Cuckoo Tracking – Lyster’s African Safari

Is Lyster really behind schedule?

I’m curious about Lyster (my favoured  Cuckoo) trailing his four compadres south into Africa. It seems odd that their positions are not more randomly spread (at least in terms of latitude). I thought, perhaps, his variant, more scenic and coastal route might be a cause. Could be different local weather along Lyster’s track or simply that he was the last to leave the UK. Were these birds all of a similar age?

But then I thought of the technology.

They all have 5g (transponder weight approx.) of additional cargo to carry assuming a Cuckoo weighs in at 110g. Not much, but still 4.5% extra for its body weight. Then there is the aerodynamics. Thrust versus drag, lift versus weight might adversely affect a weaker or older (or younger!) bird. The transponder appears to be attached at three points; one at the front and one either side and, presumably anchored with straps of some kind. If a strap has slipped Lyster might be experiencing more discomfort than the others around the wings or the throat or even a feather sticking up in the airflow, causing drag  around any strap or anchor point. The birds seem to fly head down(ish) which might increase smooth airflow over it’s upper body or, conversely, disrupt that smooth flow over Lyster’s upper body, at the leading edge of the transponder – a part of which must be exposed to collect sunlight.

What do other people think?

See the tracker/transponder at this page – it’s clever




Cuckoo in the News

Cuckoo under Investigation

I heard on the 8:00 am Radio 4 News this morning (Tue 7 June 2011) that a birding organization –  I think the British Trust  for Ornithology – are radio tagging five strong male cuckoos in an attempt to discover why they are in such decline. Well good for them, a great move in the right direction, I haven’t heard a single Cuckoo yet this year and they are one of my very favorite birds.

Problems in the Cuckoo Migration?

I do recall that it has been suggested that the Cuckoo may be subject to some “attrition” either on their migration to and from Central Africa or even during their stay on the African Continent. It is thought possible that many thousands of birds may die during their migratory flight and that environmental and climatic changes in Africa may be having an adverse effect on Cuckoo numbers.

And Now – the Collared Dove

The Collared Dove was featured as No. 10 in this years “Biggest Losers” list, again by the BTO. I did some fairly cursory checking and it seems this bird has been in a very slight decline over the 2005 – 2011 period. The RSPB still gives it Green Status, which it truly deserves. I would have thought that the Turtle Dove might have caused more comment which has only Amber status and is definitely more under threat than the Collared Dove.

1955 – Collared Dove Settles in Britain

That’s right they’ve only been resident since 1955 and their success is stupendous. Since then they have steadily and dramatically increased their numbers except for the period 1985 – 1990 when they went into a slight decline but continued to increase after that. I did not find anything noteworthy during these two 5-year periods that might help explain these very moderate declines (no significantly different weather, for instance) so I conclude that unless the trend continues, or becomes more severe, that the Collared Dove will ride out this decline as it did the earlier, 1985 – 1990 episode. I personally have not seen a Collared Dove this year.

Anyway check out this link if you’d like: National Losers (

Thanks, “Bridie”.



Sparrow, Starling, Thrush and Wren – Fewer Garden Visits 2010.

Now is the Perfect Time

Now is the perfect time to put one or two nest boxes out there for the smaller birds, to put food down for all your airborne garden visitors and to do routine maintenance on your existing bird tables, bird fountains, ponds, feeders and nest boxes. It’s been a bad winter, I am told by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), the worst for thirty years and the worst December for one hundred years. Smaller birds are harder hit in these adverse conditions. 

My personal favorites (see the  title) of struggling and declining birds are sadly amongst those hit hard, others include the Goldcrest, Greenfinch, Treecreeper, Siskin and ominously perhaps the Collarded Dove. Both the Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush are suffering. I plan to look into the Collared Dove situation in more detail over the coming weeks.

Give more help to Garden Birds

This year after the hard winter all our Garden Bird species require, indeed deserve, as much encouragement and assistance as we can manage. I include inner city residents (yes, I appeal also to you apartment and flat dwellers!) as well as the suburbanites and the rural homesteaders. We can all do something and do it with very little effort or cost to ourselves. In return we can feel the satisfaction and pride of making a positive impact on our garden birds lives and their species survival whose difficult circumstances humankind ourselves have largely brought about.

Children love to help Garden Birds

We have all seen the glee and wonder on childrens faces when birds visit to feeder and tables, perhaps grab a drink of water or a safe bath. A personal fear of mine is that my grandchildren, should I have any, will not experience those simple joys as much as I did myself. I want them to be able to look back on their early years and remember, with joy, the various species of bird visitor to their childhood backyards, as I am able to now. Does anyone remember walks with parents and friends to places like “Primrose Woods” or “Bluebell Woods” or something similar?  Always dynamic, packed with bird life, other fauna and flora. I don’t want those things to disappear.

Click Lifessense – Garden For Birds and take a look at the rest of the Lifessense web site and then check out BTO – National Losers  on the British Trust for Ornithology site.

“Bridie” McBride

Starling – Bird in Decline

It’s critically true. The starling, that loud and cheeky bird singing in large flocks each evening with its beautiful iridescent plumage, has declined by 66% since 1975. Here follows a description of the Starling and its habits and suggestions on how householders in inner cities, suburbs and rural areas can help the Starling to survive the first few decades of the 21st century.

Why is the Starling declining?
Despite the Starling being one of the most adaptable and tenacious of all bird species, its numbers have declined steadily since the beginning of the 1960’s. Enormous changes in fixed pasture and mixed farming production since that decade are a major contributing factor. Further, the vast increase in use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides resulting in a reduction in the insect populations all over Europe and the UK have impacted the number of Starlings breeding each year. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimate of only 800,000 breeding pairs in Great Britain coupled with the additional estimate that the juvenile Starling survival rate has dropped from 33% to only 15% is disturbing. It is an RSPB Red Listed bird.

How can we gardeners and householders help?
Resist the use of pesticides in our gardens and we can encourage the insect populations upon which Starlings depend, particularly in the spring and summer when this impacts the food available to nestlings and juveniles. Starlings will feed on these insects and assist in insect control and the survival of the Starling young. (The young birds are fed entirely on earthworms, spiders, insects and insect larvae for two weeks after hatching.) We can also provide nestboxes and nesting materials in our gardens, in trees and under our eaves.

What does a Starling look like?
The Starling is a little smaller than a Blackbird or Thrush. It looks black from a distance but seen closer they are dark green and purple, iridescent and glossy, sometimes with white spots after molting in early spring. It has a small pointed head and triangular wings. They are frequently seen in flocks in the evening and early morning which is a food hunting and defensive habit. They appear fearless and confidently wade into flocks of larger pigeons in towns and parks, eating, sometimes stealing the same food alongside the pigeons.

What will Starlings eat?
When 12 days or so old Starling will eat a varied diet including fruit, insects, some seeds, nuts even scraps. They will feed easily from a bird table alongside other garden birds and if you provide a bird bath with clean water (a DIY or purchased bird bath and bird table are just fine) you may be rewarded with the unforgettable sight of a loud and splashy communal bathing session – like kids in a pool! Keep a camera handy.

Nesting and breeding
The male will start building a nest of leaves and dried grass in a hole and begin to sing for a mate near the nest entrance. The female will complete the nest building task. They are not territorial, other Starlings will nest nearby. By the middle of April four to six eggs will have been laid, the eggs will hatch in around 12 days and the young will fledge after 3 weeks. Nearby Starlings tend to lay, hatch and fledge within a day or two of each other.

Make a nest box or buy?
Nest boxes are not expensive to buy and are quite easily made out of junk box materials – any shape will do, it does not need to be cubic or rectangular (maybe a plastic water pipe, sealed at both ends). Generically a box 6” x 6” x 8” (15 x 15 x 20cm) approx, waterproof and draught-free with a 2” (50mm) circular entrance hole is great for a Starling. Hang it 6’ (2m) or more above ground in a tree, against a wall under an eave. Position it near shelter to allow escape from cats and airborne predators. Face the entrance hole away from the sun, wind and weather (NE most likely).Finally attract Starlings by regularly placing food and water nearby. Be proud, be pleased, you’ve helped the survival of a species. Thank you.

Practical information and guidance on feeding, watering and the nesting of garden birds is available at Lifessense – Garden for Birds contact the author on the “About Your Garden for Birds” or “Bird Blog Posts” pages.

by Bridie

Gourds as Organic Garden Birdhouses

Organic Garden for Birds
Now (spring) is the time to plant gourd seeds to use as alternate nesting places for your garden bird visitors. The gourds will be grown, cured and ready as birdhouses for the breeding season beginning next spring. They are fun to grow and will, almost inevitably attract the interest of the entire family and the gourds can be arranged to accommodate several bird species, just by varying the size of entrance hole.

What seeds to buy
You want bottle or birdhouse gourds (Latin: Lagenaria siceraria). These are the hard-skinned, white flowered variety. They are readily available and suppliers can easily be found by searching the Web for “birdhouse gourds” or offered in seed catalogues. Buy a pack of tomato food/fertilizer at the same time.

Growing the gourds as vines
These plants are really easy to grow. Germinate indoors in pots, cut-off bottoms of plastic soda-pop bottles that are about 15cm (6″) deep or whatever is handy. Use regular potting compost to give them a good start and plant outside when 12cm (5″) or so tall, much like tomatoes. Pay attention to the instructions on the seed packet. Plant out in well drained soil (add a little gravel if it seems necessary) and preferably against a fence in a sunny, south facing location. Although they can be grown along the ground they send out extensive shoots and it is more difficult to avoid the gourds rotting or growing with miss-shaped flattened bottoms – hence a fence is suggested to grow the vines upward and lift the fruit off the ground. If not a fence or wall be prepared to support them with stakes.

They will require lots of watering and regular feeding with the tomato food. They will need more than a tomato plant but do this by (slightly) increasing the feeding frequency rather than the strength of feed. These plants generate lots of foliage and large fruits. Once the vines are established vertically you can mulch the ground with black plastic sheeting (trash can or bin liners) to discourage weeds and reduce water evaporation. Water and feed through the one necessary hole they grow out of. That is all – tie them up and perhaps support the developing gourds if required. If the foliage over extends cut it back some but maintain leaves above the fruits on the same stem to suck up nutrients.

Your birdhouse gourds are ready for picking when their stems have turned brown and have dried out. Definitely take the gourds before the first autumnal frost by cutting them from the vine leaving as long a stem as you can remaining on the gourd. Do not keep damaged or bruised gourds because they will not keep and will most likely spoil during curing. Be gentle when picking, they are easily damaged at this stage.

Clean them up
Wash the birdhouse gourds in warm water and some dish washing liquid, just like doing the dishes. Allow them to thoroughly dry, outdoors on a sunny day is ideal. It is important that they are completely dried after their wash.

Curing your gourds
Now move the gourds to a dry shaded room such as a garden shed or other outhouse which is frost free throughout the process and string them up by the stems which you left on the gourds. They should not be touching each other. In a week or two the skin or shell of the gourds will have dried out.

Examine the curing gourds every few days. You are looking for those that decay, which should be discarded, and for the formation of mold on the shells. As long as the gourd shell remains hard the mold can be cleaned off with a rag and a little bleach. Do not keep a gourd that is softening, it will not recover. The curing process is lengthy, some months. When they are ready they will be noticeably light, have a tough, unyielding, hard skin and when shaken the seeds will be heard loose inside the shell.

From gourd to birdhouse
It is suggested that some fine abrasive or steel wool be used just to clean the shell up after the curing process. The gourds are now cured and without any further work will last a couple of seasons outside as a birds nesting container. Drill the correct sized hole in the side of the gourd to allow the desired species of bird entry to its nest or drill a small hole and enlarge. Drill a hole straight through both sides of the narrower top to allow the birdhouse to be slung from a tree branch or whatever is planned. Drill four or five small holes in the bottom at and near the lowest points to allow drainage. Further, the entire shell can be coated with polyurethane as waterproofing which will considerably extend the effective life of the birdhouse. Prior to the polyurethane, if desired, the shell can be painted and decorated in any way you wish, the birds will not mind, though au naturel seems most appropriate. No need to attach a perch outside the entrance hole, the birds do not need it and it increases their vulnerability to predators.

Empty the seeds and dry vegetable matter out of the gourd and keep the seeds for another crop of birdhouses next year, store them in a cool, dry place. It is an idea to replace some of the fibrous vegetable matter removed if it looks useful as nest material for your tenants.

Hole sizes by species for the entrance
For the Blue Tit and Coal Tit an entry hole of 25mm (1″) which will exclude the bigger Great Tit. Great Tit, Tree Sparrow and Pied Flycatcher 28mm (1.1″). House Sparrow and Nuthatch, 32mm (1.25″). For all the above birds the birdhouse gourd should be 13 – 15cm (5″ – 6″) diameter. For more information about species and sizes search “UK nest box plans” or “US nest box plans” online.

Positioning the birdhouse
Birds have much the same criteria as humans when setting up home – food, water and security. Place the birdhouse 2m (6.5′) or more high and under the cover of branches. This helps protect against cats, squirrels, some crows and predatory birds (although the Sparrowhawk is a low-level, fast attack raptor it does make a successful kill harder, they average one kill in ten attacks). Face the entry out of the prevailing weather and direct sunlight (generally facing north east). Place fresh food and water nearby on a regular basis and position with similar caution. Experience the pleasure of observing your efforts accepted, appreciated and successfully inhabited!
By Paul Rochford

Have you Heard a Cuckoo Lately? Or a Nightingale Sing?

A bleak future for birds?

Will your children’s children ever hear a Cuckoo, or a Nightingale, see a Robin, or a Sparrow? The Turtle Dove will just be known by a verse in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and never again will 200,000 Starlings gather at dusk to tweet goodnight. Unless something changes quickly, they’ll just be those old birds Granny and Grandpa used to talk about.

The British Trust for Ornithology joint BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) for 2010 is currently underway. Participating volunteers are allocated a randomly selected 1 km square within Britain to record habitat and numbers of different species seen or heard within their square sector. The survey was first launched back in 1994 and the latest results (for 2008) were published in August 2009. (The 2009 results are just out and the 2010 survey, in progress now, will probably be available mid-late 2011.)

In decline – 39% of all species surveyed

In total forty one bird species (out of 105) surveyed in the United Kingdom showed a percentage decline in population over the fourteen year period 1994 – 2007 and forty species showed a percentage drop in numbers from 2007 – 2008 (the latest BBS figures available). Of those forty in 2008, nineteen of these were continuing their previous decline and twenty one species showed a lower count but not a longer term, 1994 – 2007, decline. This does not mean that these twenty one species are suddenly declining but might indicate the beginning of a trend in that direction.

North American birding organizations also show declines in their own surveys; the National Audubon Society (Birdlife in the US) shows that populations of some very common North American birds have plummeted in the last forty years, some down by 80%.

It is not all gloom and doom, some species are increasing, the British Trust for Ornithology conducting its Garden Birdwatch year round survey last year (2009) observed very healthy increases, notably the Goldfinch (+78%). Alas the declining Song Thrush ( -22%), Starling (-19%), House Sparrow (-15%), Wren (-20%) and Green finch (-16%) were all seen less often in 2009 compared with the long-term average.

Why is this happening?

It is all the usual suspects. Changes in climate, changes in habitat, encroachment of habitat by mankind and our technology and changes in food availability. This is perhaps especially true in the UK with a large population per square mile and large urban/city areas which are still rapidly expanding. Some say natural predation is a factor but there is no evidence of it, more likely contributing factors are changes in farming methods and although there is still plenty of woodland out there in the countryside, the woodland character and compositions are changing.

What can we do about it?

As members of the public we can feed, water and provide alternate nesting places for birds in our yards and gardens, in our rural, inner city and suburban back yards and even at the window boxes of our flats and apartments. For an upper floor apartment small feeders which stick on the window can be used to put out food but note that birds are not good at identifying window glass and can fly into it or the bird may attack its own reflection. Stickers can be purchased which are transparent to humans but which allow the bird to see the window and avoid collision.

Put out food

Although different species have different preferred foods most will adapt in times of shortage to try other things. Kitchen scraps of almost any kind will be eaten by birds of one kind or another. You can put out meat and chicken bones (it is not cannibalism and let me know if you see them trying to bury the bones for later!), old fruit and their peelings, potatoes really almost anything. Do not feed birds salty or spicy scraps, they are not curry connoisseurs, but they can eat the boiled rice left over. Additionally no desiccated coconut or cooked oats but half a coconut slung from a tree will attract many smaller birds especially members of the tit family. Uncooked oats are good to give birds. Any bird seed from the superstore or gardening store are great including sunflower and peanuts (shelled or unshelled), dried worms or insects, larger seed such as corn for larger birds. You can buy or even make suet cakes or fat balls which are molded seed, dried fruit, nuts or whatever else mixed up with as much suet or lard it takes to hold it together and placed for the birds to peck at – these are frequently very well received by birds and are a high energy diet also.

And give them water

Put out water for them, even a saucer placed (securely!) in your window box or hanging basket will help the birds. Keep the area around and under your bird table or feeder clean to discourage rodents and other creatures looking for a free meal. If you start to feed and water your bird visitors do so regularly, they will know you put food out and will return for more. But if they come looking and food is not there they will have expended energy they cannot afford to waste on a fruitless visit especially at the crucial times of winter and spring.

Nesting boxes

If your garden area is suitable put up a nest box (or two), they can be obtained quite inexpensively and may be a much needed alternative in winter and especially spring for birds. Search online for “nest boxes”, “bird food” and “bird feeders”. In the UK search for the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The JNCC mentioned above is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in the UK.

The survey results are of great concern but, perhaps, if we are all aware of the threat to a significant sector of our wildlife, take action ourselves and encourage the appropriate organizations we can reduce the possibility of species extinctions.

Making Your Garden Even More Bird Friendly

Looking to create a bird friendly garden and don’t know what to do? There are many tangible things, beyond the basics of water, food, and shelter that you can place in your garden to make it a place that birds will love to visit.

As any casual watcher of birds know, they love trees. Trees allow them to set up nesting high enough to provide them with safe spots above the ground where they can rest as well as keep a lookout for easy food. And, if your garden has no trees, you can set up perches in your yard which will provide them with similar benefits. Although, mainly used by pet owners as a resting place for their bird when outside of his cage, bird perches are the perfect accessory for the birds visiting your garden.

Seriously consider planting some annuals in your garden. They will add brightness and color to it. but, in addition, the seeds from them serve as food sources for many birds. But, once the flowers have blossomed, don’t trim them off the way many gardeners do. Just leave them in their natural state. This ensures that as the summer rolls to its end that the birds will have plenty of seeds from the annuals to help them prepare themselves for the winter months.

The perfect bird garden has tons of bushes and trees. For the most part, these plants should be located on the garden edges and sides. As for the center, leave it as primarily a lawn or grass area. This center area provides the birds with plenty of room to be out in the open where they can hunt for insects while, at the same time, making it hard for predators to sneak up on therm because of the wide unobstructed grassy area.

You might try keeping a stack of old logs at the perimeters of your garden also. Having a pile of old logs on the edges of your yard is nice touch also, A lot of insects and bugs are attracted to structures made of wood. In fact, don’t be surprised if the birds in your yard find this one of their favorite eating places once they notice how many bugs visit there.

A composter is a great for creating natural fertilizer for the plants in your yard. Birds also love them. They will take full advantage of some of the food scraps that you throw on the composter pile.

And once you have created the perfect garden for birds, don’t forget to enjoy it yourself.

If you are a true bird lover and have set up your yard with bird houses, feeders, bird baths, and all sorts of other amenities to attract birds to your yard, you should seriously consider buying a desk diary and documenting the birds that you see in your garden.

Document the bird species, how many, the time of day, and the date. Also, take pictures and store them along with the diary. You may be surprised at the fond memories that these give you in your later years.

By: Ken Lawless

For more information on love birds, endangered birds, and other bird related articles, please visit our web site.

Cuckoo – A Bird in Decline

Have you heard a Cuckoo lately?
The Cuckoo is a migrant RSPB Red List bird and has been in decline for 25 years. The Cuckoo population has dropped by 65% over this period. The cause of decline is not well understood but changing climate and trends in host breeding habits are cited, resulting in a fewer number of host nests for the Cuckoo to invade.

Reasons for decline
It is far from clear which are the major factors influencing the falling population of the Cuckoo. UK nesting host decline (dunnock, robin, reed warbler, meadow pipit, Spotted Flycatcher and Pied Wagtail) is possible. Decreases in moth populations which the Cuckoos eat as caterpillars may also be contributing. Farming methods, pesticides and herbicides, general pollution and reduction in habitat perhaps all take their toll as they do with other species of wildlife.
Other explanations suggested are Africa’s changing habitats, farming production changes and the attrition of bird numbers during migration from Africa to Britain. Current estimates are 10,000 to 20,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

The bird has a blue-grey head, back and tail with a darkly barred white underneath, a yellow eye ring and slightly down curved beak. Some females, though not all, are reddish brown (rufous brown) in color. The bird has a long tail and in flight it distinctively beats its wings below its body. Somewhat similar to the sparrowhawk but the Cuckoo has pointed wings and its beak is not hooked. It is small pigeon or dove sized at 33cm, 110gm (13″, 3.9oz)

Breeding habit
The Cuckoo lays its eggs in another species nest after the host female has laid its own clutch. An individual Cuckoo targets a particular host species. Once the parasitic host is found the Cuckoo lays one egg and may eat a host egg or a chick at that time. The Cuckoo will lay 9 to 15 eggs in total although some sources suggest up to 25 eggs may be placed. The Cuckoo chick will systematically eject the remaining host hatchlings when it is two or so days old so gaining the undivided attention of the host adult. The chick rapidly becomes significantly larger than the host adults who must work very hard foraging food to feed the young Cuckoo.

When and where to see in Britain

The Cuckoo is a migrant from sub-Saharan Africa. They arrive in late April to June and leave late July or August, though they may rarely be seen until September. More numerous in southern and central areas they are (sparsely) spread all over the UK. It returns to west, central and southern Africa for the rest of the year, where its decline is also noticed. In Britain the Cuckoo inhabits moorland, open country, farmland, hedges and the periphery of woodland but also enters our gardens in its quest for a parasitic host to lay its egg.

How can we help?
In our gardens, we can feed the hosting species and incidentally encourage other garden birds, Try to refrain from spraying pesticides so encouraging insects in the breeding season. Cuckoos themselves favor hairy caterpillars and have an adapted digestion to process the poisons these caterpillars can contain. They do eat other caterpillars and other insects as do the host birds. A compost heap would become a helpful source of worms and other insects.

Practical information and guidance on feeding, watering and the nesting of garden birds is available on this website, which may help encourage some host birds targeted by the Cuckoo.
The RSPB is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds its Red List is the RSPB list of birds in most severe decline (greater than 50% or globally threatened).

by Bridie

Hello Everyone!

Welcome to – your Garden Birds website.

It is intended that this site will evolve and improve as a resource for all garden bird lovers and enthusiasts. We intend regular updates, additions, extensions and revisions and in the very near future will provide a mechanism to allow our web visitors to make direct comments and feedback on the site to facilitate such improvements.

We will strive to further enhance the site visitors experience and so contribute to their pleasure and enjoyment of their own gardens and, perhaps, also resist the decline in numbers of birds as their own natural habitats are changed by man and climate.