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Birds missing from gardens when berries reign

Where have all my birds gone?

By

13th September 2013

A common topic of conversation when we’re talking to customers in early autumn; ‘Where have all my birds gone?’ We get similar questions throughout the year (summarised at the foot of this article) but the main topic today is the apparent absence of birds from our gardens from mid-September to late autumn.

Firstly don’t panic, nothing’s gone wrong. The birds are simply following the natural seasons, food availability and their natural behaviour. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, birds can suffer real food shortages during the summer months at a time most vital to them- the breeding season. Wet weather or a late spring, can all mean a lack of insects to forage for when the trees and hedgerows have long since been stripped of berries and seeds. So birds turn to our gardens in huge numbers to supplement their diet and even bring fledglings directly from the nest to the feeder.

blackbird in garden

However, as the breeding season winds down, the end of summer produces a glut of fruit, berries, seeds and nuts and insect life hits its peak. Our birds are for a short period, spoilt for choice and the pressure to fly great distances searching for food is removed and the bird traffic to our feeders slows accordingly.

Moulting robins hide in the garden

The other major consideration to factor in, is the imminent onset of the moult. This is a natural process that most animals including wild birds go through in the autumn. The stresses placed on birds throughout the breeding season, leaves them with shabby and dishevelled feathers that need to be replaced. However, unlike their animal cousins, this presents wild birds with serious consequences. How do you change your feathers when you need them to fly? Wild birds have overcome this problem by a progressive moult, meaning they shed flight feathers in an organised way. Only a small percentage of feathers are released at any one time, ensuring the bird can continue to fly throughout the process. As a direct result of this the birds moult over an extended period and this compromises their agility, making them shy and reluctant to be seen in the open until the process is complete. Instead preferring to remain under cover in trees and bushes out of sight of threats and potential predators. So while many birds may still be in and around our gardens they remain unseen and avoid our feeders and bird tables.

You can look forward to the birds returning as the seasons roll on, the days get shorter and the moult is complete. Returning in numbers to your bird feeders and bird tables, picking up where they left off, enjoying a lovely and reliable source of bird food. Later to be joined in the winter months by many more migrating cousins from as far away as Russia, Scandinavia and Greenland.

Goldfinches on feeder in snow

Here’s our handy checklist of common reasons for birds abandoning gardens…

1.    Autumn – Natural moulting time and food glut.
2.    Spring – Breeding birds may be sitting on eggs.
3.    Sudden/Anytime – Sparrow hawk or cat patrolling the garden?
4.    Hot Weather – Birds need to eat just to maintain body temperature. In warm weather they simply need to eat considerably less.
5.    No bird song – The dawn and dusk choruses start in early spring but by summer it has stopped. The loss of song does not mean a loss of birds.
6.    Sudden/Anytime – Have you made any changes in the garden i.e. a new bird feeder, garden ornament, rotary washing line, etc? Birds are highly neophobic, meaning they dislike anything new. It may take weeks before birds accept new or changed items in the garden as safe. 
7.    Autumn/Winter – Many of our wild garden birds will migrate south and west during bad weather leaving gardens quiet until they are replaced by birds from the north or from overseas.
8.    Sudden Flocks – Some birds, for example starlings in summer and goldfinches in winter can descend on gardens in large flocks. Then just as suddenly as they arrive they are gone leaving a big gap behind. This is all part of the natural cycle of bird behaviour and doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong.


Related Internet Links:
RSPB Where are the Birds
BBC Winterwatch Missing Birds

Ark Wildlife is not responsible for the content of external websites


  1. Amanda Winter says:

    I've just put a shelter up,over my bird station,&now the birds don't come,what can I do.

    1. Ark Wildlife says:

      Hi Amanda
      Birds are naturally neophobes maning the are afraid of anything new. Sadly being food to a lot of other animals means they need tobe very, very wary creaures. Moving or changing a feeder in the garden can put them off until one or two braver (or hungrier)individuals take a chance and prove the feeder is safe to use for the others. Be patient and we're sure your birds will return. If not, take down the shelter until they feed again and try moving it closer to the feeder over a period of a week or so and hopefully this will let them get used to the new intrusion to their feeding area.

  2. Lyn says:

    We have starlings coming to feed in the garden every day and at least 13 fledglings but yesterday none came and today the same. Nothing has changed in the garden. Any ideas why? It’s never happened before.

    1. Ark Wildlife says:

      Hi Lyn
      Starlings typically mob the garden when they have young on the nest and as they fledge. Filling the garden with screaming hungry birds and then suddenly gone! As soon as the fledglings bcome independant, starling move out to the wider countryside and then on to winter feeding and roosting sites. We suspect this is what's hppened in your garden. If the young were still dependant, the other liely suspect would be a sparrowhawk with it's own young to feed patrolling your garden for an unsuspecting fledgling or two. We hope this helps and reassures you the birds will be OK and you've done nothing wrong.

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