Swallow

They are the Red Arrows of the fields with their red, white, and blue markings. To think they have been on safari in Africa with elephants and giraffes before coming here is awesome. Hearing their happy, chatty, twittering call not only lifts your spirits but heralds that summer is on the way. They are birds of open rural countryside - rare in urban spaces.

The Swallow is a sleek, slender bird with a deeply forked tail. They have a dark blue back, off-white underparts, a deep red face, and blue-black chest band. Their tails have long thin streamers whose length depends on their age and nobility. The tail has white spots underneath that are sometimes visible in flight. The wings are long and pointed. They love flying low over fields and water. When perched on branches, wires or TV aerials, they are very chatty with a liquid, happy, twittering call.

Swallows feed almost exclusively on flying insects like bluebottles, house flies, bees, hover flies, mayflies, flying ants, and moths which they catch on the wing. They have two foveae in each eye, giving them sharp lateral and frontal vision to help track their prey, and strong jaws with a wide gape to catch them. In poor weather, they will feed more over lakes and reservoirs. Their moult (feather change) is slow so it doesn't interfere with the ability to fly and catch insects.

Nesting starts from April, in barns or outhouses. The nest is a cup built from mud and lined with feathers and grass. Previous years' nests are often reused and the same pair of Swallows will return to the same site year after year. The 3-6 eggs hatch after 15 days. The young Swallows fly after 20 days and are fed for a further week. A brood of young Swallows needs about 6000 flies a day to survive. There are usually two broods and sometimes three. That is a lot of flies to catch! Farmers' use of insecticides to kill insects on their fields had a devastating impact on Swallows, but now many of these chemicals are banned and the Swallow population is stable. The loss of old buildings where they can nest is also a big worry, so put up a Swallow box!

The Swallow is a summer migrant, arriving in April and going by October. They migrate by day, feeding as they fly (most other birds feed during daytime and migrate at night). It takes about 6 weeks to get to Africa and about 4 weeks to get back. They often travel in tour groups with House Martins. In ancient times, when Swallows disappeared in winter, people thought they hid at the bottom of lakes.

There are 800,000 pairs in Britain. Their Latin name is 'hirundo rustica' where 'hirundo' is the Latin word for 'swallow' and 'rusticus' means 'of the country'. Americans call them Barn Swallows.

Swift

Swifts are the supersonic fighter planes of birds. The scimitar winged aerial masters. They can cruise at 26 mph, their default speed, but in screaming parties they can get competitive and by radically altering their aerodynamic, can get up to speeds of 69 mph. This makes them the fastest bird recorded in straight and level flight. Like a supersonic fighter, they can even hold this speed when flying upwards with the afterburners on. Only Peregrine falcons are faster, but they cheat by using gravity to add to their speed when in a stoop.

A Swift is all sooty brown that looks black from a distance (as you usually see them high up or disappearing in the distance). They have a pale throat and stiff, narrow scythe like wings. The tail is forked. Their tiny legs (undercarriage) are forward pointing so they can only hang onto a rough surface and are unable to grasp a perch so you will not see them on wires or branches, only in squadrons excitedly screaming across the sky. 

Swifts feed on insects including flying beetles, flies, hover flies, moths, butterflies, flying ants, lacewings, and airborne spiders, catching up to 10,000 a day! When flying around in Central and Southern Africa, Swifts will range widely in search of food and also to avoid storms.

Swifts arrive in early May and are gone by August. As time is short, they nest soon after arriving. They breed in old buildings with access to the roof space or cracks in cliff faces. They make a shallow cup of straw and other material that has been gathered while flying. They lay only 2-3 eggs which hatch after 19 days. The young can fly at 42 days once they have finished flight school. The young pilots are independent on leaving the nest and migrate off to Africa within days in their smart uniforms. Incredibly, they remain airborne for the first 2 years of their flying career before settling down to nesting themselves. Swifts can even sleep while flying! Swifts are totally aerial except when on their nests.

There are 80,000 pairs of Swifts in Britain, but this number is declining mainly through loss of nest sites as modern houses have no access to their roof space like old houses and even old houses are being modernised. It is important to fit Swift bricks and nest boxes to help them. Their Latin name is ’apus apus’ which  is derived from the Greek ’apous’ meaning ‘footless’, a reference to their small, weak legs. Swifts are often depicted without feet in old paintings, pottery and heraldic shields.

Tawny Owl

The Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in Britain and can be found anywhere there are old trees in which to nest, including towns. They are the silent assassins being noiseless in flight. In myths, the Tawny Owl is often associated with bad luck and death. It is often featured on the soundtracks of horror movies with its “twit-hoo-woo” call. Things are not looking good for you if a Tawny Owl calls your name.

The Tawny is a plump woodland owl the size of a Wood Pigeon. It is mottled brown with softly streaked feathers. The under parts are slightly paler. The wings are broad, and there is a short rounded tail. The face is surrounded by a ring of dark feathers and has dark eyes which look friendly and wise. The female is a little larger than the male. The Tawny rarely flies in daylight, and the flight is fast, direct, and deadly silent. By day it roosts in holes in trees close to the trunk or in ivy. The Tawny is remarkably difficult to see as their camouflage is so good. In addition to the owl call we all know, there is also a loud, sharp “Kewick” contact call.

The Tawny Owl feeds on small animals like voles, mice and shrews, insects, worms and small birds silly enough to be out at night. It relies on knowing its hunting territory very well (‘the knowledge’) and checks each part every night. Their excellent vision, well-developed hearing, and silent flight are perfect for nighttime hunting.

The Tawny Owl nests in holes in trees with “owl” carved above them or in specially made owl nest boxes. Nesting starts in February-March. The 2-5 eggs hatch after 28 days. The flightless young owlets leave the nest at 25 days and sit on a branch looking cute until they can fly a week later. For the first 3 weeks mum looks after the kids while dad does all the hunting. Once they are school aged, both parents hunt. They depend on their parents for 3 months as owl school is tough. Tawny Owls will defend their nest aggressively, even attacking human intruders, so stay clear. 

There are about 40,000 resident Tawny Owl pairs in Britain, with established pairs keeping the same territory. Young birds disperse in autumn to find their own patch, which is when they are most vulnerable. Many young birds starve if they cannot find a vacant territory once parental care has ceased. The oldest ringed owl lived to 23 and was very wise. With the reduction in pesticides, Tawny’s are doing well. Their Latin name is ’strix aluco’ from the  Greek ’strix’ for ‘owl’ and the Italian ’allocco’ for ‘tawny owl’.

Carrion Crow

Carrion Crows, like undertakers, love to dispose of dead bodies (carrion) and hence their name. A group of Carrion Crows is called a ‘murder’ which is a brilliant description of an undertakers convention (and probably what it is like). They are anti-social birds keeping themselves to themselves or staying in pairs, though they can form small flocks when looking for bodies in parks or on beaches. Like other crows, they show intelligent behaviour.

The Carrion Crow is all black and neater looking than a Rook with a broad crown, curved black bill, black feet, and short looking head with a flat low forehead. When flying the wings are oblong, broadening at the tip, and the tail looks square. The wings are held straight in their sedate, straight flight with little soaring.

The Carrion Crow calls when perched or in flight with a hard edged “kaarr”. They usually repeated their call several times in succession, compared to a Rook who calls only once. The Carrion Crow’s call can sound malevolent, which is its function, saying “I am master of ceremonies here.”

Like other crows, the Carrion Crow will eat just about anything: insects, grain, small animals, carrion, and even shellfish, which they drop onto roads or rocks to open. They feed on the ground and walk or hop when finding their food. They are scavengers by nature so enjoy rubbish tips for a bit of tasty household waste. Carrion Crows will also harass birds of prey or even foxes to pinch their kills and get a dead body. Both birds build the nest of sticks lined with softer plant material high in a tree, a tall building or even a pylon. They do not nest in colonies like Rooks. The 2-7 eggs hatch after 18 days and the young can fly 32 days later. The youngsters become fully independent after a further 3-5 weeks once they can croak psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) and follow a hearse. The parents are very protective of their kids and will actively harass predators and competitors that enter their territory who threaten them or their offspring, engaging in mobbing behaviour to defend themselves.

The Carrion Crow is a sedentary resident with 1 million pairs found everywhere from towns to remote islands and their numbers are stable. Their Latin name is ‘corvus corone’ which comes from the Latin ‘corvus’ meaning ‘raven’ and the Greek ’korone’ meaning ’crow’.

Rook

Rooks always look a bit mean, like the Ebenezer Scrooge of birds. You can just see them in fingerless gloves, stingily sharing out any food. A group of Rooks is called a parliament which clinches it. Like other crows, they are intelligent, with complex behavioural traits and an ability to solve simple problems like double-entry book-keeping.

Slightly smaller than a Carrion Crow, the Rook has an all-black plumage with an iridescent sheen when seen up close. The key identifying feature is the grey-white skin at the base of its long, pointed beak, as if he was too much of a skinflint to pay for an all black beak like the Carrion Crow's. The Rook has a 'peaked' crown that is more noticeable when they are agitated and a 'baggy trouser' look to the feathers around its legs. Rooks are very sociable birds and are rarely seen on their own (hence the old adage, "One be crow, two be rooks"). In winter, they feed and roost in large flocks, often together with Jackdaws. In flight, their wing tips are 'fingered' and the base of the wing narrows where it joins the body. The tail is wedge-shaped. Their flight tends to be direct and purposeful.

Rooks have a raucous "caw" or "kaah" call and it is usually spoken in singles (unlike a Carrion Crow which calls in threes and fours - think one 'R' in Rook and three 'Rs' in Carrion Crow). Rooks are as vocal as they are social, living in large rookeries of tens, sometimes hundreds of nests at the top of tall trees. The largest known rookery in Aberdeenshire contained over 2000 nests!

Rooks will eat almost anything, including worms, grain, nuts and insects, small mammals, birds (especially eggs and nestlings) and carrion. Foraging mostly takes place on the ground, with the birds striding or hopping about and probing the soil with their powerful beaks. In more urban areas, they will eat human food scraps from rubbish dumps and off the streets, usually in the early hours or at dusk when it is relatively quiet. They will peck open garbage sacks when out scavenging to find anything they can for free. Rooks have even been trained to pick up litter at a theme park in France (but wanted to be paid for it).

Male and female Rooks pair-bond for life and the pairs stay together within the flocks. They normally build their nests in February or March, but may start as early as January. The male selects the nest site and begins building before the female joins in. Nests are built high in the trees of a rookery and made of twigs and branches held together with mud and tufts of grass and lined with moss and leaves. Twigs are broken off trees or pinched from nearby nests, whichever is cheapest.

Typically, 2-5 eggs are laid, hatching after 16 days. The youngsters will stay in the nest for just over a month until they can fly. They continue to be fed by both parents for 6 weeks. Rooks can gather food for their young and store it in a special pouch under their bill so nobody can steal it.

There are 1.2m pairs of Rooks in Britain and the number is increasing as they are no longer persecuted by farmers (who now know that the insects the Rooks feed on are harmful to their crops). The northern Rook population migrates south in winter. In North Scotland, Rooks leave the uplands because it is too cold to stay there without wearing a kilt, which costs too much. The Rook's main requirement for living accommodation is tall trees, so they can be found just about anywhere except built-up, treeless city areas. The oldest known Rook lived to be 20 years old.

Their Latin name is 'corvus frugilegus' where 'corvus' means 'raven', and 'frugilegus' means 'fruit-gathering'. It is derived from 'frux' or 'frugis', meaning 'fruit', and 'legere', meaning 'to pick'. The English-language common name 'Rook' is ultimately derived from the bird's harsh call (if you say it in a funny way, with an outrageous country accent).

Jackdaw

The Jackdaw, with his grey hood and black cap, can look a bit like the magistrate of the birds, though in fact he is more of a thief, with his love of pinching shiny things.

Smaller than a Carrion Crow, the Jackdaw is a stocky bird with a grey 'hood' and steely grey eye.  They are most often seen in pairs or flocks known as a "clattering" and usually mixed up with Rooks or Starlings, like a black bird brotherhood. They form communal roosts and can be found anywhere from farmland to the seashore. Their main call is "Jack", like their name, and they say it as if happy or excited. In fact, Jackdaws have a complicated system of communication using combinations of different postures and calls. They are highly intelligent, so getting into your bird feeder for a snack is child's play. The Jackdaw's flight is light and agile. The wing 'fingers' rarely show, so the wings look rounded at the end when compared to a Rook or Carrion Crow.

The Jackdaw feeds mainly on the ground and walks or hops along while eating insects, grain, seeds, fruit, berries, eggs and even young birds. They are happy to scavenge on rubbish tips and will eat most human scraps from a bird table. They are not fussy eaters but have dreadful table manners and will hide food to enjoy later.

Jackdaws are very loyal and will pair up with a lifelong mate, snuggling up to one another on the nest and preening each other. When ready to start a family, they both build the nest which is made of sticks lined with wool, hair or other soft material. They nest with other Jackdaws in loose colonies, usually in trees, but they can use cliffs, the tops of buildings, or a comfy chimney - which is annoying when they block yours (and why chimneys are fitted with cowls). The female incubates the 4-6 pale blue-green darkly speckled eggs for 18 days. Both parents feed the young which remain in the nest for 32 days before they can fly. It is a further week before the youngsters can fly well enough to strut their stuff on the rubbish tip.

Jackdaws are both resident and migratory, moving south from the bleaker upland areas of Britain, joining their Northern Continental cousins who pop over in the winter and go home in spring. This is why there seems to be more in winter. There are 1.4 million pairs in Britain and the numbers are increasing. The oldest ringed Jackdaw lived to be 14.

The Jackdaw's Latin name is 'corvus monedula' where 'corvus' means 'raven' and the 'monedelua' part comes from their liking of bright shiny objects. It is derived from the Latin for 'money'. Some Italian thieves once exploited this and trained a tame Jackdaw to steal money from cash machines! So a Jackdaw is a money raven. The jury is out on where their English name came from. Some say the 'Jack' part comes from 'Jack' meaning rogue while others say it is from the sound of their call.

An ancient Greek and Roman adage runs "The Swans will sing when the Jackdaws are silent", meaning that educated or wise people speak only after the foolish have become quiet. It is a bit mean to call an intelligent bird like the Jackdaw uneducated. In some cultures, a Jackdaw on the roof is said to predict a new arrival; while in others, a Jackdaw settling on the roof or flying down a chimney is an omen of death. In the Fens, seeing a Jackdaw on the way to a wedding is a good omen for a bride, but Fen people have always been a bit odd.

Common Buzzard

Buzzards, like Red Kites, have also been making a comeback after persecution by gamekeepers and pesticides severely affecting them. They also suffered a decline in the 1950s when large numbers of rabbits, their favourite food, died from myxomatosis. 

Usually seen singly or in pairs, they are larger than a carrion crow and can be a bit variable in plumage but have a couple of giveaway traits. They have a slightly streaky brown back, paler underparts and a hooked beak you don’t want to mess with. They can have a faint pale crescent on the breast. They are easier to recognise when flying with their short neck, broad ‘fingered’ wings held in a v-shape, and a short barred tail held like a rounded fan. The wings are pale underneath with a clear back rear edge. The youngsters are paler and more streaky than the adults and the female is slightly larger than the male. As well as soaring and gliding on their wide v-shaped wings, they can hover like a kestrel using slow wing beats. Although they are mainly seen when flying, Buzzards are a bit lazy and spend a lot of time perched on posts or trees, ready to swoop down on any prey that is silly enough to get too close. Their cat like mewing call  ‘meee-ooo’ can be heard all year and especially on sunny days.

For a Buzzard, if it moves and is not too big they will eat it. They feed on small mammals (like voles), insects, worms, and carrion (dead animals), but their favourite food is a tasty young rabbit.

Buzzard builds their nest in trees or on crags. The nest is made of sticks lined with bracken and moss. A pair of Buzzards will often re-use the same nest over many years. In April/May, 2-4 eggs are laid at 2-day intervals and hatch after 35 days with mum doing the bulk of the egg sitting while dad gets the bunny takeaways. The young are fed in the nest until they can fly 50 days later. They stay dependent on mum and dad for food for a further 40 days until they have got the hang of skinning a rabbit.

The Buzzard is mainly resident and found in cultivated country and wooded upland valleys. The young usually keep within a 50km radius of mum and dad so they can pop home at weekends for a good rabbit stew and a chin wag on a post. There are about 50,000 pairs in Britain. The Latin name is ’buteo buteo’ which means ‘buzzard buzzard’, science being highly original with the naming again.

Red Kite

The Red Kite is rusty red with dark streaks and a pale head. They have a noticeably forked tail, long narrow wings which usually held flat (unlike a Buzzard’s v-shape) that have pale patches at the end before the black wing tips. On their back, there is a faint diagonal pale stripe across the top of inner wing. The tail though is the giveaway.

The Red Kite’s call is more of a whistle compared to a Buzzard’s mewing call. It can almost sound like a builder’s wolf whistle, a “peeooo-weooo-weooo”. The Buzzard in contrast calls a single “meeooo” which is repeated after a short break.

They hunt by circling high overhead until they spot something to eat. Their eyesight, like all raptors, is phenomenally better than ours! They are top predators and have a varied diet, eating both live and dead prey. Their bill is not strong enough to penetrate tough skin, so they are unable to take any large prey. When catching live prey, the kites will dive from the air (or drop from a post) feet first to catch them. Their diet consists of some small mammals (rats, voles, mice, young rabbits), birds (crows, pigeons),  earthworms, amphibians (like frogs), but mainly carrion (already dead animals) like road kill, dead sheep and game birds. Red kites were common in medieval London, even being referenced several times in Shakespeare’s plays. For many years, gamekeepers and farmers, seeing kites eating their animals, assumed the kites had killed them and nearly persecuted the birds to extinction.

Nesting starts in late March. A large nest made of twigs in the fork of a tall tree in a wood or copse.  The male brings the twigs while the female neatly arranges them. The female often decorates the nest with rags, plastic bags, and even underwear pinched from washing lines! Ladies are so much better at home making than men. A pair of Red Kites may reuse the same well decorated nest of several years. Both birds incubate the eggs, though the female more than the male. The 1-3 eggs are laid at 3-day intervals and hatch after 31 days (a long time). The youngsters only fly after a further 50-70 days and are fed by the parents for another 20 days. With taking such a long time, they raise only one brood in each year.

The 2,500 pairs of Red Kites are largely resident. The young birds can wander widely in spring to find their own patch. Their Latin name is ‘milvus milvus’  which means ‘red kite red kite’. Not very original for something so magnificent. 

Skylark

The Skylark has inspired so many poets and so many verses because the song is truly exceptional and because nobody but a dullard could miss it cascading down from the sky on a sunny day. The Skylark is the master of circular breath control, flying and singing for minutes at a time without a pause.

About the size of a Starling, the Skylark has a brown-streaked back, pale underparts, a streaked breast and a short crest that can be up or down so don’t rely on it to identify them. They have broad wings with a noticeable pale back edge, and white outer tail feathers. The wings can look almost triangular in flight. They blend in with the ground and can be very difficult to see until they suddenly fly off from feet away.

The non-stop singing while flying is what this bird is all about. It is to demonstrate how fit they are to all the girls. They can sing for 10-15 minutes while rising vertically higher and higher in the sky until they become the merest dot. It is an unbroken, burbling doodle of notes with frequent quick repetitions and fast trills, laced with a bit of mimicry just to show off. They fall rapidly back to the ground once done. They love singing in the sun, even when it is windy, which is why we think of them as the sound of summer.

When not showing off, the Skylark spends most of the time walking on the ground in wide open spaces away from hedges and trees so all his adoring fans can see him for autographs. Out of singing season, the Skylark’s call is a ‘chirrup’ and can easily be confused with that of a sparrow, particularly as they all look brown from a distance. There may be more Skylarks around than you think.

Skylarks eat insects, seeds and some leaves like nettles and docks (for vocal strength like Popeye). These are foraged from the ground. 

They nest on the ground in a small depression lined with grass. The female Skylark sits on the 3-5 eggs, which hatch after 11 days. The young leave nest after 8 days and learn to walk before they can sing while being schooled and fed by mum and dad. They fly after 15 days and are dependent on their parents for another week. With such a fast turn round of potential Pavarotti’s, Skylarks can have up to 3 broods in a year.

In autumn, northern Skylarks come south and west to feed on arable fields and can form large flocks called an ‘exultation’ (which is a perfect way to describe them). The Skylark is a common resident with about 1.5 million pairs and is one of the most widespread breeding birds in Britain. They can be found in all types of open areas including farmland, salt marshes, dunes, rough ground, and even urban spaces. They are only missing from the tops of high mountains where there is no one around to hear them. There used to be even more Skylarks, but changes in farming practices have affected breeding success and halved the numbers in the last 20 years. In the distant past, they were trapped for food and for their tongues as lark’s tongue was considered a delicacy (how horrid).

The Skylark’s Latin name is ‘alauda arvensis’ where ‘alauda’ means lark and ‘arvensis’ means of the field. So, confusingly, a field lark. Science can be weird.

Magpie

The Magpie is a handsome, long-tailed, black and white bird normally seen singly or in pairs. They are the Al Capones of the neighbourhood and are widely considered to be very intelligent. The Magpie's head and breast are a dull black, the wings a glossy deep blue, while the long wedge-shaped tail is dark with hints of green, blue and purple. It has a big white shoulder patch, a white belly and white wing tips. A true, old style, well-dressed gangster in his spats. They tend to keep their distance, in case you are the 'law', so it is hard to see their wonderful iridescent colours. They have a gravelly, chattering song like an old-fashioned football rattle. Telling you to back off if you know what's good for you.

Like all gangsters, the Magpie has a simple hunting style. They just look around the neighbourhood for something to eat and soon learn the places that will let them eat for free. Being a hard man, they will eat just about anything including insects, fruit, seeds, carrion (dead animals and road kill), eggs, small birds (who haven't paid their protection money), and even dog poo (you don't mess with someone who eats poo!) The Magpie will store food by hiding it and are very good at remembering where it is, and where you live. They walk and hop with a swagger along the ground when looking for food (and victims). Like all mobsters, the Magpie is partial to a bit of bling and will often take shiny things to put in the nest. Their liking for eggs and young birds has not made the Magpie a big fan with gamekeepers.

Both birds help build the substantial domed nest made of twigs, branches and mud with an entrance at the side (well, you have to have a flashy house when you are a big cheese). They position the nest high up in a tree or tall bush and line it with softer material. The 3-9 eggs are laid from late March onwards and hatch after 21 days. The youngsters can fly after 24 days but usually hang around with 'the family' for a month or more.

Magpies generally stay on their patch, not moving far afield into other gang territory. The Magpie is a member of the crow family, but it ends there. They have an ongoing turf war with their brothers, the Carrion Crow, which they hate (even though the Carrion Crow generally wins). In winter, Magpies can form large flocks of up to 100 birds though more typically 5-25 birds called a parliament (or alternatively a mob).

They are a widespread, common resident with about 600,000 pairs in Britain. The oldest known ringed bird (the 'godfather') lived to be 21 years old. The number of Magpies are on the increase as they spread into urban areas for richer pickings.

The Magpie's Latin name is ’pica pica’ which means 'magpie magpie' (just to make the point). The English name comes from 'mag' short for Margaret, an old slang term for a chattering woman, and pie from pied meaning multi coloured. You will swim with the fishes, though, if you ever call them a noisy old hag.