Garden birds welcome the morning and make us feel better about having to get out of bed. Here’s how to identify which is which!
Do you know your house sparrow from your hedge sparrow? With our handy guide to the most common garden birds, you’ll soon be able to identify many visitors to your garden.
Apart from our beloved pets, garden birds are probably our closet link to the animal world. Watching them through the seasons is a joy, especially in the springtime when they hurry to and fro, preparing nests for the pitter-patter of tiny bird feet.
There are many references to birds in Irish folklore. Seeing two blackbirds together, for instance, is considered a good omen. So is seeing a blackbird’s nest near your home. Fionn mac Cumhaill himself apparently brought the first pair of blackbirds to Ireland from Norway on account of his love for their sweet song.
The beloved robin was protected in Irish folklore. It was said that whoever killed a robin would suffer from a permanent hand tremor. Robins are often believed to be messengers from recently deceased loved ones. In some parts of the country, a robin entering a house symbolises an approaching death.
According to Irish folklore, faeries made the thrush build its nest close to the ground so they could enjoy its song. A thrush who built its nest in a higher position would cause misfortune in the locality because the faeries would be unhappy.
The faeries weren’t the only ones who valued the sweet song of the thrush. Back in the nineteenth century, people emigrating to Australia and New Zealand brought song thrushes to remind them of home. Today, only small numbers survive in Australia, but they did much better in New Zealand and are now one of the most common garden birds there. We haven’t always been good to our garden birds, however.
Goldfinches were extensively trapped for their colour and song during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with many exported to Britain. When the Protection of Wild Birds Act was proposed in 1930 in an attempt at ending this practice, some politicians were opposed because it was a source of income for many in tough times.
And what about the poor wren, hunted for sport every St Stephen’s Day? This custom actually goes back to pre-Christian times – it’s thought the Celts hunted the wren at midwinter because it was a symbol of the old year. Thankfully, these days, fake wrens take the place of real ones.
Don’t forget that many of our garden bird populations increase in winter when migrating birds from the colder parts of Europe arrive. Putting out food in these leaner times is of great benefit to them. You can also make your garden more bird friendly by planting trees and shrubs that provide them with food and shelter. Particularly good plants are cotoneasters, pyracantha, holly, ivy, honeysuckle, rowan, hawthorn and apple trees. Find out more about our garden birds at irishgardenbirds.ie or birdwatchireland.ie
Robins can become quite tame, often hoping cheekily through a window or door. This permanent resident is the only bird that sings throughout winter, although its winter song is understandably a little melancholy. It sings loudest in springtime, a pleasant twittering often performed on a fence or prominent spot. Its average life span is two years and there are over two million breeding pairs.
Built by the female. Nesting places include holes in walls or trees, ivy-covered walls or garden sheds. Robins will use an open-fronted nest box and sometimes build in unusual spots like post-boxes or coat pockets. They are territorial; disputes with intruding birds can become violent. Breeding pairs couple by midwinter and remain together until the following autumn, raising two broods which they both feed. Young robins are scaled light and dark brown. Diet: Insects and some fruits. Will visit bird tables and hanging feeders. Loves following gardeners to scavenge freshly disturbed grubs.
BLACKBIRD (LON DUBH)
The blackbird sings its beautiful melody loudly and conspicuously in spring and summer. Can be rather shy; if frightened while on the ground it may lower its head and run for cover. Ireland’s year-round residents are joined by visitors from Scandinavia and Germany in winter. There are nearly 2 million breeding pairs with an average life span of three years. Females are browner than males with a brown bill.
The female builds a cupshaped nest from plant material which she lines with mud and dead grass. Blackbirds like to nest in trees, shrubs or hedges and particularly like the fork of a tree. Nesting season is mid-March to mid- June. Both parents feed the young; they can raise two or even three broods per season. Young birds resemble the female. Will use large open-fronted nest boxes. Diet: Insects, berries and other fruit. They can often be seen listening for worms below the surface of the ground. Will come to bird tables – put out bread, seed cake, seed and fruit.
BLUE TIT (MEANTÁN GORM)
This acrobatic bird can sometimes be seen hanging upside down on branches. It is very vocal, with a high-pitched song. It also performs a series of scolding sounds and at other times, many short twitters. There are over a million breeding pairs with an average life span of three years. Blue tits are common throughout Ireland and most stay all year round. In winter, family flocks sometimes join together to forage for food.
The female builds a cupshaped nest with moss, plant materials and feathers. A crevice or hollow in a tree or wall makes a good site; they also like wall-mounted ashtrays outside pubs. Regularly use nest boxes. Nesting season is mid-April to mid-May. After hatching, adults visit the nest hundreds of times per day. Great allies to gardeners because their young rely on a diet of caterpillars. Diet: Insects and spiders, also berries, fruit and seeds in winter. They will eat almost any food put out to attract birds.
GREAT TIT (MEANTÁN MÓR)
May not arrive at bird tables until late autumn or winter. Beechmast is a favourite food, and a good supply will keep it in woodlands until then. Its song often sounds like teacher, teacher but can vary; its call is a scolding sound or a quieter tew, tew tew. There are 420,000 breeding pairs with an average life span of three years. Females have a thinner stripe on the belly and for males, a broader stripe means more attention from the ladies. Some continental birds winter here.
The female builds a cupshaped nest from a variety of plant materials. Usually chooses a hole in a tree or wall but can go for odd sites at times. Will use nest boxes. Nesting season is mid-April to mid-May. Both parents feed the brood – one per year. Young birds are paler and less yellow. Diet: Insects and spiders; in winter, beechmast, seeds, berries and fruit. For feeders and tables, put out peanuts, seed cake or seed. Likes to look for food on the ground.
CHAFFINCH (RÍ RUA)
Large numbers from Europe winter in Ireland. These visitors are paler and bigger and often feed in large flocks in stubble fields. The locals prefer to feed in woodlands and gardens. Females have the same pattern as males but are greyer with a paler beak. Its song is short and repeated – starts with buzzing notes before slowing down, then ends with a flourish. Its call sounds like buzz-twink-twink-twink. There are over two million breeding pairs with an average life span of three years.
Builds a cup-shaped nest using plant materials, spider webs and feathers. Nests in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, hedgerows and gardens; the fork of a tree is a favoured spot. Most breeding pairs return to the same nest each year. Will not use nest boxes. Nesting season is mid- April to mid-May. Chaffinches raise one brood per year, fed by both parents. Diet: Mostly insects in summer; eats a wide range of seeds and berries in winter. Will eat seed, seed cake and peanuts from the ground.
COAL TIT (MEANTÁN DUBH)
This clever bird hoards food to keep itself going during winter. It has even been known to clear entire bird tables and stash the goodies. Favoured habitat is coniferous woodland, but it will nest in gardens. They reside all year round and rarely travel far. Its song can sound like a bicycle pump – pitchew, pitchew – but it also has other sounds. There are 270,000 breeding pairs with a two-year average life span. Large flocks are sometimes seen at southern and western coastal headlands.
The female builds a cupshaped nest from plant materials, spider webs, hair and feathers. Prefers conifer trees but will also use broadleaf. Usually nests in a hole; will use a hole-fronted nest box. Nesting season is late April and May. During this time, they raise one or two broods which both parents feed. Diet: Insects mostly, seeds in winter. Regular visitor to feeding tables, loves peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. Will also eat kitchen scraps.
MAGPIE (SNAG BREAC)
Magpies have a reputation for eating the eggs of smaller birds. However, their presence implies a healthy bird population, plus they don’t do as much harm as domestic cats. These members of the crow family are intelligent, social and very adaptable. There are 320,000 breeding pairs and they live for an average of five years. Their call sounds harsh, but their song is more musical. Often seen hopping along the ground. Most spend winter here.
They work as a team, with the male bringing material while the female builds. They build a large, cup-shaped nest, usually near the top of a tree, using twigs, mud and hair, covered with a dome of twigs. Sometimes return to last year’s nest. Will not use nest boxes. Nesting season is early-April to early-May. They raise one brood per year which they both feed. Young magpies look like adults without the long tail. Diet: Very varied – insects (especially beetles), seeds, fruit, carrion, road-kill, kitchen scraps, eggs and nestlings. Will eat seed cake, kitchen scraps and pet food from feeders.
GOLDFINCH (LASAIR CHOILLE)
These sociable birds have a beautiful song, with fluid notes, buzzes, trills and twitters. Trapping is still carried out in some parts, but numbers have risen since the practice was banned. They are constantly on the move, looking for their favourite food – seeds of thistles, ragwort, dandelions and other wild plants. They call almost constantly while flying. In winter, European goldfinches add to the local population. There are 55,000 breeding pairs. Average life span is two years.
The female builds a tidy, cup-shaped nest from plant material, wool, hair and feathers. They nest in a variety of habitats with trees, including gardens. They tend to build towards the ends of branches and like to nest in loose colonies. Will not use a nest box. Nesting season is late April to mid-July during which time they raise two or three broods. Young birds look like adults but have a pale brown head. Diet: A variety of seeds; some insects in summer. Put out peanuts, as well as sunflower and nyjer seed.
HOUSE SPARROW (GEALBHAN BINNE)
These noisy birds have benefitted from living close to humans by becoming one of the most widespread land-bird species in the world. They sometimes cover themselves in dust or sand to keep their feathers in good condition. They like to hop along the ground and can gather in large flocks at times. Call is a loud cheep sound, and it can often be heard chattering loudly in bushes. The female is plainer than the male. There are over a million breeding pairs in Ireland. Average life span is three years.
The male does most of the building using plant materials and manmade items. Favours holes in buildings or walls as a nesting site, especially if close to a farm. If not in a hole, the nest will be covered with a dome. Will use a holed-entrance nest box. Nesting season extends from late March until mid-July. They raise two or three broods which both parents feed. Diet: Seeds, berries; nestlings fed mainly insects. Will eat seed cake, seed, peanuts, kitchen scraps and bread from feeders.
Prefers arable farmland and suburban areas, making it more common in the east and south of the country. In winter, they can gather in large flocks to forage for food. It has a long, twittering song that’s easy on the ear. Its call is a chup sound, sometimes repeated. Ireland has 160,000 breeding pairs; small numbers from Britain and Northern Europe spend winter here. Females have paler yellow patches. Average life span is two years.
Greenfinches build a cupshaped nest from plant materials, hair and feathers, often close to the trunk of a tree or bush. Will use an open-front nestbox. Good habitats include open woodlands, hedgerows and gardens. Nesting season is early April to late June. Both parents regurgitate food for their young – not a common practice among garden birds. They raise two or three broods per year. Young birds resemble a female chaffinch. Diet: Mainly seeds. Nestlings are fed on insects and feeds. These regular visitors to bird tables will fight fiercely for access to the food.
DUNNOCK HEDGE SPARROW (BRÁTHAIR AN DREOLÍN / DUNNÓG)
These birds do not form pairs, opting instead to breed in groups, often with two males and one female. Hedgerows and ground flora are important for food and shelter. Not common in parts of the north and west. Its call is a high seeep sound. Its song is a rapid jumble of notes, almost like a squeaky wheel. Hops along the ground when feeding. They do not migrate for winter. Average life span is two years and there just over 1.5 million in Ireland.
Males and females build the nest, usually in a well-hidden spot in bushes or undergrowth. They have a wide range of habitats but will not use nest boxes. The nest is cup-shaped and made from twigs, moss, hair and feathers. Nesting season is April to mid-June; parents raise one or two broods which they both feed. Diet: Small insects and their larvae; seeds in winter. Will take scraps from bird table, including fat. Put seeds on the ground.
Wrens can be hard to spot because they spend a lot of time in bushes or undergrowth. These year-round residents are vulnerable in cold weather. Often cocks its tail high enough to touch the back of its head. A noisy, vocal bird despite its tiny size. It has a drawn-out song that sounds like a series of trilling notes and ends abruptly. Almost three million breeding pairs. Average life span is two years.
The male builds a ball-shaped nest in dense vegetation using grass, moss and leaves. He builds more than one, and the female lines the one she chooses. Wrens will inhabit farmland, woodland, mountains, offshore islands and cliffs. Males may have two or three females in different nests. Will use an open-front or large-hole nest box in winter; many may gather inside for warmth. Nesting season is mid-April to mid-June. Wrens raise one brood per year, fed by both parents. Diet: small insects and their larvae, spiders. Will eat breadcrumbs and small bits of cheese from the ground.
Thousands flock together in autumn and winter, usually at dusk before settling down for the night in reed beds, woodlands or old buildings. There are some 350,000 breeding pairs, but numbers are supplemented by millions of wintering garden birds from Britain, Northern Europe and even Russia. Very noisy birds with a variety of calls. They’re great mimics and can imitate the calls of other birds, car alarms, doorbells and whistles. Average life span is five years.
Both sexes build a nest of twigs, plant materials and man-made items. Nests in a variety or habitats, both urban and rural. Fond of holes in trees or roofs and will use a hole-entrance nest box. April and May are its nesting season, they raise one or two broods. Juveniles beg for food from the parents after they have left the nest. Diet: Forages widely. Eats insects, fruit, cereals, seeds and kitchen scraps. They catch insects by sticking their beaks into grass to make a hole into which insects will fall.
The most well-known of the thrush family, these garden birds are often seen in parks digging for worms. When other food is scarce, they eat snails which they smash open on a rock or tree stump. Song thrushes from Britain and Scandinavia spend winter here; in very cold winters they come from all over the continent. Very musical, with a song similar to a blackbird’s but with repeated phrases. Males often sing loudly from a high perch. Its call is a loud thick, repeated several times quickly. There are 390,000 breeding pairs with an average life span of three years.
The female builds a neat cup-shaped nest from plant materials and mud, usually well hidden in trees or shrubs. Nesting season is mid-March to mid-June; these busy birds raise two or three broods in that time, which they both feed. Juvenile birds have beige streaks on their backs. Diet: worms, snails and other insects. Also likes berries and apples. Will eat kitchen scraps from the ground.
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