Hunger drives reed buntings into gardens

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Graham Appleton, from the BTO in Thetford, explains why reed buntings turn up in our gardens at this time of year, well away from the nearest reed bed.

One day last week, I was passing the desk of one of the members of our Garden BirdWatcher team and saw a picture of a reed bunting on her screen.

Someone had got in touch to check that she had identified the species correctly, being somewhat surprised that a bird she might expect to see in a reed bed was visiting her feeding station.

Reed buntings move out of wetland in the late autumn and spend the winter on farmland. They are looking for small seeds, typically those of weeds rather than the bigger cereal seeds, and these can be found in unsprayed stubbles, game-cover strips and especially sugar-beet fields. Once fields have been ploughed and sown for the next season there is no food left for reed buntings, yellowhammers and finches.

Fortunately, the sugar-beet harvest starts much later in the year than other farming operations and there is much more tolerance of weeds in the crop; both of these features suit the reed buntings very nicely. While the crop remains in the ground, they can feed amongst the rows of beets and then, until the land is prepared for the next crop, there is an open field with scattered seeds of species like fat hen to keep them satisfied.

By this time of year, however, sugar beet fields have been cleared and ploughed and reed buntings are turning to gardens in search of food.

It may seem a little rude to say it, but a winter reed bunting is a rather boring little brown job (an LBJ in the birdwatchers’ parlance). A summer plumage male is a fine specimen, with a coal-black head, set off with a smart white collar, but it’s better to be brown and camouflaged if feeding out in the open on a winter field.

Over the next few weeks, males will start to reveal their true colours. The brown tips on their feathers will wear away to reveal summer finery. By the end of April the LBJ in your garden could be showing off at the top of a reed stem in front of one of the hides at Lakenheath. Females become a little smarter but they retain the streaky brown hues that help to hide them when sitting on their nests.

The reed buntings is an amber-listed species of conservation concern – one of the large suite of farmland species that have been badly affected by the move to autumn sowing and the efficient control of weeds in cereal crops. When they turn up in gardens, reed buntings are looking for small seeds, like linseed or rape-seed, provided on the ground in relatively open areas.