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Why have all the birds disappeared from my garden and where have they gone?
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.
No birds in your garden? Here’s why they’ve stopped coming
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bird Migration Calendar
You can keep track of which birds migrate at different times of the year and some of the other reasons they may have disappeared from your garden with our bird migration calendar:
Where do birds go when they migrate from the UK?
Around half of our UK species stay with us throughout winter, finding food and sheltering from the elements wherever they can. The other half, however, pack their bags and set off for warmer climes.
Where they go depends on the species. Ospreys, for example, swap Scotland and Rutland for west Africa. Many chiffchaffs follow a similar route as they winter in Senegal, although they can be found anywhere between there and Spain. West Africa, it seems, is a popular choice: cuckoos, redstarts and turtle doves also head there once winter comes.
Undoubtedly one of the most famous bird migrations is undertaken by the swallow, which makes it all the way down to South Africa. The arctic tern, however, has the longest migratory route of all – up to 22,000 miles from its breeding grounds in the northern British Isles down to Antarctica.
Where have all the starlings gone?
In general, scientists believe the UK’s breeding population of starlings dropped by around 50% between 1972 and 1998, with the decline most likely caused by modern farming practices. Although hundreds of thousands of starlings migrate to the UK each year, adding to our resident population, the number of visiting birds has been falling.
If you notice a sudden drop in numbers around the neighbourhood, they might have been migrants returning to eastern Europe. Of course, birds of prey (particularly sparrowhawks) and other predators could also have an effect. Or it might just be that their young have flown the nest and your starlings have moved out to the countryside.
Why have all the sparrows disappeared from my garden?
Sparrows don’t migrate. In fact, they don’t ever go very far at all – they usually stay within a mile or so of their birthplace. So it can be puzzling when they seem to vanish overnight. And since they are highly sociable birds, a sparrow disappearing act can also be strangely noticeable. You’ll certainly have a much quieter garden without them.
Opportunistic birds of prey could be to blame. After all, hunting sparrows is how sparrowhawks got their name. Or it could be a more familiar animal scaring sparrows away and, potentially, killing them: cats.
Whether it’s cats or something else preying on your sparrows, it’s a good idea to move any bird feeders high enough off the ground to avoid cats and other hunters. That way they can feed in peace and, hopefully, come back to see you.
The role of predators
Unfortunately, our feathered friends often fall victim to predators. These can include magpies, starlings, birds of prey, squirrels and, of course, pet cats. Cat owners will testify that some cats make regular offerings of dead birds.
It’s not just adult birds being killed by predators; you can also find your garden bereft of birds if a particularly prolific egg thief has been at work.
You can help to protect garden variety birds by placing bird feeders out of the reach of cats. Nest boxes, with their small openings, also offer birds refuge from predators.
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