House Martin

House Martins are very sociable and inclined to operate in small flocks. They will rush past you in a fluttering flight on stiff triangular wings while blowing "prrit" raspberries and flashing their white bums just so you don't confuse them with Swallows.

A House Martin has a blue-black back, pure white underparts, a white bum, a forked tail with no streamers and a dark underwing. They arrive in late April, usually a week after the Swallows, and depart late October to over winter in Africa. Where they go in Africa is still a bit of a mystery. It is thought somewhere high above the central African rainforest. While on this winter holiday, they do their moult (feather change) so they are looking spic and span for when they return.

House Martins eat insects like aphids, gnats, flies, beetles, and ants which they catch in flight, similar to a Swallow, though often at a higher level in the sky. They seldom land on the ground except to gather nest material.

Nesting starts in May, a week or two after arriving. House Martins have largely abandoned nesting on cliffs and mainly make their cup-shaped nests under the eaves of houses, reusing and repairing old nests year after year. The nest takes both adults 12-14 days to make and is made of 2,500 small mud pellets stuck together and has an entrance with a clear flight path in. Being sociable, House Martins prefer to nest in groups. The 3-5 eggs hatch after 15 days. Both parents feed the youngsters who can fly after 30 days. From 15 days the parents try to lure the youngsters from the nests on test flights. They have two broods (sometimes three) with brothers and sisters from the first brood helping to feed the second. Late broods can still be in the nest in October. If you stand under a House Martin's nest at night, you can hear the conversational twittering as they read bedtime stories. Although their nests are protected, ignorance and people not liking poo on their houses leads to some bad homeowners knocking nests down. The House Martins will build a new nest elsewhere, but it results in fewer successful broods.

There are about 500,000 pairs in Britain with the preferred habitat being open country with low vegetation, such as pasture, meadows and farmland, and preferably near water, although they can also be found in mountains. House Martins have even moved back into cities if the air is clean. The oldest ringed bird lived to be 14 years old.

The Latin name is ’delichon urbica’ where ’delichon’ is an anagram of the Ancient Greek term ’chelidon’ meaning ’swallow’ and ’urbicum’ is from the Latin for 'of the town'.


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.


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.


The male Blackbird is matt black with a bright yellow bill and yellow eye ring. In fact, the yellower his bill the more the girls like him. The female Blackbird is a much duller... brown! She also has a yellow beak. The male youngsters are brown, like mum, initially, so they don't get beaten up by dad confusing them for rival males.

Blackbirds make up for being boring black by having a beautiful 'flutey' song that contains many relaxed verses, like a man casually leaning against a wall and whistling away. They are the folk singers of birds. Listen carefully and you notice that the verses begin with flutey notes but end less tunefully with a squeak or chuckle. A Blackbird can have a repertoire of over 90 or more different verses. Some verses are regional, so a Yorkshire Blackbird will have a different set of folk songs to a Rutland one. They learn more verses the older they get so you can tell how old and crusty they are from the number of folk songs they can sing. Blackbirds sing louder in cities than in the countryside so they can be heard above the traffic noise - or they are just loudmouth folkies from London. Individuals have their own favourite spot to busk, so it can be easy to get to know individuals. They like a good sing, being one of the first to start up in the dawn chorus and, like the Robin, sing throughout most of the year. In stark contrast, they have a very loud and explosive alarm call which, once you know it, you can't mistake.

Blackbirds feed under or close to cover (a big bush or hedge), turning over leaves in search of their food. They like insects, snails, worms, berries (they do purple poo in the winter from eating elder berries), and fruit such as fallen apples and pears.

The female mainly builds the nest, the male being too busy showing off his upright tail stance or else out busking. The nest is made of grass, straw, and small twigs stuck together with mud. It is lined with finer grasses. Eggs can be laid as early as February. There are up to 5 eggs which hatch after 14 days. The chicks are then fed for a further 14 days. There can be as many as three broods.

Blackbirds are found just about everywhere with over 5 million birds in the British Isles and even more arriving in winter (which is typical of folk singers). Northern Blackbirds migrate south to join the southerners for a good winter folk festival. They have the Latin name ’turdus merula’ (don't laugh), ’turdus’ means 'thrush' (not poo) and ’merula’ means 'blackbird'.


The cricket player of the finches. His song sounds like a bowler running up and then releasing the ball, a series of descending notes with a “ker-pow” at the end which he sings loudly from early spring just to remind the girls what a good cricket player he is. He stops singing around the end of June as the school cricket season finishes. The Chaffinch also has a ‘rain’ call which consists of one “zreep” note repeated once a second for many minutes, just to let you know he is feeling pretty miserable in the wet. The monotony and boredom in this song really stands out.

The Chaffinch is similar in size to a House Sparrow, blue-grey above and salmon pink below with pink cheeks, a white shoulder patch and a white wing stripe. The tail is long-ish with white outer feathers. All the white makes him easy to see when flying away from you and makes the Chaffinch easy to tell apart from the tits. The female Chaffinch is a lot browner and not half as flashy.

They form finch bands in winter with other finches - and sparrows! These flocks are often single sex, as who wants to talk to girls about cricket.

Chaffinches are big seed eaters, though partial to a juicy caterpillar or beech mast (a fancy name for beech tree seeds) when there are lots to go around. Generally it feeds on the ground, but can manage a bird feeder if pushed. They also enjoy picking the ground at a good picnic site or in pub gardens.

The Chaffinch builds a lovely cup-shaped nest in the fork of a tree that has an outer layer of lichen and spiders' webs and an inner layer of moss and grass lined with feathers. About 4 eggs are laid in May. The female alone incubates the eggs as the male is too busy playing cricket. The eggs hatch after 14 days and both parents feed them for a further 3 weeks while teaching them how to bat.

Abundant and very widespread, there are about 6 million Chaffinches. The British Chaffinches generally stay put, but their Scandinavian cousins pop over in the winter for a good chat and boost the numbers further. Their Latin name is ‘fringilla coelebs’ which isn’t frilly celebrity but ‘finch unmarried’ which is what happens if you play too much cricket and flock with the boys.