Egyptian Goose

Egyptian Geese were considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians and appeared in much of their artwork. They became popular in posh houses for looking pretty on their ornamental lakes and then escaped from Norfolk to spread across most of East Anglia and Southern England.

The Egyptian Goose is a good sized, sturdy goose that looks like it has had a bad make-up day. The male and female are identical with the male being slightly larger (not that you can tell). They are buff brown with a darker reddish brown back and pale grey underparts. There is a narrow neck band, dark mascara patch round the eye, and a dark spot on the breast. The wings are also dark with green and white patches, the white being very visible when flying. Their bill and feet are pink. Generally, the Egyptian Goose is silent. The male occasionally makes a husky wheezing call that sounds like a steam engine. The female sometimes makes a high pitched, unstoppable series of nagging "onk, onk, onk, onk!" Egyptian Geese are mainly vegetarians, to keep their figure, and feed on leaves, grasses and seeds.

The male Egyptian Goose attracts a female with an elaborate, noisy courtship that includes honking, neck stretching and feather displays. They mainly breed in posh parkland, reservoirs or lowland lakes, especially ornamental ones where they can look pretty. The nest is built in early spring from a mound of leaves and reeds. They are not too fussy where it is and can make it on a bank, in holes, or in trees (by using old nests of larger birds). They lay 8-9 eggs which hatch after 28 days. The young can soon feed themselves and are cared for by both parents. The youngsters can fly after 75 days, though the family stays together for months before they become fully independent. After all, it takes a while to learn how to put make-up on when you are a goose. Mum and dad are aggressively territorial when breeding and will frequently pursue intruders into the air, attacking them in aerial dogfights.

The Egyptian Goose is resident in Britain with about 2,500 breeding adults. Their Latin name is 'alopochen aegyptiacus' which comes from the Greek 'alopex' for 'fox' and 'chen' for goose because of the ruddy colour of their back. 'Aegyptius' is Latin for 'Egyptian'. Egyptian foxy goose is right for something that looks so exotic.


The colourful Shelduck is one of our largest ducks, growing as big as some geese. It can be found all around the coast on inlets and estuaries, and on reservoirs and gravel pits.

The Shelduck is black and white with a dark green head and neck. It has a chestnut band on its breast, a red bill, pink legs and a black-tipped tail. The males differ from the female by having a bigger red bulge at the base of its bill. The Shelduck's black wingtips and shoulders are obvious in flight and this helps tell them apart from other flying ducks. It is a fairly silent bird with the female occasionally giving a growling, "ark, ark, ark!" call.

They eat shellfish, shrimps, small fish, water plants, and other water insects from filtering mud and have specially adapted tooth-like projections on each side of their bills to do this. Their favourite food are tiny water snails called Hydrobia. They upend themselves to get at submerged food, showing off their black tummy, chestnut bum, and black-tipped tail.

Shelducks are monogamous and will mate for life. They are sociable birds and live in large flocks, leaving their young chicks in creches with just one or two adults to look after them. In April, they make a nest of grass or straw in an enclosed site like a rabbit burrow in a dune, under a building, or in a haystack. They lay 8-10 eggs which hatch after 29 days. Like other ducks, the young can feed themselves within hours of hatching. The parents soon dump their youngsters into a Shelduck creche, or play group, and fly off to the traditional moulting areas like Bridgewater Bay in Somerset. The moulting flocks can be very large (100,000 have been recorded on the Wadden Sea). While moulting, they are flightless for 4 weeks. Meanwhile, the youngsters left in the creche become independent after 20 days and can fly at 43 days. Until they can fly, the young Shelducks will dive under water to avoid predators while the supervising adults fly away, acting as a decoy.

There are 50,000 Shelducks in Britain. Their Latin name is 'tadorna tadorna' and comes from the French name 'tadorne'. This may originally have come from Celtic for 'pied waterfowl'. The English 'shelduck' also means 'pied duck'.

Tufted Duck

The Tufted Duck is our most widespread diving duck. It is smaller than a Mallard. The male is black with white sides and has a black drooping crest. The female is brown with pale brown sides. Both male and female have a light blue bill with a black tip, and yellow eyes. The female sometimes has white round the base of the bill which can make her look, confusingly, a bit like another duck called a Scaup. In flight there is an obvious white stripe that runs the length of the wing. During their moult, from June to October, they are flightless for 3-4 weeks and the male looks similar to the female. Male Tufted Ducks are generally silent while the female has a harsh rasping, "karr!" Another nagging lady duck.

The Tufted Duck dives with a distinctive jump. They feed on water plants, insects, shrimps, and fresh-water mussels (especially the zebra mussel) found at the bottom of lakes. They can dive to depths of 7m or more, which is some distance considering the size of the duck. Their feet are placed further back on their bodies, to help with swimming and diving, which makes walking on land difficult, so sensibly they don't.

The few noises a male Tufted Duck does make are bubbling giggles to attract a female in late winter or early spring. The pair then settle down to nesting in May at a suitable reservoir, lake, or gravel pit. They tend to avoid deep water unless it has shallow margins. The female builds a nest out of grasses lined with her down. Tufted Ducks will often nest in colonies so the ladies can have a good gas and bitch about their men as, like the Mallard, the male Tufted Duck leaves the area once child rearing starts and has little to do with it. The 8-11 eggs hatch after 25 days and the youngsters feed themselves on midge larvae. They can fly 45 days later. The female often leaves her young before then, so neither mum nor dad are the best of parents.

There are about 20,000 breeding pairs in Britain which swell to 120,000 in winter with ducks from Northern Europe, forming large flocks outside of the breeding season. Tufted Ducks are widespread in Britain though scarcer in Wales as, being diving ducks, they don't like welsh cakes or lava bread.

The Latin name is 'aythya fuligula' from the Greek 'aithuia' an unidentified seabird mentioned by Aristotle and the Latin 'fuligo' for 'soot' and 'gula' for 'throat'. So unidentified seabird with a sooty throat. We call them Tufties.


Our most familiar duck and the most widespread duck in the world. The Mallard is the ancestor of the white farm duck. It has been domesticated for over 2000 years and has been eaten for food since ancient times. It is found on lakes, ponds, slow flowing rivers, reservoirs, marshes, just about anywhere with a bit of water and people with bread.

The male 'drake' is the more colourful. He has a dark green head, mainly grey body with black curly upper tail feathers, a white neck ring, purple brown breast, and yellow bill. The female is brown with darker mottling, dark brown crown, dark eye stripe, pale breast, and orange bill. Her colouration is to make her well camouflaged when rearing young. Young Mallards initially look like mum as they need to hide too. Both male and female have an iridescent blue square edged with white on their wings, which is useful to tell them apart from other ducks (Teal have a green one and Gadwall have a white one). In flight, the dark blue on the wing is easy to see together with two parallel white stripes. A Mallard can take off straight out of the water which is good for a quick escape or to grab a crust. Their call is the familiar "quack!" The male's call is more gentle while the female's is harsh and nagging to show she is boss.

The Mallard is omnivorous and very flexible in its choice of food. It will eat vegetation on water and land, insects, small fish and bread. It gets much of its food on or near the surface of the water so is called a 'dabbling duck' as opposed to the Tufted Duck which is a 'diving duck'.

Mallards usually form pairs in October and November, and stay together over winter until the female lays eggs at the start of the nesting season, which is around the beginning of March. At this time she is left by the male who joins up with other males for a big bachelor party to await the moulting period, which begins in June. Mallards are flightless for 4-5 weeks while they moult and the male resembles the camouflaged female except he keeps his yellow bill.

Their nest is a shallow depression ringed with grass, reeds or twigs and hidden amongst vegetation. The lonely female incubates the 9-13 eggs which hatch after 27 days and the ducklings can swim, dive and feed themselves within a day. The youngsters become independent after 50 days. There is usually only one brood. The males you see hanging around females with chicks are usually hopeful singles who will step in if the brood fails and the female decides to try for a second one.

There are 100,000 breeding pairs in Britain, but this increases to over 700,000 individuals in winter as many North European Mallards come here as our bread is better. The Mallard is protected during the breeding season but at other times can still be hunted, although not a lot of duck shooting goes on now. The oldest ringed Mallard lived to be 29 years old and preferred white to brown bread.

The Latin name is 'anas platyrhynchos' which comes from the Latin 'anas' for 'duck' and the Greek 'platyrhynchos' for 'broad-billed' (from 'platys' broad and 'rhunkhos' bill). The English name Mallard originally referred to any wild drake. It came from the old French 'mallart' for 'wild drake' (wild male).

Mute Swan

The Mute Swan is one of our largest birds and has been protected by royal decree since 1387, which is why they always look so regal. Mute Swans have been around for a long time with fossils found in East Anglia dating back 6,000 years. They only hiss when they are not amused (like Queen Victoria), otherwise they are silent and hence the name 'mute'.

The Mute Swan is all white with an orange bill that has a prominent black bump at the base. They have an S-shaped neck, downward tilted head, and a pointed tail which is more obvious when they are upended (other swan's tails, like the Whooper, are not so pointed). Their wings give a distinctive whistle in flight. Mute Swans can take off or land on the ground but need a good amount of clear space to get airborne, which is why they more often take off and land on water. The young, ugly duckling, cygnets are a browny grey and only become fully white after a year.

They mainly feed during the day in shallow water, slow rivers, canals, or brackish (salty) water. Their major food is aquatic plants and other riverside vegetation. With their long necks, they can reach a metre below water to get to the plants the other ducks can't reach. They will also eat insects and snails.

Mute Swans start breeding after 3-4 years. The female swan is known as a 'pen' and the male is a 'cob'. They often pair for life. Both birds help make the large 4 metre wide nest which is constructed from rushes and reeds on a bank or island. The pen lays 5-8 eggs which hatch after 36 days. Both parents are involved in bringing up the kids. Dad will guard the nest while mum leaves to feed, but only mum incubates the eggs. They are very territorial while nesting, so keep away if you don't want to be hissed at or pecked! Despite being big, it is a complete fib that a swan can break your arm. Both parents are devoted to their young cygnets who can swim soon after hatching. They give them rides on their backs to protect them from pike and other predators - and because it looks cute. The youngsters can eventually fly after 120-150 days and may stay with mum and dad for their first winter.

The Mute Swan is generally resident, though some move short distances in winter flocks. There are 75,000 in Britain. In the past, swans have suffered lead poisoning from fishing weights, but these are now banned and numbers are recovering. Their Latin name is 'cygnus olor' where both 'cygnus' and 'olor' mean 'swan' just in case you didn't get the royal message.

Herring Gull

The Herring Gull is a familiar gull round our coasts whose laughing "kyow, kyow, kyow" cry is everybody's sound of the seaside. It is seldom seen far out at sea, preferring to steal your chips on the beach instead. The combination of the Clean Air Act (forbidding the burning of rubbish) and dwindling fish stocks have brought many Herring Gulls inland to our rubbish tips, farmland and parks, though they are most concentrated at the seaside as this is where all the unsuspecting, chip eating tourists are.

They have a pearl grey back and upper wings, light underparts, a fierce-looking eye with a yellow iris, a heavy yellow bill with a red dot (ideal for getting into bin bags), and pink legs. Their wings have white spots on the black tips. The colour of a gull's legs is one thing that helps you tell them apart, which is annoying since you can't see them most of the time! The Herring Gull's feet are so tough that they have no problem standing on the perching spikes designed to keep them off buildings.

Herring Gulls eat just about anything: carrion, discarded fish from fishing boats, small mammals, eggs, shellfish, human rubbish (especially if it is a bit rotten), and chips, lots of chips. With the help of streetlights, the Herring Gull is happy foraging all night, ripping into black bags for tasty morsels. They have extremely keen daytime and night-time vision, superior to ours, and can see ultraviolet light. All this is great for bin raiding. They also have excellent hearing and a sense of taste that is particularly responsive to salt and acidity, which is why they go mad for chips with salt and vinegar. All these eating habits can make them a bit of a nuisance.

Herring Gull flocks have a loose pecking order, based on size, aggressiveness, and physical strength. The males are usually dominant in feeding and boundary disputes, while the females are dominant when selecting the nesting sites, ruling the house like ladies everywhere! Traditionally, Herring Gulls nested in noisy cliff-based colonies but are increasingly nesting on roofs in towns and cities and, with that hard stare, showing little fear of humans. Nesting starts in April on a mound of vegetation that is built by both adults. The 2-4 eggs (though usually 3) hatch after 28 days and the young leave the nest after 3 days for a waddle about to admire the city view. The youngsters peck at the red spot on mum and dad's beak to make them regurgitate food. Being mottled brown, the young birds are well camouflaged from predators. They can fly after about 35 days and quickly become independent chip thieves. The young gulls take 4 years to get their full adult plumage, which may seem a long time, but not when the oldest known Herring Gull lived to be 31 years old.

There are about 140,000 pairs breeding in Britain rising to 740,000 in winter when large numbers of Scandinavian birds come over for a bit of battered cod having had enough of pickled herring. When numbers are taken as a whole, the Herring Gull is declining across the country, despite their increase in urban areas. They are now protected by law and you have to get a special licence to remove them if they colonise your roof and cover it in poo.

Their Latin name is 'larus argentatus' where 'larus' means 'gull' or 'large seabird' and 'argentatus' means 'decorated with silver' as their backs are silver grey.

Greylag Goose

The Greylag Goose is the ancestor of the white domestic goose. How they got them to go white, I have no idea. It must have taken a lot of selective breeding. There are two groups of Greylag Geese in Britain, a small native population found wearing kilts in Scotland and a large feral population found everywhere else from various, well intended, introductions.

The Greylag Goose has a brown back that looks barred with a paler head, neck, and belly that looks mottled. The neck has some dark lines down the side. They have a heavy orange bill, and orangey pink legs. The wings are broad with bluish grey patches and the feathers under the tail are white, giving it a prominent white rear. They have a loud nasal, honking "ank, ank, ank" call when flying, in lines or v-formations, to make sure everyone is keeping up. Like Canada Geese, they are flightless for 4 weeks sometime between May and August while doing their moult.

The Greylag Goose is a herbivore and eats plant material like roots, tubers, leaves, grass, flowers, and water weeds. They feed on farmland or meadows by day and roost on water overnight. Their large powerful bill is great for grazing and digging up roots and, in parts of Europe, this has made them a pest as they can damage crops.

In spring, Greylag Geese travel to their northerly breeding grounds in Scotland and the Hebrides, nesting on moorlands, marshes, around lakes and on coastal islands. They normally mate for life. The nest is built on the ground, near water or under a tree or bush, and is made from a mound of vegetation lined with grass and feathers. They lay 4-6 eggs which hatch after 27 days and the young goslings can fly 50 days later. Like other geese, the youngsters stay with their parents for their first winter.

In Britain, there are about 50,000 Greylags here during the summer increasing to 230,000 in autumn as geese from as far north as Iceland migrate here to their traditional wintering grounds. Their Latin name is 'anser anser' where 'anser' means 'goose'. Another thrilling scientific name 'goosey goosey'. The English name is thought to come from the fact that Greylags left a little later than other geese when moving north to breed so 'lagged' behind them.

In Ancient Egypt, geese symbolised the sun god Ra while in Ancient Rome they were associated with the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Their feathers were used as quill pens and for the fletch on arrows.

Barn Owl

The Barn Owl is the most widely distributed species of owl and one of the most widespread of all birds, though you wouldn't know it as it mainly hunts early evening and at night when you are in bed. It is a midnight ninja assassin, gliding silently on stealth wings. You may be lucky and see one during the day in the winter or after a lot of bad weather when it has to hunt in daylight for food. The Barn Owl can't hunt when it is raining.

The Barn Owl is the white owl of farmland and the countryside. It is a pale, sandy, golden buff colour above, white underneath and has dark bars on the wings. The face is heart-shaped with black killer eyes. Female Barn Owls are typically darker than males and have more speckling on their flanks and underwing. The Barn Owl's face shape helps it direct sound to its ears so it can pinpoint its prey at night. The wings have a soft fringe along the outside of the flight feathers so they are silent when flying and the owl can swoop down on their prey unannounced. The Barn Owl flies slow and low over the ground and will frequently hover before diving into grass onto some helpless victim. They are not particularly vocal. A drawn out screech made by the male is only likely to be heard during the early stages of the breeding season. It sounds a bit like a baby being strangled.

The Barn Owl feeds on small mammals like mice, voles, shrews, and small rats. They like places with areas of rough grassland and woodland edge, where there are lots of field voles to be found (their favourite food). The availability of food shapes their breeding behaviour. They may not have young when the small mammal population is at a low. During courtship the male feeds the female lots of juicy voles before she becomes interested. Like most girls, she enjoys being taken out on a dinner date.

The Barn Owl nests in very large holes within mature trees, on the ledges found in old agricultural buildings, or in owl boxes. Over 25% of the breeding population now uses owl boxes as many old barns have been lost to barn conversions. They lay 4-7 eggs at 2-day intervals which each hatch after 30 days. The resulting brood of chicks can vary in age by as much as two weeks! They do this to increase the chances of at least some chicks surviving if food availability becomes low during the chick rearing period; the oldest and largest chicks will receive food first, at the expense of the last of the brood. The youngsters can fly after 50 days and depend on mum and dad for a further 5 weeks before they disperse to find their own territories. Despite the long child rearing period, Barn Owls often have two broods.

There are 4000 pairs in Britain. Populations have recovered somewhat from an earlier period of decline and have benefited from the erection of nest boxes and habitat management. Their Latin name is 'tyto alba' which literally means 'white owl' from the Greek 'tyto' for an owl and Latin 'alba' for 'white'. Barn Owls are known by many different nicknames including 'ghost owl', 'church owl' and 'screech owl'.

Canada Goose

The Canada Goose was first introduced in the late 17th century as an addition to King James II's waterfowl collection in St. James's Park and also to look picturesque on the lakes of big stately homes. It can now be found widely across Britain and in some areas is considered a bit of a pest, especially when eating the golf club fairway or jamming up the air intake of a jet engine.

Canada Geese have a brown body, pale brown chest and sides, black neck and head with a broad white chinstrap, and a white bum under their tail. The bill and feet are also black. Their call is a relatively deep, loud trumpeting "mmm-ruk!".

Being primarily herbivores, they feed on plants both in the water and on land by grasping them with their bill, then tearing them up with a jerk of the head. They much prefer lawn grass in urban areas. Parks and football pitches are favourite spots provided they have wide open areas with a good view so the flock can avoid potential predators while they picnic. They will also eat fruits and seeds. At night, they roost on water or mud banks.

The Canada Goose's nest is a pile of leaves and grass built near water by the female and defended by the male. It is often on islands or under the shelter of a bush. The female lines the nest with feathers from her own body. The 5-6 eggs are laid in March and hatch after 28 days. The young goslings leave the nest pretty soon after hatching as they can walk, swim and find food almost immediately. The parents are often seen leading their goslings in a line, usually with one adult at the front, and the other bringing up the rear. Both parents feed the youngsters and mum keeps them warm at night. The goslings can fly after 40 days and the family group will stay together for their first winter. The young geese themselves won't start breeding for another two or three years.

Canada Geese moult their flight feathers all at the same time so are flightless for 3-4 weeks in June to July, often travelling north to places like the Beauly Firth in Scotland to moult before returning south in September. There are 62,000 Canada Geese in Britain. Their Latin name is 'branta canadensis' where 'branta' is a Latinised form of Old Norse 'brandgas' meaning 'burnt (black) goose' and 'canadensis' means 'from Canada'.


We generally welcome the Cuckoo's call as a sign of spring, though I am not sure many little birds are quite as happy about their arrival. They are summer visitors and well-known brood parasites; the females laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, especially Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks and Reed Warblers. Unsurprisingly, Cuckoos are mainly found in the areas where these little birds live: reed beds, moorland, woodland and farmland, and not in built-up city centres. When not here, they hang out in the African forests discussing their dastardly deeds.

The Cuckoo is the size of a pigeon and can look a bit like a Sparrowhawk when flying as it has similar stripes. The upper parts, head and breast are plain blue grey. The under parts are white with black barring. The bill is short and curved. The tail is rounded with a white tip and they hold the wings 'drooped' when perched. The Cuckoo is named after its call, which sounds "Cuck-coo" and is intended to ring out over vast distances. It's sometimes referred to as a stud-post call. It is the male Cuckoo imploring a female to seek him out for a bit of fun at the expense of others.

Cuckoos feed mainly on insects, especially hairy caterpillars which other birds avoid as they taste horrid.

The female Cuckoo finds a victim's nest and, when they are not looking, takes out one of their eggs and puts her own in its place. The female Cuckoo needs secrecy for this to succeed, because if the victim sees her at the nest they become suspicious and closely check their eggs. She glides down to the nest from a hidden lookout perch, removes an egg, lays her own in its place, and is off – all within 10-seconds! Cuckoos can lay eggs that look just like those being replaced, which is a very neat trick. They lay up to 25 eggs in a season which is a lot of poor victims. As she departs, she often gives a chuckle call, as if in triumph. This is perhaps the best trick of all. The chuckle is similar to the rapid call notes of a Sparrowhawk, and it diverts the victim's attention away from noticing that an egg has been swapped.

The young Cuckoo hatches after 12 days and instinctively pushes all the other young and eggs out of the nest so only it is left to be fed. It leaves the nest after 19 days and demands to be fed for a further 3 weeks before making its way back to Africa.

About 15,000 pairs visit Britain from April to August. They are widespread but thinly scattered. The Cuckoo is declining partly due to difficulties on their migration route and partly due to the lack of caterpillars caused by changes in agriculture. They are incredible travellers. A young Cuckoo, having been raised on its own in the nest of another bird, will find its way unaided back to central Africa. Most Cuckoos leave us in July and initially fly across to Southern Europe. They then feed up before the next step of their journey, a gruelling 3,000km (1,875 miles) crossing of the Mediterranean and the Sahara. A lot don't make it. Their population decline has made them a Red List species.

Their Latin name is 'cuculus canorus' where 'cuculus' is Latin for 'cuckoo' and 'canorus' means 'to sing'. Calculating conman would be better. From cuckoo, we get 'cuckold' which is someone tricked into bringing up a child that is not their own.