BTO: Sit back and enjoy your bird tables

Juvenile blue tit. Bt Jill Pakenham/BTO ANL-150626-154304001
Juvenile blue tit. Bt Jill Pakenham/BTO ANL-150626-154304001
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It is around this time of the year that we start to see the first young finches and tits visiting Suffolk’s bird tables, typically arriving in the company of their parents.

These garden feeding stations provide a reliable source of food for young birds as they move towards independence, delivering an easy meal of mixed seed or sunflower hearts. It is not just the smaller birds that make use of these opportunities; we know from the weekly observations of BTO Garden BirdWatchers that great spotted woodpecker parents bring their youngsters to garden feeding stations for just this purpose. The next few weeks will see the young woodpeckers return to these garden feeders again and again, eventually arriving alone and independent.

The numbers of young birds visiting bird tables and hanging feeders provides a very rough indication of how good a breeding season it has been. There are, for example, indications that some of our breeding birds have struggled this year, with the cold, wet and windy weather proving challenging for species like blue tit and great tit. Blue tits are single-brooded, while great tits may have a second brood, so bad weather at the wrong time can have consequences for these small birds. Like many other birds, blue tits need to time their breeding attempts to match the period when their favoured prey, in this case leaf-eating caterpillars, are most abundant. If caterpillar numbers are low or if the caterpillars get washed from the leaves and trees by heavy rain, then the blue tits may not be able to find sufficient food for their brood of eight to 10 chicks.

For those blue tits breeding in garden nest boxes things may be even more challenging. Urban and suburban gardens do not support large caterpillar populations, so urban blue tits are already at a disadvantage – should the weather be poor, then there is a good chance that they will fail to rear a brood of chicks. Gardens, and garden feeding stations, pose other challenges for young birds. Not only are there predatory cats but there are also hazards like windows, uncovered water butts and garden netting, all of which can catch out a naïve youngster. These risks, however, are balanced by the food on offer at birds tables and in hanging feeders and by the absence of other predatory species which might take young birds within the wider countryside.

The large amount of coniferous woodland in parts of Suffolk means that some garden birdwatchers will be treated to juvenile coal tits and siskins, species not seen as often in gardens located elsewhere, where deciduous woodland dominates the landscape. Some of these youngsters can prove challenging to identify but there are plenty of resources around to help you brush up on your identification skills. The BTO video guide to ‘green’ finches provides some useful tips on separating juvenile siskins from young greenfinches www.bto.org/about-birds/bird-id/bto-bird-id-green-finches-your-garden