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Part 23 - Feeding Birds, the Great Tit and the Corn Bunting

Bird Feeding

Pressure of work – yes, even in nature conservation there is such a thing – has been such that I have been able to get outdoors far too little of late. However, this gives me the perfect pretext to concentrate on a subject close to many people’s hearts – bird feeding. Until relatively recently, the word from bird conservation organisations was that it was neither necessary nor perhaps even desirable to feed birds after the end of winter, when more natural foods would become widely available. That advice has now changed radically and it’s now said to be not just acceptable but positively beneficial to keep topping up feeders all year round. However, judging by my own observations of empty feeders all over the village, the good folk of Kingston are as yet unaware of this revision, or at least, are choosing to ignore it.

I have another reason for noticing this – and that’s the fact I am currently having to top up my own feeders both morning and evening. Such is the demand, indeed, that I get the impression that I’m now feeding half the garden birds in the village! The truth is that I am only making up for past neglect: for various reasons, it’s only in the last year or so that I have become, as it were, a fully fledged member of the bird-feeding club. Longer established members may well resent me, a new recruit, offering tips but my brief experience has been that when it comes to bird food, you get very much what you pay for and that among commercially sold food, nothing brings in the birds like sunflower hearts.

Greenfinches were first to discover my new supply, followed rapidly by chaffinches. If next door’s feeder with its nyjer seed aimed specifically at goldfinches isn’t available, then these splendid bird will also come: I’ve had as many as eight birds forming a relatively orderly queue. House sparrows were next and then starlings. Blue tits were relative latecomers and great tits (see below) even later. The last species to make regular visits to the feeders themselves was the great spotted woodpecker, not a bird I will ever take for granted but not now a rare visitor either.

However, with sunflower hearts, there is no waste at all and I have a different set of customers for the seed spilt by others. Collared doves cottoned on to this new source first but the woodpigeons must have been watching as they arrived soon after. More surprisingly, a pied wagtail, a dunnock and a family of blackbirds are now a common enough sight on the pavement underneath the container, often joined by the odd robin. Nor do jackdaws nor even rooks turn up their noses, making a complement of no fewer than 16 species seen in the last few weeks. I’m greedily hoping for more. I don’t have shares in any bird food company, honest, but can confidently recommend you switch to sunflower hearts if you want fairly constant avian entertainment this summer.

I’ve had interesting reports of nesting jackdaws (in roofs and chimneys) house sparrows, wrens, blackbirds, blue tits and even – and this is quite special these days – one of a spotted flycatcher, a bird I’ve only seen once in Kingston in my 13 years here, although it was common enough at one time, no doubt.

Great Tit - Parus major

A line drawing of the Great Tit


Most people will be very familiar with the great tit’s appearance, with black head, white cheeks and bright yellow bib, bisected by a black vertical line. His song – usually represented by “teacher, teacher” but also – and equally appositely – by “see saw, see saw” is also pretty well known, although these birds do have a huge and confusing vocabulary. People say – and despite this it’s true – that if you know your birds quite well and hear a song that you don’t recognise, it’s almost certain to be a great tit and some 70 different calls and notes have been tracked to this remarkable bird. It’s doing very well at the moment, too, the population having expanded almost continuously for the last 40 years to a level of around 1,800,000 pairs.

Great tits are essentially birds of woodland. A collection of mature gardens resembles an open woodland very closely. The main differences are that gardens have more predators – cats, as well as sparrowhawks, magpies, jays, great spotted woodpeckers and squirrels – and fewer nesting holes, the latter accounting for the fact that like blue tits, great tits take so readily to nest boxes where they lay up to 11 eggs, though sometimes just five. Like most small birds, the young are fed largely on caterpillars although adults take a lot of vegetable matter and are especially fond of beech mast.

Until quite recently, members of the tit family were referred to as “titmice”, the mouse part of this coming from Old English 'mase', meaning a small bird. But oddly, the word tit itself – in this context at least – seems to be derived from the Icelandic 'tittr', which means small. A titmouse is therefore a small bird, which is small. Even better, this makes a great titmouse a large, small, small bird. Oh the joys of a language whose multiple roots spread more widely than those of a willow tree!



Corn bunting – Milaria calandria

This is the original dull brown bird. It has no distinguishing plumage: no obvious eye stripe or wing bar, let alone brightly coloured legs or bill. It’s smallish – a bit larger than a house sparrow - and rather dumpy. It spends a lot of time in the spring perched on posts or fences singing its appropriately dull song – often compared with the jangling of keys for some reason but to my ear more like a grating rattle.

Corn buntings are nowhere near as common as once they were, having been badly affected – like so many other farmland birds – by the increased use of pesticides and the corresponding decline in the availability of invertebrate food in the spring and the move to plough fields in autumn rather than leave stubble, with all its weed seeds, in the fields over the winter. On the Downs around Kingston, however, there are still several pairs, with more on the National Nature Reserve at Castle Hill. A male – possibly the same one each year - has for several years sung, if you can call it that, from the near the top of the “scar” track, close to the cattle grid by the South Downs Way. In great contrast, corn buntings can be heard in truly vast numbers elsewhere in some parts of Europe. Travelling around the Algarve last year (and staying in John and Diana Crabbe’s excellent flat in Lagos (no concessions expected for this free advertising!)) whenever we stopped the car in (fruitless) search of great bustards and the like, the first bird to be heard was inevitably a corn bunting – and then another and another.

After breeding, and like yellowhammers (aka yellow buntings) their close relatives, corn buntings gather in flocks, sometimes with other species.

I haven’t made this little bird sound very interesting but in fact I have a great affection for it. In the 1970s I lived less than half a mile north of Heathrow airport and had no car. In those days, much of my birding was done on a few very unpromising acres of market garden at the end of West End Lane, in Harlington (a Domesday book village due to follow the original Heath Row itself into oblivion if the third runway is ever built). Here, I was long puzzled by an unfamiliar call which I eventually concluded must be that of a corn bunting. This was an exciting find for me and thereafter the welcome sound of corn buntings every spring and summer made my 10 year stay in that blighted place a little less unpleasant.



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