed, but these are now readily available.
  • Fat balls, bird cakes and food bars:  These are especially good in winter as the fat is an easy source of calories, needed to fight the cold.  When buying these remember to remove any nylon mesh bags before putting them out in the garden as these can trap birds, causing serious injury.  You can also make your own by pouring melted fat into a mixture of seeds, nuts, dried fruit and cheese (at a ratio of 1:2), mix well and allow to set in a container.  While an empty coconut shell works great, you can also use plastic cups or allow it to set flat in a baking tray and cut into slabs to put on your bird table.  The fatty mixture, or just fat on its own, can also be smeared into cracks in tree bark to attract treecreepers and woodpeckers.  Only use pure lard or beef suet for this as they solidify when cold and, being pure fats, are not suitable breeding grounds for bacteria.
longtailed tit at feeder - Richard Blackburn

Long-tailed tit at feeder (c) Richard Blackburn

  • Mealworms:  These are actually the larval stage of beetles and are especially popular with robins, blackbirds, and blue tits.  As these are a natural sources of food they can be fed to birds all year round, but always ensure that they are fresh as there is a risk of salmonella poisoning.  This can be a pricey food to provide though, and it’s worth looking into ‘growing your own’ if you think you can stomach it.
  • Bread, rice and oats:  All types of breads are fine for birds, but should only be offered as part of a variety diet as it is only a filler and doesn’t contain the fats, vitamins, and proteins birds need.  Brown is better than white and make sure that the bread is not stale as this is harder to digest.  During the breeding season only put out bread crumbs as this ensures that only the adults can eat it.  Large chunks of bread can choke chicks and, if it is the main source of food provided to them, reduce their chances of developing into healthy fledglings.  Cooked rice is beneficial to all birds, especially over the winter months, but uncooked rice will only be eaten by pigeons, dove and pheasants.  Oats are also great, but never put out cooked oats as this will harden around the beaks.
  • Fruit: Any fruit is good for birds, even if bruised and partly rotten.  Cut up into small pieces they will mainly attract starlings, tits, and thrushes.  Dried fruit are particularly enjoyed by robins, blackbirds, and song thrushes.  If you’re putting them out in spring and summer soak them in water for a few hours first to prevent them going hard in the heat and to increase the amount of fluid the birds are able to intake.  Just remember, grapes, sultanas, and raisins are toxic for dogs.  Make sure you place them out of their reach.
Robin - Nick Townell

Robin (C) Nick Townell

And what you shouldn’t:

  • Anything with salt: garden birds are unable to metabolise salt and high levels are highly toxic, affecting their nervous system.  Never put out any food containing salt and, if you’re putting out food scraps, ensure that no salt has been added in the cooking process.
  • Cooking fats:  The issue with cooking fat is that it is not only fat, but is instead a combination of animal fat and meat juices.  This has a soft texture when set, with a tendency to smear and damaging the feather’s waterproofing and insulating properties.  This is particularly dangerous over the winter months.  It’s also a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and may contain salt, found in the meat itself or added during the cooking process.
  • Margarines and vegetable oils:  While these aren’t dangerous for birds, they don’t contain the high energy levels the birds need especially in cold conditions.  This can only be found in saturated fats.
  • Milk:  This should never be given to birds, they are unable to digest this type of dairy product and it can lead to digestive problems and death.  However, fermented dairy products are fine and grated cheese is a good way to attract robins and wrens to the garden.
  • Sugary treats: They’re not good for us and they’re not good for them.
bullfinch - Richard Blackburn

Bullfinch (c) Richard Blackburn

How much food you put out depends on how many visitors you get to your garden.  Start of with small amounts and then increase to fit the demand.  That way you ensure that you always provide fresh food for the birds and reducing the chance of getting any unwanted visitors.  And remember, no matter how small your garden is, there’s always a little room for birds.

Georgina Bowie, Visitor Centre Assistant

Posted in Birds |

Your Wildlife Garden Part 1 – Nest Boxes

As our gardens and green spaces are becoming tidier and better maintained, many of our bird species are being robbed of the natural feeding and nesting sites that they depend on. Therefore it’s more important than ever that people who have an interest in wildlife make that extra effort to create a ‘wildlife garden’, providing a space for our native species to feed, bring up their young and do everything else that birds like to do. So starting with some tips on how to set up a nest box in your garden, we are writing series of blogs that will help you to provide the ideal habitat for many of our iconic garden birds.

Although many garden birds will roost in empty nest boxes during autumn and winter, at the same time checking their availability, serious investigation of nesting sites may not start until February or March so there’s still time to set up your nest box if you’re quick!

So first of all what kind of nest box should you choose? As each species has its own nesting requirements and preferences it just depends on which species you would prefer to attract, although putting up a variety of nest boxes would, of course, increase your chances of attracting a nesting pair. The most common type of nest box, and probably the most likely to attract a nesting pair, is small nest box with small holes. Nest plates can be bought (including here in our gift shop) and easily fixed to boxes depending on what species you are looking to attract, with 32mm holes suiting House Sparrows, 28mm Great Tits and 25mm for Blue Tits and Coal Tits. Larger nest boxes can be bought to help attract Starlings and Great Spotted Woodpeckers whilst open-fronted boxes can be bought to attract Robins, Spotted Flycatchers or Wrens, depending on the size of the open front. Another essential tip when buying a nest box is to make sure that it’s constructed from an insulating material such as oak or beechwood, avoiding ones made from plastic or ceramic.

Great tit nestlings (c) Suzsanna Bird

Great tit nestlings (c) Suzsanna Bird


The next question that needs to be answered is, where should I put my nest box? The first thing to take into account is that nesting birds need space, as this helps to avoid any aggressive behaviour between pairs. Therefore you should make sure that your nest box isn’t put up too close to any existing boxes or feeding tables. It’s also essential to place your nest box in a position that will be sheltered to some extent from the rain, sun and wind. If there aren’t any trees or buildings to provide shade then face it between north and east to make sure it’s protected from strong sunlight and prevailing winds. Protection from rain can be provided by simply angling it downwards slightly. The height at which you place the box will also have an effect on what species you attract. If you are using a small nest box then place it between 1 and 5m high to attract Blue Tits and Great Tits, whilst House Sparrows prefer boxes at least 2m high. Medium boxes need to be placed up higher, at least 2.5m above the ground, whilst open-fronted boxes also need to be placed high to deter predators such as cats.

Blackbird in nest box(c)Amy_Lewis

Blackbird in open nest box(c)Amy_Lewis

A final point to remember when using your own nest box is to ensure that it’s kept clean between use. Bird nests are full of fleas and parasites that will remain in unused nests to infest chicks that hatch the following year. So as long as you’re sure the resident birds have left, you can open the box, remove the old nest and clean it out to be ready for the following year. It’s important to avoid using insecticides or chemical substances, instead use boiling water and making sure the box is dry before replacing the top. Make sure that you’re cleaning the box between the 1st of August and the 31st of January as it’s illegal to interfere with nests out with this period as they are likely to be in use.

So now that you’ve been told all that needs to be known about putting up nest boxes, it’s just up to you to make that first step in transforming your garden into a garden bird mecca!

Craig Shepherd,

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager.

Posted in Birds, General |

Visitor Centre and Reserve News

Summer is upon us! Well not quite, but the Visitor Centre will be reverting back to its ‘summer’ opening hours from today (Saturday 1st March). This means we will be open 10.30am to 5pm, 7 days a week until the end of October.

The ‘What’s on at Montrose Basin 2014’ leaflets are also just out and include all of our most popular events from previous years like the ‘People’s Postcode Lottery Goose Breakfast’ and our Family Fun Days, along with new events such as ‘Bird-watching – an introduction for children’ and ‘Christmas goose’. To find out more about these events and when they are taking place just click on the link below to download the booklet, or pop into the Visitor Centre to pick up a copy.

 On the reserve, there have been numerous Long Tailed Duck sightings over the last few weeks. These attractive visitors can be found on our shores over the winter months, having migrated from their breeding grounds in Iceland and Scandinavia. The main way of distinguishing males from females is by the presence of their long, flexible tail. Males also have a pink (sometimes grey) band on their bill throughout the year and are much whiter than the females whilst in their winter plumage. The individual in the photograph below can be identified as a male, despite the long tail not being visible, due to the presence of its white flanks and forehead.

Long Tailed Duck (c) Richard Blackburn

Long Tailed Duck (c) Richard Blackburn

Other sightings on the reserve over the past few weeks have included a Peregrine on the 9th, a Kingfisher on the 12th and a Water Rail on the 14th, all seen from the Visitor Centre. Numbers of Pintails have continued to be impressive throughout January and February, with groups of over 120 regularly counted. 45 Whooper swans were counted on the 13th of this month, the highest number so far this winter.

On Thursday evening there was an altogether different kind of sighting, with the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) displaying spectacularly over the Basin, as seen in the photograph below taken by local photographer Wendy Adie. The Northern Lights occur when electrically charged particles that are ejected from the sun cause gas atoms in the sky to glow. As the particles take two or three days to travel from the sun and into our atmosphere, it would have been earlier in the week that this event, called a coronal mass ejection would have occurred. The particles are usually pulled towards the North Pole, however, if the ejection is large enough they will be pulled closer towards the equator, and this is the reason why it was possible to see the spectacle so far south on Thursday. With it being over 20 years since the lights were seen on such a scale across the UK, we could be in for another long wait to see the spectacle in a similar fashion.

Northern Lights (c) Wendy Adie

Northern Lights (c) Wendy Adie

 Craig Shepherd,

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager.

Posted in Birds, Events, General, Sightings, Species profile |

Winter Warmers

It doesn’t seem to matter how cold and severe the weather is, our garden birds are still out in force, feeding away and going about their business as usual, all whilst we hide away watching from the safety of our warm houses. Here at the Visitor Centre Tree Sparrows, Goldfinch, Chaffinch and Blue Tits can be seen can still be seen throughout the winter in large numbers. Even though it hasn’t been the coldest of winters it’s still hard to stop yourself asking, how do they cope?

Like us, birds are warm blooded animals, and actually maintain a higher average body temperature than ourselves (40°C compared to our 37°C). Being much smaller than us, however, presents challenges when it comes to maintaining this body heat. With proportionally large surface areas in which to lose heat to the surroundings coupled with much smaller cores to generate this heat have led to birds evolving various different methods to keep themselves warm.

The adaptations can be split into two main groups, physical and behavioural. The main physical adaptation is of course their feathers, which provide excellent insulation against the cold. A lot of bird species, will grow extra feathers as part of their winter plumage, therefore adding an extra layer of insulation when it’s most needed. Many bird species, mostly aquatic ones, also have oil that coats their feathers, providing both waterproofing and insulation properties.  The most vulnerable area of the body for heat loss in birds is the extremities, so they have developed physical adaptations to overcome this also. Their legs and feet are covered with special scales that help to minimise heat loss along with using a counter-current heat system in their legs and feet. This system works by passing warmth from blood in the veins running towards the feet to the blood flowing away from feet and back towards the body. This therefore reduces the heat of the legs and feet, instead keeping in the body core and reducing the amount of heat that can be lost to the external environment. Birds can also increase their fat reserves over winter by gorging on food in the Autumn before its availability reduces and the harsher conditions arrive. These fat reserves provide extra insulation as well as providing a source of additionally energy that they can use at any point to help generate body heat.

Blackbird Sunning (c) DeclanSkehan

Blackbird Sunning (c) DeclanSkehan

The majority of behavioural adaptations once again involve the use of their feathers, an essential tool against the cold. Birds can fluff up their feathers and therefore create extra pockets of insulation along with using them to tuck any body parts that are susceptible to heat loss, away from the cold.  This also provides the answer to the age old question, why on earth is that bird standing on one leg!? By doing so, it’s reducing the body parts in contact with the cold water or ground and therefore reducing heat loss. The use of their feathers is also essential when ‘sunning’ themselves, a behaviour used on sunny winter days allowing them to heat their feathers and skin more effectively. Here at the Centre, this behaviour often turns heads, as Blackbirds in particular, who are drooping their wings, spreading their tails and raising their feathers look far from normal! An additional way in which birds can generate extra heat, and a method that humans also use, is shivering. Although an energy consuming way to generate heat, shivering is one of the most effective short term solutions to overcoming the cold. A final behaviour that birds use to overcome the cold, particularly smaller passerines but also many wader and waterfowl species, is roosting. Birds of the same species will gather in flocks of various sizes at night, crowding together in small spaces to help share and conserve body heat.

Redshank (c) Laurent Domgin

Redshank (c) Laurent Domgin


So the next time you peer out of the window and see the bird feeding around your bird table just give a thought to the many methods they need to employ to simply stay warm!

Craig Shepherd,

Visitor Centre Assistant Manager.

Posted in Birds, General |