Where have all the Small Birds gone?

What has happened to them?

8th November 2017. This is the view up my small garden at about 4:30 P.M. on the date stated. Just above centre, hanging from the white post, is a bird feeder. It was filled on Friday 4th November, after being being empty – or not even there – for about a month. It was not there because a gale blew it off about a fortnight ago, and it had been empty because I had run out of bird seed before then. That is, the right kind of bird seed. For years we got the bird seed from a small, traditional local pet shop. It was a general mix – not sure exactly what that mix was, but it certainly contained sunflower hearts, other things & including dried meal-worms, a favourite of Robins. It did NOT contain any wheat, or at least, only a very small amount thereof.

Alas, when we went to get some more a couple of months ago, the shop was shut. Perhaps they’re on holiday, we thought. About two weeks later we went again and it was still shuttered. We began to be concerned. Another couple of weeks and our worst fears were realised. It must have closed down, like so many other small ‘sole trader’ shops, in the face of competition from supermarkets &c.

This was a great pity of course. The people who ran it were always helpful & cheerful. I remember one time, two young girls were behind the counter – perhaps 10 & 12 years old – possibly grand-children of the proprietor. The older one took the cash and very carefully worked out the change, while the younger put my bags of bird seed in a (reclaimed) carrier bag – all done with distinct care, and due solemnity. It was marvellous – just like a childrens’ story from the 1940s – ‘How we helped Auntie Edith in her shop after she sprained her ankle’. Most excellent experience for the youngsters! But alas: seemingly no longer. Oh dear…

Still, we needed bird seed, so got some from – ulps! – a nearby Pet Supermarket. The grade of seed most similar to the old one, was more than twice as expensive, while the cheaper mix contained probably 30% of wheat, which is  not what we really wanted. OK – I didn’t get where I am today by not knowing when I’m beaten. So we got some of the cheap stuff, & the garden birds made shift with it.

By garden birds, I mean the few to be encountered in this urban environment, who will go to a suspended feeder: Blue Tit, Great Tit, Robin and Dunnock (= Hedge Sparrow). That’s about it. The Blackbirds will sometimes glean bits from the seed that has fallen onto the deck. Those five species are about all we get here. There used to be Wrens, that were seen occasionally years ago, but not any more.

There have been rare appearances of Greenfinch – I’ve seen two in 10 years. This one was shot in 2008.

And once, mirabile dictu, a pair of Nuthatches hung around for a couple of days in March 2013, but soon moved on. Once, even, a Goldfinch whizzed over the fence, landed for about 4 or 5 seconds on the grass, and immediately went off again. It may possibly even be, that a Bullfinch came once – but I had the wrong glasses on at the time, so can’t swear to it. There might even have been a single Chaffinch in 10 years, but I probably made that up.

Of course, there are Wood Pigeons, Magpies, Crows and Seagulls, but I don’t count them – and the Crows & Seagulls don’t land in the garden anyway. I like Crows (see bottom of this Nature Study page), but don’t care for Seagulls – they are too big & vulgar & once a large crowd of them menaced me while I was sitting on a bench, eating a bag of chips, in Kendal – but that’s not important right now.

No: what I’m trying to say, is that following my not having a bird feeder for a month, all the small birds have gone. I’m rather worried about this, because if you do feed birds, you really must keep it up as a regular routine – I know that. But I lapsed, partially for reasons outside my control. To make amends, I ordered a 12 Kilogram (26.5 pound) sack of proper bird seed on line – it’s approved by the National Trust, so it must be good: £25 including delivery. The feeder was cleaned, filled & put up last Friday, as stated above.

It is now Tuesday, and not a single bird has been seen to go to it. The level of the seed appears exactly the same as four days ago; whereas in the summer, an entire filling (latterly including wheat) was often consumed in three to four days. What have I done? Have I merely irritated the birds to the extent that they have gone elsewhere? Or – perish the thought – have they all died as a result of my negligence? Surely, at this time of year – ‘The Season of Mellow Mists and Fruitfulness’ – there should be enough seeds & berries to sustain small birds, even in Birmingham? (This comment actually contains the seed – sorry, no pun intended; shall we say the kernel – er, no, no; the, er, core – yes, the CORE of the problem, as we discovered later.)

But I wonder; for I had a short walk in Harborne churchyard this afternoon, and while there were many squirrels disporting themselves (not to mention a cat playing cat-and-mouse with a rat) the absence of small birds was highly conspicuous. When did I last see a Robin? I asked myself. One doesn’t expect to hear them at this time of year; but to see them – why, certainly.

So where are they?

Hopefully, more, on a positive note, later…

Footnote. The House Sparrow has almost completely disappeared from urban locations, as I’m sure you know. But in the mid-1970s, my wife & I lived in an upstairs flat at the back of Harborne High Street – a completely urban area. I rigged a makeshift bird table outside our living room window, and we put old bread on it. After about three weeks, we had to stop using it, because of the sheer racket of clouds of house sparrows chattering around it – we could hardly hear ourselves think! Also, after we took over the whole house in about 1978, I remember walking up the garden at dusk one night to see if there were any moths about. Imagine my surprise and delight, when a Barn Owl silently swooped down on me from a nearby disused building, to see if I were fit prey for it. This was little more than 3 miles from the centre of Birmingham. Are there still Barn Owls that close to the city centre? I doubt it very much, but would love to be proved wrong.


BirdWatch I – 11th November 2017.

Saturday 11th November. The level in the bird feeder is much the same. However, you won’t see birds unless you look for them; so this morning, we sat in our sun-room for one hour, just looking up & down the garden specifically for small birds: (SB below.)

Weather: calm, damp, 8°C.

0930: BirdWatch I begun.
0950: Flock of four SB seen, of which 3 settled in small leafless tree next door & 2 stayed for 6 minutes.
0951: Two SB in big trees at top of garden very briefly.
0957: Two Great Tits in tree near my house: one visited feeder, the other the bird-table, just once.
0958: 2 SB in small leafless tree, 1 minute.
1005: 2SB in evergreen top of next door garden – prob. same as 0958.
1008: 2 SB in small leafless tree, short time. Poss same.
1010: 1 SB in big trees at top of garden.
1015: 1 SB in small leafless tree, abt. 2 mins.
1016: 2 Blackbirds in small leafless tree, abt 1 min.
1017: Blackbird singing briefly, abt 1 min.
1018: 2 SB in big trees at top of garden.
1019: 1 Great Tit in tree near my house, briefly.
1025: 1 SB in big trees at top of garden.
1030: BirdWatch I ended.

Well; there are some small birds about after all! But just one visit to the bird feeder and one to the bird table seems pretty scant for a whole hour. Perhaps there is indeed plenty of other food about?

BirdWatch II – 11th November 2017.

We decided to check our findings, so went for a short walk along a nearby canal, just sauntering slowly along & keeping an eye (and ear) open for Small Birds. This stretch of canal at Halesowen goes for just over a quarter of a mile until it comes to the Gosty Hill tunnel. We took odd shots with the camera & kept stopping, so it took 15 minutes to get to the tunnel. During that time we saw no Small Birds, and only heard a few desultory cheeps, just the once. So birds must be generally dormant or something. Starting back, we immediately saw one SB flying overhead, and a couple of minutes later, a male Blackbird flew across the canal, and sang very briefly after it had landed out of sight – the same as in our garden. We had nearly got back to the car before we saw two SBs hoppping about in a tree, but couldn’t identify them against the light. So the state of our garden is consistent with the bird-life of the canal, which as you can see, is entirely rural on the far side. On this side, there are plenty of trees & greenery, constituting a large hedge standing in between the tow-path and an industrial estate – deserted on a Saturday. I reiterate: where have they all gone?    


I’ve just had a brilliant idea… we went and Googled “Why aren’t there many birds in my UK Garden in November?” Perhaps we should have done that before?    8^)      It turns out, everything’s OK actually. This is indeed the ‘Doldrums time’ of garden bird-life. Some birds may have moulted & are growing new feathers & thus keeping a low profile, and there are certainly plenty of seeds & berries about still, as the weather has been consistently mild – just a couple of light frosts a week or so ago. And in any case, birds naturally prefer their natural foods to the ones we provide. So everything’s OK, really. Phew!