28th February 2024

Birdwatching for Beginners

We would like to share Chris Packham’s advice on birdwatching for beginners and how to create a bird-friendly garden. Full article in The Sunday Times 25 February 2024.


Observing birds in your garden is one of the easiest ways to learn to identify birds, and the best place to start your birdwatching journey. It’s really easy to attract birds to your garden – you just need to put out food for them. Hang up a couple of seed and nut feeders and wait for them to be discovered. Creating the right environment and providing the right foods will bring lots of different species.

How to create a bird-friendly garden

If you have room, try to echo the way nature grows in layers, with ground cover, shrubs and a tree canopy. Favour hedges full of native berry-producing shrubs over fences, or at least plant climbers up your fences, such as honeysuckle, which offers summer nectar and autumn berries, and ivy, which still provides food when many other plants have finished flowering.
Good shrubs include Pyracantha, Holly, Hawthorn, Elder, Guelder Rose, Cotoneaster and Apple trees,
Plants with nectar-rich flowers will attract insects such as beetles, hoverflies, butterflies and aphids, many of which (including their larvae or caterpillar forms) are food for insect-eating birds.
Nector rich flowers include Lavender, Verbena bonariensis, Salvia, most herbs including Rosemary, Sage and Chives, and Borage, Crocuses and Asters.

How to attract birds to a feeder

Choose from a variety of foods: nuts, seeds, grains and suet balls or pellets will all meet the needs of different birds. Mix and match, or make your own. Where you hang them makes a big difference; birds will not use a feeder if they don’t think it’s safe. Are there perches where they can stop and check for predators, or are there pets or people nearby that might scare them off?
Create a feeding station if you have room, ideally somewhere that is safe from cats and where you can discreetly watch them feasting. Remember to provide with water too and to regularly clean bird feeders and birdbaths.

There are also some foods that you should not put out for birds:

  • Milk – birds have not evolved to digest milk and in fact, it can be lethal to them.
  • Bread – whilst birds can digest bread, the amount of nutrition that bread provides is very low, so they are much better to fill up on more energy-rich foods.
  • High-salt foods – foods such as crisps or salted peanuts can make birds excessively thirsty and could lead to dehydration.
  • Fat from cooking – fat left over from a roast dinner is not suitable to put out as it can be very salty and may clog up a bird’s feathers.
  • Mouldy food – some mouldy foods contain bacteria that can cause infections in birds, so are best avoided entirely.

Five birdsongs to learn

1. Great tit. Its high “see-saw see-saw” song, often described as “teacher, teacher” can sound a bit like a squeaky bicycle pump in action.
2. Robin. Clear and melodic, with warbles, whistles and pauses, it can be described as “twiddle-oo, twiddle-eedee, twiddle-oo twiddle”.
3. Song thrush. It varies its song, but helpfully repeats each phrase up to three times before starting the next variation, which no other common birds do.
4. Starling. Squawks, whines, whistles and odd notes describe this song. It’s not highly melodic, but each song can last for a minute or more at a time.
5. Blackbird. Its low-pitched, flutelike melodies are stronger and less melancholy than those of a robin, and without the repetitions of a song thrush.

Now is the perfect time to start learning birdsongs in preparation for the springtime dawn chorus. Lucy Lapwing provides a great guide for beginners on YouTube to help you learn British birdsong

If you have a smart phone the free Merlin Bird ID app is a game changer and helps you to record and identify birds song wherever you are, in your garden, in the park, in a wood or on a walk.

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