Presently many are confined to their homes due to coronavirus. This has led to a surge of interest in birdwatching. It really is the perfect time to take up this enjoyable hobby. This guide is designed to help those who are becoming interested in birds at this time. It is packed full of information about all of the birds that commonly visit gardens in Scotland.
BIRDWATCHING IN SCOTLAND
For those who have taken an interest in our feathered friends, Scotland has a lot to offer. There are still large swathes of unspoilt wildernesses in the country, particularly in the north and west. You can find birds there that are unheard of elsewhere in the UK. This includes some that are very rare, such as the boisterous capercaillie that roams northern pinewood forests. Some very devoted bird enthusiasts travel deep into these forests just so that they can get a glimpse of one. If they do, they might well get more than they bargained for!
However, you don’t have to travel deep into the wilderness to enjoy birdwatching. In fact, you don’t even have to leave the house! Many of the most interesting bird species visit Scottish gardens very frequently. The most common of these will be known to most, but there will probably be many you will not have heard of before. All you need is a keen eye and a bit of birdwatching knowledge.
THE GARDEN HABITAT
Bird feeding has been a very popular British pastime for a long time. Today, over half of UK adults do it. It’s not surprising then that trends in what kinds of food humans put out for birds have had a big impact on how their populations have changed over time. In fact, gardens are so crucial for so many of them that it is really correct to call them a bird habitat. This may seem strange, since it is really an unnatural environment. However, when you analyse their behaviour it makes a lot of sense.
Conservationists believe that gardens can play a key role in conserving many different animal species. However, this is particularly true when it comes to birds, as they are able to easily fly from real natural habitats to your garden. Putting out food is particularly helpful during the winter when many birds, particularly smaller ones, die due to the cold.
COMMON GARDEN BIRDS IN SCOTLAND
Here are some facts about the most common birds seen in Scottish gardens, including their appearance, diet and population trends. The birds listed are the thirty most common garden birds in the UK in 2019, drawn from data collected by the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch. Data for the most common Scottish garden birds is not readily available, but we’ve included population trends and other details specific to Scotland. If you keep your eyes open you are very likely to see many of these birds in your garden.
The most common bird seen in UK gardens is the delightful blue tit. These are relatively small members of the tit family. They are only one and a half centimetres bigger than Coal Tits. They entertain many garden dwellers with their incessant flying and twittering.
It has a white head and blue crown. There are dark blue lines passing through the eyes, downwards from the bill, and along the divide between its head and underparts. These lines are very distinctive, making the bird very recognisable. The wings are blue with a white bar and the back is a yellow-green colour. Its underparts are yellow, it has a black bill, and has grey-blue legs. They eat seeds, peanuts, insects, and invertebrates such as worms. Moth caterpillars are a particular favourite.
The blue tit population in Scotland is very stable, having increased by a modest 2% from 1995 to 2017. The population in the UK as a whole is also stable, having instead decreased by that same 2%.
Woodpigeons are very common visitors to UK gardens. Many have made themselves at home in our cities and towns, and they are not shy around humans. Their cooing has become a familiar sound, even if some find it repetitive and irritating. They are also commonly found in the countryside; so much so that farmers often consider them a pest. As well as being the most common pigeon in the UK, it is also the largest, with a length of 40-42cm.
It is a greyish bird with a pink belly and distinctive white patch on its neck. They are quite plump looking and walk in a shuffling fashion. Their diet consists mainly of seeds, grain, berries, and pieces of vegetable such as cabbages, peas and sprouts.
There has been a dramatic rise in the numbers of woodpigeons seen in the UK over the last twenty-five years. From 1970 to 2015, their numbers went up by 123%. During this period, they have increasingly moved into cities and towns, having mainly resided in farmland areas prior to this. The general Woodpigeon population in Scotland increased by 15% from 1995 to 2017, lower than the 36% increase seen in the UK as a whole during this period. You can also see the result of this population increase in garden statistics. It is now the second commonest bird seen in UK gardens, rising from 12th place in 1995.
Blackbirds are commonly identified as being completely black in appearance, aside from their striking orange beak and orange eye ring. This is in fact the plumage of the male of the species, with the female’s feathers being brown. They are a very adaptable bird; equally at home in cities and woodland areas. Their song, which they often sing after the rain, is one of the most recognisable and loved of all birdsong.
Like robins, blackbirds do not commonly move far from where they hatched. They are also like robins in being omnivorous; eating berries, seeds, spiders, insects like beetles and caterpillars, and invertebrates such as worms and snails.
The bird has appeared time and again in folklore, perhaps most notably in the song ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’. Interestingly, this song was actually a coded message used by followers of the pirate Blackbeard to secretly recruit new crew members.
There has been a 33% increase in the population of blackbirds in Scotland over the last twenty years (1995-2017), contrasting with a 25% increase in the UK as a whole during that timeframe. When the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch began in 1995, the blackbird was the second most common bird observed. However, it has now been overtaken by the woodpigeon, whose numbers have increased dramatically in recent years.
The robin is one bird that no-one has trouble recognising. They have become deeply associated with Christmas in the west; commonly being found on Christmas card illustrations. The robin is so popular in the UK that it was named ‘Britain’s National Bird’ in 1960.
They have orange-red breasts, are grey on top, and have a white belly. Although they are well known for their red breast, juveniles actually have brown breasts. They have a varied diet; eating seeds and fruits as well as small insects and invertebrates. They are particularly fond of beetles and worms. It is not commonly known that they can be quite brutal if any bird encroaches on their territory. Some of these violent tendencies might be observed at feeding tables, particularly towards similarly sized birds like the dunnock.
They have retained their position as the fourth most common garden bird since the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch began in 1995. From 1995 to 2017, the number of robins seen in Scotland has gone up by around 27%, and by exactly the same percentage in the UK as a whole.
The Great Tit is the largest tit in both the UK and Europe as a whole; comparable in size to a House Sparrow. It is a colourful little bird with a mask-like black and white head, yellow and green body, and blue wings. They eat a variety of foods, including ants, beetles, crickets, caterpillars and flies. As winter approaches, they are more likely to consume seeds, nuts and berries. They are very at ease in the garden and can be frequently be seen at feeding stations. They can exhibit quite aggressive behaviour at these stations to ensure they get the food they want.
The dunnock is a small and unassuming brown-grey bird, and is often overlooked due to its plain appearance. It has brown wings, its head and breast are bluish grey, and it has brown streaks on its back.
However, hidden behind this bland appearance is a very interesting bird. It engages in non-monogamous relationships; where one female may breed with multiple males, or vice versa. They are also one of the main species that suffer from cuckoo parasitism. This is where a cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other species. However, what is strange in this case is that cuckoo eggs look completely different from dunnock eggs, but the dunnocks don’t seem to care. Even when the hatched cuckoos grow to be much larger than their parents, they typically still feed them. Fortunately, cuckoo parasitism is still a rare event in the general dunnock population.
They are very shy birds, and if they do approach your feeding station you may notice that they don’t stay there for long. Other birds, such as robins, are often quite aggressive towards them. This is probably because they are similar in size and like many of the same foods.
You can easily attract dunnocks to your garden during the winter by putting out seeds, as seeds and berries are all they eat during this time of the year. For the rest of the year, their diet is extended to insects, spiders and worms.
Throughout Europe the dunnocks have been in moderate decline since 1980, and they have not been doing great in the UK. They fell dramatically from the mid-70s to mid-80s, after which the decline continued at a slower rate. Since the late ‘90s they have only increased a little overall. Having said that, they have retained their place as sixth most common UK garden bird since 1995.
When it comes to Scotland, the story is quite different, as the recovery in their UK numbers since they dropped so catastrophically has mostly taken place in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Although the number of dunnocks in Scotland went down by 11% from 2007 to 2017, they have been increasing overall. From 1995 to 2017, they went up by 38%. This is more than the 21% increase seen in the UK as a whole during this period.
House sparrows are very friendly birds, and are commonly found in urban areas. They are very social; forming flocks and even bathing and singing together. These flocks often contain a mix of different bird species. They have grey coloured heads, white cheeks and underparts, and a stripy black and brown back. They eat seeds and grains, crops such as corn and wheat, and certain types of grass. In cities they can often be found eating all sorts of food humans throw away.
From the 1980s onwards bird enthusiasts were worried about the decreasing numbers of these birds. However, since the early part of this century their numbers have stabilised. It is not understood what caused the drop in population size. However, despite this the house sparrow is still a very common bird in the UK and you are likely to see one in your garden if you keep your eyes open.
The number of house sparrows in Scotland has increased by around 46% since 1995. In contrast, the figures have remained practically unchanged in the UK as a whole, decreasing by a modest 5% during that time period. From its inception in 1995 to today, they have dropped from third to seventh place in the Garden Birdwatch survey.
Greenfinches are very common users of garden feeders. They got their name from their mostly green plumage. Their bellies are more of a yellow-green colour, as is their rump. They have dark brown eyes, pink feet and legs, a thick flesh coloured conical bill, and a striking flash of yellow on their wings. They eat mostly seeds and are also fond of peanuts. They also eat insects, beetles and other small creatures.
In 2006, 80% of UK gardens were likely to have a greenfinch visit them in a given week. Reported garden sightings are now half of that, and their overall population is a quarter of what it was at that time. It is now known that a disease called trichomonosis is to blame.
The goldfinch is a colourful member of the finch family. They are very social birds; forming flocks after the breeding season. For such a charming bird, it’s fitting that the collective noun for a flock of goldfinches is a charm! They have red, white and black heads, a brownish body with white underparts, and black and yellow wings. They also have long thin beaks that they use to obtain seeds other birds can’t get at; such as from the teasel plant. The diet of the goldfinch is quite limited, consisting almost entirely of seeds. However, they do sometimes eat small insects in springtime.
The magpie is a member of the crow family; the most intelligent bird family. They love to collect lots of different objects and decorate their nests with them. For this reason, the word magpie is used to refer to a person who collects things obsessively. It is commonly believed that they are particularly attracted to shiny objects, but researchers have found that this is untrue.
From a distance the magpie is completely black and white, but if you get close enough you’ll realise that the wings are more of a blue-green colour. They are also iridescent; meaning they change in appearance as the sun hits them from different angles. Its long tail is also different up close; taking on a greenish hue. They have a black head and bill, brown eyes, and a white belly. They will happily eat all kinds of food, including grains, fruits and berries. However, naturally they prey on animals such as insects, mice, lizards and even rabbits.
Collared doves are easily identified by their black neck collar, which contrasts with their light pinkish-grey body and head. Their wings are a darker grey than the rest of their body and the wingtips are even darker. They have quite a long tail and their eyes are deep red in colour. Collared doves primarily eat seed and grain, but also sometimes eat berries, leaves and invertebrates. Much like the woodpigeon, many find the monotonous call of this bird very irritating.
The bird was virtually absent from the UK just sixty years ago, but has since become very widespread. The story is similar elsewhere in Europe, including in Hungary and Austria where they only began to appear in the 1930s.
The chaffinch is a very songful bird, emitting a variety of loud calls throughout the day. This and their colourful plumage make them one of the most popular birds with Britain’s garden birdwatchers. They have a pink belly and cheeks, stripy black and white wings, and the top of their head is blue-grey.
They are certainly not picky eaters, as they have perhaps the most varied diet of all the finches. They eat seeds, various crumbs left out by humans, flies, insects, caterpillars and spiders. Insects are their preferred food during the summer.
The disease called finch trichomonosis that has afflicted greenfinches seems to have spread to the chaffinches, as many experts believe it is behind the decreasing numbers of this species. The population today is only 70% of what it was in 2007, and this is reflected in garden sightings.
The coal tit looks a bit like a small version of the great tit. In fact, it is the smallest of the tit family found in the UK, weighing about the same as a 50p coin. Its head is black and white, its upperparts are greenish grey, and the cheek and belly are a whitish hue. A spikey crest appears when they are agitated. Coal tits eat seeds, nuts, insects, spiders and worms. They are well known for taking food and storing it for later, and this behaviour is often observed at feeding stations.
The jackdaw is the smallest crow in the UK. Its plumage, appearing almost completely black from a distance, is actually dark grey. The back of their head and their shoulders are a lighter shade of grey. Their eyes are almost white and it has a long black tail and black bill. They are omnivorous, eating all sorts of scraps left out by humans, seeds, berries, invertebrates, and even small birds and eggs.
As with other crows, the jackdaw is a very intelligent bird. Researchers at Cambridge found that they can even recognise and respond to human expressions. Indeed, they are so comfortable around humans that many people have formed close bonds with them.
Starlings are about the same size as blackbirds and have a somewhat similar appearance. They have an orange-yellow bill and short tail. Most of their plumage is glossy black with an attractive green or purple sheen. There are also distinctive white speckles for most of the year; particularly during the winter months. When present, these speckles are probably the easiest way to identify the bird.
They are very noisy and gregarious birds, travelling in flocks for much of the year. The movements of these flocks of starlings in the air is one of the most beautiful and mysterious sights in nature. They are also known for being quick footed on the ground.
Carrion crows are enigmatic and frightfully intelligent birds. Aside from the parrot, the carrion crow has the largest brain of all birds. Some of the behaviours observed in this species makes us question our uniqueness as humans. Tool use was often thought to be a unique human trait; making us superior to other animals. People had to question this when higher apes were observed using them. However, even more surprising is that crows use tools!
They can be observed using sticks to get at food in hard to reach places. They have also been observed waiting for traffic lights to turn red, placing walnuts in front of the cars, then flying away when they turn green. After the cars have passed, they pick up the cracked walnuts that the cars have driven over. New surprising behaviours exhibited by this and other crow species are being discovered all the time.
They have brown eyes, but the plumage, beak, legs and feet of carrion crows are all black. There is a sheen to its plumage that can take on a green or purple hue when viewed at the right angle. The diet of the carrion crow is varied to say the least. They eat grain, seeds and berries as well as insects, worms, eggs, small mammals, young chicks, small birds, meat, and amphibians! Whatever you put out for them, they’ll probably eat it. That said, you should always research the correct types of food to put out for any bird species.
This little bird is mostly brown in colour. The belly is paler than the rest of its body, and has brown bars on it. These bars are also present on the tail and wings. There is an off-white stripe above its eyes, a thin bill, and a short tail that you’ll often see tilted vertically. It is one of the smallest birds you’ll commonly see in your garden, weighing about the same as a £1 coin. Wrens eat insects, spiders and bugs, supplemented with berries and seeds. The bonds between male and female are loose, with a typical male wren mating with multiple females.
Sometimes called the ‘flying lollipop’, the long-tailed tit is a spritely little black and white bird that is a delight to have in the garden. It has a round, almost spherical body, an exceptionally long tail, and a striking black eye stripe. The bird has really been misnamed, as scientifically it is more related to babblers than it is to birds like blue tits and great tits.
The tail is larger than the rest of its body, making the bird appear larger than it really is. However, ignoring the tail, they are actually one of the smallest birds you’ll see in gardens, weighing only nine grams. They mostly eat insects and berries, but will also consume seeds and peanuts, particularly during the winter. Their use of bird tables is a fairly new development. If you do see them feeding there, you’ll notice that they are very friendly birds that are not at all afraid of humans.
You are more likely to spot these birds in your garden in the winter, as they travel in large flocks at this time. As well as travelling together, these flocks roost together at night. They group together like this is so that they can keep warm during this time of the year.
Feral pigeons, also known as street pigeons, are a common sight in our cities and towns. Unlike other birds on this list, they do not actually constitute a species. Technically they belong to the same species as the rock pigeon and domestic pigeon. The term feral pigeon is used to denote birds of that species that have made their home in urban areas. They are known for eating seeds, grains and berries, but also sometimes consume insects and worms.
Unlike many other birds, feral pigeons are actually quite different from one another. Some have bluer plumage, whilst others are blacker. You can also have birds that are almost all grey, or that even have shades of red or brown in their plumage. Generally, the head is grey-blue and there is a lighter shade of grey-blue on its chest. The neck is also the same colour but is iridescent; shining green or purple when seen at different angles. Their eyes are often an orange or red colour and there is grey-blue skin around the eye. They have a greyish or black bill that has a whitish mass of tissue known as a cere at the base.
Nuthatches are very intriguing birds and make a great addition to any garden. The name nuthatch derives from ‘nut hacker’, describing the bird’s habit of opening nuts by hammering at them. You’ll typically see them climbing tree trunks in search of food. In fact, if you have a large enough garden the best way to attract them is to plant an oak tree. However, they are also confident users of feeders. You may find that they exhibit aggressive behaviour towards other birds whilst feeding there.
The bird looks a bit like a smaller version of a woodpecker. Their upper parts are bluish-grey whilst the lower parts are white or sometimes chestnut. There is often red coloration on the sides. It has a black eye stripe and a long black bill. The staple diet of the nuthatch is insects, but they also feed on seeds and nuts.
The Song Thrush is well known for its tuneful song, referred to in poems by writers such as Wordworth and Thomas Hardy. It has a brown back and its underparts are cream coloured with black spots. The spots are more pronounced on the female of the species. It has pink feet and a brown and yellow bill. They mainly eat small creatures such as worms, spiders, insects and snails, but sometimes eat fruit. In fact, farmers often hate them for their love of fruit such as strawberries and raspberries.
The bullfinch has a somewhat bloated appearance. Its head, wing feathers, and beak are all black, it has a pink-red chest and grey upperparts. They eat insects, seeds, berries, and the buds of fruit trees. Gardeners who like to grow fruit often consider them a pest for their fondness for these buds. Although you may well see these in your garden, they very seldom approach feeders due to their shyness. They have a very quiet whistling call.
For other garden birds, the sparrowhawk is a frightening sight. Its diet consists mostly of birds; ranging from small ones like tits and finches to larger ones like thrushes, starlings, pigeons, and magpies. The largest of the birds are usually eaten by the females, as they are generally about 25% bigger than the males. They also sometimes eat mammals such as bats. Although this may seem cruel, the general population numbers of bird species do not seem to be affected much by the presence of sparrowhawks.
They have grey backs and white bellies with red bars on them, a small black bill, striking yellow and red eyes, and yellow legs and feet.
Although the Jay belongs to the crow family, it is much more colourful than other members of this group. It has a pale pink colour on most of its plumage, but the rump is white. It has a black tail and black and white wings. There is an attractive striped blue pattern on the wings. The crown is whitish with thin black streaks, and there is a black marking along the side of the head, lining up with its black beak.
It’s quite a sight if you ever see one up close. Unfortunately, they are very shy birds and seldom emerge from cover in their natural habitat. They eat nuts, seeds, grains, berries, insects, beetles, worms and caterpillars, and bird eggs. Like other crows they also eat bigger prey like mice and baby birds.
Great Spotted Woodpecker
What’s black, white and red all over? A great spotted woodpecker! These colourful birds are one of the most exciting of Scotland’s garden visitors. Its head, body and wings are black and white. There is a red patch on its lower belly and sometimes on the head and neck. Its bill is black, its legs greyish, and the eyes are a deep red colour. It really is a spectacular looking bird if you get a chance to see one in person.
It is the most numerous woodpecker species in Europe, and is one of only two found in the UK. The second is the lesser spotted woodpecker; one of the rarest birds in the UK, and a species that is almost completely absent from Scotland. Like other woodpeckers, the great communicates by drumming on trees. They have also been observed drumming on other objects, such as metal poles.
They eat mostly insects, but supplement this with seeds. Of all European woodpeckers, they are the feistiest, and can often be found fighting with each other. They also sometimes steal eggs and eat young birds.
Typical of crows, rooks have a very varied diet. They eat pretty much anything, including fruit, grain, nuts, insects, caterpillars, beetles, flies, slugs, snails, spiders, worms, small birds and bird eggs, and small mammals like mice.
Many have trouble telling them apart from carrion crows and jackdaws, as all are a similar shape and are almost completely black in appearance. One thing that distinguishes the rook is the white skin at the base of its bill. This makes its greyish-black bill really stand out and look larger than it really is. In some people’s eyes this gives the bird a slightly cartoonish appearance. All of their plumage is glossy black, with a blue or purple sheen to it when the viewed from certain angles. Their feet are black and their eyes a dark brown colour.
Siskins are members of the finch family. They are somewhat similar in appearance to the Greenfinch. Both have mostly green and yellow plumage. However, the siskin is much smaller and has a shorter beak. It also has a green back, black crown and chin, and yellow breast and belly that shades into white at the back. There are distinctive black markings on the back. It has black wings with a bright yellow stripe. Siskins mainly eat seeds and sometimes insects.
The blackcap is a member of the warbler family of birds. As the name suggests, they have a black crown. The rest of their plumage is mostly grey, making the crown stand out even more. Its bill and legs are also grey, the wings are more of a brown-grey colour, and it has brown eyes. Blackcaps primarily eat spiders and insects such as flies and caterpillars. However, they will sometimes feed on seeds, berries and peanuts from feeders if they are present.
Stock doves can easily be mistaken for wood pigeons or feral pigeons as all three species are quite similar looking. However, the stock dove can be distinguished by its smaller size and black eyes. They have a bluish grey colour on most of their plumage, but their breast is more of a pink colour. There is an iridescent neck patch that is either green or purple. The tips of their wings are black and there are also black wing bars. They form flocks that sometimes include woodpigeons. They eat seeds, grain, buds, berries, and also leaves. They may also occasionally eat insects, worms and snails.
Pied wagtails, also known as white wagtails, are small birds with a very long tail that they often wag around. Their cheeks, belly and head are all white, and their crown, throat, breast, back, wings and tail are black. They have brown eyes, white bars on their wings, a black beak, and black legs.
They eat beetles, spiders, worms, snails, flies and even small fish. Unusually for birds, the white wagtail continues this diet through the winter, when most birds turn more to foods like seeds and berries. Like many small birds, they roost together to keep warm in winter. These roosts can get very large; some with up to four thousand birds!
Although many are confined to their houses at the moment, once the threat of Coronavirus passes many might want to observe birds that do not typically visit gardens. The following resources will come in handy for anyone interested in birdwatching in Scotland.
Where to Watch Birds Scotland’ Google Play App
The Scottish Bird Club (SOC) teamed up with app developer ‘Mucky Puddle’ to create a wonderful app designed specifically for Scotland’s bird enthusiasts. Available free on Google Play, it is designed to help people find the best places to observe the species they are interested in. It has information about all of the best birdwatching sites in the country, including travel instructions and lots of interesting facts about the birds you can see there.
There is also a way of informing them of any birds you see so that you can help with conservation. There are over five hundred species of birds included on the app, so you’ll never be stuck for ideas. The app was chosen as Birdwatch magazine’s ‘Product of the Year’.
Online Scottish Bird Report (oSBR)
Online Scottish Bird Report is an invaluable resource for Scottish birdwatchers. It is an online tool that allows you to search for reports of birds sighted in particular areas. It is very useful for finding out exactly where you should go to find a particular species, especially if they are rare. You can select from any of 641 different species in all locations in Scotland; from Dumfries & Galloway all the way to Orkney. You can also select specific sighting years, from ‘pre-1900’ up to the present.
The George Waterston Library & Archives Collection
If you’re a really committed birdwatcher you might want to consider visiting ‘The George Waterston Library’. This library is run by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) and is dedicated entirely to the pastime. It is the largest library of its kind in the country, containing all of the bird reports used in the SOC’s research as well as lots of interesting books and journals on ornithology. Some of the materials found there have been digitised and put online.
The Birds of Scotland
‘The Birds of Scotland’ is the definitive resource for Scottish birdwatchers. It is produced by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC), which is the leading ornithological society in the country. With 1600 pages and hundreds of photographs and maps, this is truly the best resource out there if you’re interested in Scotland’s birds. Even better, you can now purchase a digital disk version on the book for only £15 including postage and packaging, and it is sent out free if you join SOC.
RSPB Handbook of Scottish Birds
‘RSPB Handbook of Scottish Birds’ is a great reference book for those interested in Scotland’s birds. 252 different species of birds commonly found in Scotland are described. It tells you how to identify each bird, what habitat they are found in, what food they commonly eat, what their breeding behaviour is, their migration, and population estimates. There is also a useful colour-coded map for each species showing how the species is distributed in Scotland and whether they are resident, summer visitors, winter visitors, or passage migrants.