Pied Wagtail

Pied means two (or more) colours. The Pied Piper of Hamlin was dressed in multi-coloured clothes. This fellow is less extravagant and essentially just black and white - like a dinner suit. The Pied Wagtail is the car park bird as that is where you see them most (on the ground, not driving). They are slightly larger than a sparrow, though they often don't look it. The upper parts, rump, chest and throat are black with a white face. The under parts are white. They have a fine black bill, and rather spindly black legs. Their tail is black with fine white edges which they wag constantly up and down to show how proud of it they are. The female has a dark grey back. Pied Wagtails in Britain are slightly darker than those found in Europe.

They utter a very recognisable "Chis-ick" flight call while bounding along. They love the open bare ground found near water like rivers, canals, lakes, ponds, sewage farms (ugh), and at motorway service stations!

The Pied Wagtail runs or flies to catch insects, especially flies, midges, and caterpillars. They are more abundant in the north in the summer as there are far more juicy midges up there, the ones with the big teeth. In the winter, the male wagtail will defend their winter feeding territory and will feed on seeds and even rubbish to survive.

In April, Pied Wagtails build their nest in a hole or building crevice. The female finishes it off by lining it with hair, wool and feathers. She lays 3-8 eggs which hatch after 12 days having been kept warm by both proud parents. They then feed the young, which fly after 14 days. The youngsters hang around for a few more days, enjoying family food, before finally leaving. There may be two broods, especially in the warmer south.

The Pied Wagtail is found throughout the UK but is most abundant in the north and west where there are a lot more midges. There are about 600,000 birds in Britain. The Pied Wagtail varies from being a long distance migrant in the north to a resident in the south, the north becoming deserted in winter as it is a bit cold to be wandering around only wearing a smart dinner suit. When it gets cold, large numbers of wagtails gather in carparks, or on flat roofs in towns, to form a communal roost. Up to 3,000 can gather together, which is quite a sight.

Their Latin name is 'motacilla alba' where 'motacilla' means tail mover and 'alba' means white. The British Pied Wagtail is a subspecies of the European White Wagtail which looks almost identical except it has a pale grey back and rump.


The Blackcap is many people's favourite songbird. John Clare (a poet born in Helpston near Peterborough) wrote a Blackcap poem and called it the March Nightingale. It is a bird that arrives and sings earlier than the Nightingale and is every bit as melodious. The Blackcap is a very cocky operatic tenor. A small, stocky woodland bird slightly smaller than a sparrow, although one of the larger warblers.

The male is plain grey brown above, paler below, with a rounded black cap (hence the name), and a squared off tail. He has a pale grey collar when looked at from the rear. The female is similar but has a reddish brown cap instead of black as she doesn't want to look like a puritan. Young Blackcaps are a duller version of mum.

Blackcaps are more often heard than seen as they tend to lurk in deep cover and only occasionally come to garden feeders. They like woodlands, copses, thickets and other bushy places including parks. Anywhere there are lots of places to hide. The Blackcap's song has rich, clear notes and is loud. This is someone who has clearly been trained to sing opera. The song can sound a bit like a speeded up Blackbird's, a lovely flutey warble with the odd buzzing note thrown in. Male Blackcaps can develop a signature tune and include phrases that mimic other birds, just to show them how it should be done. Their alarm call sounds like two pebbles being clicked together which is confusingly similar to the call of a Stonechat.

They eat insects such as caterpillars and beetles, moving on to fruit and berries (like holly and mistletoe) in the winter. They are opportunistic eaters when food is scarce, which is why they sometimes turn up on your garden feeder.

In April to May, the male builds several rough-and-ready nests low down in dense vegetation (such as brambles) from which the female chooses one to fashion into a delicate cup-shaped home. The female lays 4-6 eggs, which both birds help incubate. These hatch after 11 days. The proud parents then feed the young for 11 days until they fly away. They sometimes have 2 broods.

The Blackcap is a summer visitor. They get as far north as southern Scotland and a few hardy souls get all the way to Inverness. There are about 1 million birds, and their numbers have increased in recent years. A few Blackcaps over-winter in the south of Britain, now we are getting warmer winters. The rest head off to the Mediterranean for a bit of Flamenco singing and dancing in Spain. The oldest recorded Blackcap lived to be 10 years old, which shows that singing is good for you.

Their Latin name is 'sylvia atricapilla' where 'silvia' was the name of a woodland sprite and 'atricapilla' is from the Latin 'ater' for black and 'capillus', for hair. A black-headed woodland fairy. Fossils of the Blackcap have been found in several European countries; the oldest, dated to 1.2 million years ago!


In Zulu folklore, the Wren is the king of birds. The story goes that all the birds gathered together to discuss which of them should be king. They decided that the bird that flew the highest should take the crown. The eagle soared way above the other contestants – only to discover that a plucky little Wren had ridden on his back and launched itself above him at the last moment, to win. Finding itself accused of trickery on its return to earth, the Wren was held prisoner under the watchful eye of an owl. The Wren waited until its gaoler had nodded off and then escaped, spending the rest of eternity avoiding capture by darting from cover to cover and keeping hidden.

The Wren is one of Europe's smallest birds. It is found anywhere with low cover, including mountains! It is a tiny, dumpy, energetic little bird with a short tail that is often cocked up. Just don't call it dumpy or you will get a nasty stare. Wrens are dark brown with fine black bars, paler underparts, and a pale stripe over the eye. For its size, it has a relatively long dark bill, great for getting spiders out of crevices.

The Wren's call is a forceful trill that sounds like a machine gun, loud and fast, and heard coming from the undergrowth. It can fire over 100 rounds (notes) in 5 seconds, which is some bit of hardware. It is amazing that something so small can make so much noise. The Wren physically trembles with the effort. Occasionally, just to scare you, the Wren practices his machine-gunning call from a higher perch. They sing throughout the year to maintain their territories, and only when it is really cold will they come together in communal roosts to keep warm. Sometimes this is in a nest box which does for a good barracks. 63 Wrens have been found in a single box!

Their flight is fast and generally close to the ground. These are the little brown birds you see whizzing across the road from hedge to hedge and disappearing. The Wren constantly searches for food, hidden in the depths of hedges or bushes in his battledress camouflage. The main food is beetles and spiders, though they can be partial to a bit of cheese on the bird table.

Their chief breeding habitat is deciduous and mixed woods, especially alongside a stream. Nesting starts in the second half of April. The male builds several domed nests made of moss, leaves, and grass. The picky female then chooses one and lines it with something soft before laying her 5-8 eggs, which hatch after 16 days. The young fly after 17 days. They usually raise two broods.

There are 8 million territories in Britain. Their numbers can fall significantly after a harsh winter, though they quickly recover over the following years. There are separate local races of Wren on Shetland, Fair Isle, Outer Hebrides, and St Kilda, all wearing slightly different style uniforms. The oldest recorded Wren lived to be 6 years old.

The name 'wren' comes from an Anglo-Saxon word applied to people who were small, busy, quick, and energetic just like this little bird is. The British Wren's Latin name is 'troglodytes troglodytes' which comes from the Greek word 'troglodytes' ('trogle' a hole, and 'dyein' to creep) and means 'cave-dweller'. This is from their tendency to forage in dark crevices and commando crawl around under bushes.


He is the Scarlet Pimpernel with his pink breast and secretive nature. "They seek him here, they seek him there, they seek the finchy everywhere!". They can be found in thick bushes, orchards, and occasionally in gardens. You are most likely to see him flashing his white bum as he flies away to hide.

The Bullfinch is a plump bird with a short, neat, powerful black bill. The tail, wings and head are black though with a distinctive white rump. The male has a pinkish red breast (which could be why he is so shy) and the female has a browny-grey breast. There is a pale bar on their wings.

They have a very soft, "peu, peu" call that is seldom heard. Even rarer is their 'squeaky bicycle song' which consists of a string of simple notes that sound like a distant squeaky bicycle being wheeled slowly along.

The Bullfinch's main food is tree and fruit buds. They love ash tree buds in winter and fruit tree buds in spring, which they can snaffle at a rate of 30 a minute! They also eat small snails, which they can crack open with their powerful beaks. They are seldom seen feeding far from cover and normally feed directly off plants and, if you are really lucky, your bird feeder. This love of fruit buds is their downfall as it makes them very unpopular with farmers and gardeners. Some people consider the Bullfinch a pest. In the 16th century, Henry VIII condemned the Bullfinches eating of fruit on trees as a 'criminal act', and an Act of Parliament declared that one penny would be paid for every bullfinch trapped and killed!

Bullfinches are usually seen in pairs or family groups, not in flocks. They build their nest in a big, thick bush in May. It is made of twigs, moss and lichen. They lay up to 6 eggs which hatch after 12 days. The young can fly after 15 days but are fed by mum and dad for a further 20 days. Food is carried to the young in pouches in the bottom of the Bullfinch's mouth. There are two and sometimes three broods with parenthood finishing in July when they start to moult (change their feathers). Unlike a lot of birds, they stay the same colour, not changing to a duller winter coat.

The Bullfinch is mainly a local resident but can travel up to 28 kilometres to find a mate in the breeding season - or a juicier orchard. There are 200,000 pairs thinly distributed throughout Britain. Sadly, there has been a rapid decline in numbers over the last 25 years as there are now fewer orchards and suitably thick hedges. Their Latin name is 'pyrrhula pyrrhula' which is derived from Greek and means 'flame coloured' because of their pink breast which is why they hide in shame.


The male Greenfinch lives up to his name. Chunky looking with a large head and olive-green body. They are similar in size to a House Sparrow, like most of the finches. The wings are greeny brown with a yellow streak and there is also yellow on the edge of their forked tail. The female is duller but with the same yellow on the wings. In flight, the yellow on the wings is a dead giveaway.

The Greenfinch sings very wheezily, mainly from March to July, ending his phrases with a long "wheeeeeeeze" on account of smoking too much.

Greenfinches are usually seen feeding in small groups. In winter, they will form larger groups with other finches and sparrows for a fag and gas. The Greenfinch's large bill allows it to open seeds of various sizes, including peanuts from garden bird feeders. They are the king of seeds and will even take seeds from a farmer's cereal crop, yew trees, hornbeams, rose hips and brambles - they are such seed fanatics.

Greenfinches build a bulky nest in a thick shrub made of twigs, moss, and grass which is lined with wool and other soft material. They lay up to 6 eggs that hatch after 14 days. The young leave the nest after 15 days which allows them to easily fit in two broods if not three.

Once a common garden finch, their numbers have fallen since 2005 because of respiratory disease trichomonosis but are now stabilising (see what smoking does to you). They love places with trees and bushes. Churchyards are good. There are 530,000 in Britain. Over recent years, Greenfinches have moved more from farmland into towns, mainly because modern farm machinery does not leave many seeds on the ground for them to eat. There are no Greenfinches in the Scottish Highlands as it is too cold and they don't like whiskey with their cigarettes. There are more Greenfinches in the east and southeast as from there they can pop over the Channel for some handy duty free. Their Latin name is ’chloris chloris’ which means 'green green' (the same source for the word chlorophyll which is the colour in leaves and means 'green leaf').


The commonest of the pigeons, fatty Woodpigeon is largely blue grey with a small head, broad wings that have a white crescent which is clearly visible in flight, a white neck patch, a black band on the tail and a pinkish bulging chest. Their neck also has a green and purple sheen. The young Woodpigeon is similar but without the white on their neck.

It takes quite a lot of effort for the porky Woodpigeon to get airborne, and in so-doing their wings clap behind their backs as they try to create as much down-draught as possible. They can't fly through small gaps so they don't even try to and simply clatter through the leaves and branches making a big din. In some parts of the country the Woodpigeon has become known as the 'clatter dove' or 'fatso' for short. When in trees, they often sit motionless for hours (because they are so full) and then go and poo on your car.

The Woodpigeon shouts, "Take two bowls laddie, take two bowls laddie, take two!" to make sure they get enough to eat which is why the sparrows chase fatty pigeon off whenever they can. They are mainly veggie and love seeds, cabbage (ugh), clover, and peas. Farmers and gardeners don't like Woodpigeons because they eat all the seedlings and are a serious pest. They can travel long distances to find a decent menu.

Amazingly, they breed all the year round, though July to September is their favourite time when there is plenty of food around. They can nest just about anywhere, including McDonald's. The male shows off to the female by flying up into the air and clapping his wings before gliding back down with his tail spread. This might, if he is lucky, lead to a period of billing and cooing. They build a flimsy nest of twigs and lay one or two eggs which hatch after 17 days. The young (called squabs) are fed for the next 8 days on 'crop milk' (like the Collared Dove) which is extremely nutritious. The young are then left on their own as mum and dad have had enough of being parents and fancy going off for a good takeaway instead. The young finally fly at 30 days but this can be variable depending on whether the nest is disturbed. They normally have 2 broods as any more would interfere too much with chow time.

The Woodpigeon is resident all year and often moves about in big communal roosts, particularly in winter. These large flocks can be seen moving to feeding areas and McDonald's fly throughs. Some Scandinavian pigeons come over in the winter as the takeouts here are better. There are 5 million birds in Britain and the numbers are stable because, being big and fat, the Woodpigeon has few enemies which may account for their success. The Latin name is ’columba palumbus’ where ’palumbus’ means 'woodpigeon' (as opposed to ’plumbus’ which means lead i.e. heavy) and ’columba’ means to dive or to plunge headlong (from their courting display or the way they sometimes fly).

Collared Dove

The football supporter of birds. A big fan of 'the reds' and, when possible, hangs out at Old Trafford. The Collared Dove is a neat, soft plumaged sandy-grey dove with a narrow black collar (where the supporter's scarf has rubbed), The Collared Dove is found on TV aerials, roofs, and football stadiums. It is not found much in trees as the view of the pitch from there is rubbish. They loudly chant "U-nite-ed, u-nite-ed, u-nite-ed!". From below, when flying, they show a broad white band at the base of the tail. They are not big fans of city centres (as there are too many hooligans) or mountainous areas (as there aren't many pitches).

The Collared Dove feeds on the ground enjoying a mainly veggie diet of grain, berries and grasses, favouring oats on colder match days. They prefer feeding on a bird table to a bird feeder.

When showing off to the girls in their display flight, the Collared Doves fly up and then glide down on spread wings, doing a perfect footballer's dive.

The nest is a delicate, thin structure of twigs, so thin that you can sometimes see the eggs through it from below! They can lay eggs anytime from February to October, which is a long breeding season. The female lays only 2 eggs but, because of the long breeding season, may have up to 5 broods in a year. The young hatch after 14 days and fly after another 14 days. They go off to watch footie about a week later. The young are fed on 'crop milk' which the parents regurgitate from special glands in their crops (a pouch near their throat). This is what allows them to raise young for such a long period when food is more scarce.

The Collared Dove is now a common resident following a rapid spread across Britain in the second half of the 20th century. There are about 1 million birds in the UK which is quite a supporters' club! They came up from Spain and the east where they were once Barcelona fans and then saw the light. The oldest known bird lived to be 16 and saw no less than four European championships.

The Latin name is ’streptopelia decaocto’. ’Streptopelia’ sounds like a nasty bacteria but is from the Ancient Greek ’streptos’ meaning 'collar' and ’peleia’ meaning 'dove'. The ’decaocto’ bit is from the Latin for 'eighteen' (deca = 10, octo = 8). The number comes from a Greek myth. A maid was unhappy that she was only paid 18 pieces a year and begged the gods to let the world know how little her mean mistress rewarded her. Thereupon Zeus created this dove for her. She was a bit miffed when it then went off to watch the footie.

House Sparrow

The House Sparrow was originally from central Asia. They are found everywhere except Antarctica, where it is a bit too chilly even when wearing a good shawl. In Greece, Sparrows were symbols of true love and sacred to the goddess Aphrodite no less.

The House Sparrow has a short stubby bill, chestnut brown streaked upper parts, pale unmarked under parts, a brown head with a grey crown, a black throat, pale cheeks, and grey bum. They have a small white wing bar. A colourful dresser - if you like brown. The female and young are a bit duller and lack the male's grey crown. They have a frantic, looping flight before diving into the nearest hedge and becoming invisible apart for the racket they make.

The House Sparrow is hardly musical but very cheerful and chatty. They like a good knit and natter, and form a 'Sparrow Chapel' when flocks gather in their favourite bushes for a good gas. Their very distinctive "chirrup" makes House Sparrows easy to pick out from the other birds.

They are not fussy eaters and will try just about everything, including grain, insects, fat balls, bacon rind and bread crusts, enjoying a good buffet at social events. They hate pigeons and flocks of sparrows will often chase them off as who wants fatty pigeon eating all the food.

House Sparrow pairs usually stay together for life (to stop any tongue wagging). They nest in holes in buildings or in a tasteful nest box. They lay up to 5 eggs which are kept warm by both parents though the female does the larger share. The eggs hatch after 12 days and both parents feed the young. The young are ready to fly after 14 days and can feed themselves 7 days later, wanting to get to the 'all you can eat' buffet as soon as possible. House Sparrows can have up to 4 broods, which is pretty good going! The offspring generally stay in the neighbourhood as they a like to visit grandma and grandpa at weekends.

A widespread resident with 6 million pairs. They are mainly associated with human activity and tend to hang out in farms, houses, and gardens, anywhere where there is a good bit of gossip. For an unknown reason, sparrow numbers have been declining in recent years. Air pollution from cars is thought to be one possible cause. Their Latin name is ’passer domesticus’ which is 'sparrow belonging to a house' (like Ravenclaw).

Coal Tit

Not as big or as colourful as some of its relatives, the Coal Tit has a distinctive grey back, black head with white cheeks, and a white patch at the back of its neck. He doesn't wear a tie like the Great Tit. Who needs a tie when you have a neck patch? The under parts are buff and there are two small white bars on the grey wings but, being tiny to start with, these are nearly impossible to see. Their Irish cousins have a yellow tinge to their cheeks - from drinking too much Guinness. The Coal Tit's song is like a baby version of the Great Tit's, being much higher pitched and faster.

They love a good pine tree. Being small, light, active and agile, with a fine bill, they can rummage amongst the pine needles for juicy insects (the Great Tit is too heavy for this). They feed high in the tree canopy so the best place to see them, if you don't want to get neck ache, is on a bird feeder. Their main food is insects, though they also eat seeds. They will often take food from feeders to store for eating later.

The Coal Tit nests in a hole in a tree. A favourite nesting site is a hole in a rotting tree-stump, often low down, with the nest deep within. They will also use holes in the ground, burrows of mice or rabbits, chinks between the stones in walls, old nests of other large birds, and even squirrel dreys. The nest is made of moss, hair, and grass closely felted together, and lined with rabbit fur or feathers. Using old holes and rabbit fur comes with its problems. The Coal Tit has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of bird fleas reported from a single nest (5,754 fleas), so not too brilliant at housework. The female lays about 10 eggs, which hatch after 15 days (like other Tits). The youngsters are lazier though, and only leave the nest after 20 days. Surprisingly, after all this childcare, and fleas, the parents sometimes have a second brood.

There are about 750,000 pairs of Coal Tits in the British Isles. They have benefitted from the planting of pine forests and, unlike other Tits, have no problems with Scotland - and kilts. They don't move about much unless they are very hungry. In winter, they join in the communal fun with Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests. The Latin for Coal Tit is 'parus ater' which means 'tit dusky-black'.


The iconic sweet looking little fellow that appears on Christmas cards. Robins are far from sweet and nice. They are bold, ferocious warriors of the hedgerow, fiercely defending their territories, attacking other males and any competitors that stray too close. They can even get the hump for no reason and attack other small birds without provocation. There are instances of robins even attacking their own reflections. These guys are hard. The Vikings held them to be a storm-cloud bird sacred to Thor, the god of thunder. They curtsey, flick their wings and tail to give you a chance to back off before laying into you. Folklore has it that a Robin should never be harmed, which is not surprising if you know what's good for you.

The Robin is a plump bird (though don't dare call him fat) with a short neck, brown body, red breast and face, and white belly. Their eyes are large and prominent for giving you the hard stare. They have a fluty, wistful song which is slower and sadder in autumn and winter as there is nobody around to beat up. It consists of many short variable verses. They can be heard singing at night near streetlamps - when they have had a few down the pub. The best distinguishing feature is that their song often sounds as if they are singing two notes at once. They have a short break from singing in July while moulting, as who wants to draw attention to themselves when not looking as hard as nails. Their alarm call is a high pitched 'Tseee'.

The Robin normally hunts from a perch looking for movement or by hopping on the ground. They mostly eat insects and worms with some fruit and seeds in winter to help keep their strength up. The male and female have separate territories in winter, calling a spring truce for love. Their red breast is used in courtship (the redder the better for the girls) and to deter rivals (only a warrior wears red clothes).

A Robin's nest is made by the female and consists of grasses and leaves. It is built among tree roots, crevices, and any other useable gap such as a good Robin nest box (the ones without holes as holes are for sissies). They lay about six eggs in April, which hatch after 13 days. The young fly after 13 days and are cared for by both parents for 24 days before leaving. There are usually two broods. The young birds have no red breast and are spotted with golden brown. They delay getting their redbreasts so they are not beaten up by mum or dad.

Robins are abundant and widespread, with over 6.5 million breeding pairs. Most Robins stay local, though there is a little migration south-westwards in the autumn. Robins suffer in severe winter weather, so remember to put Robin food in the feeder and give them a warm nest box to use. The Robin was formerly classified as a member of the thrush family (a turdus), which was not at all cool, but are now considered to be in the flycatcher family which sounds much more fierce. The Latin name is 'erithacus rubecula' which means 'robin' as hard men don't have complicated names - Knuckles does just fine.