Blackbird

Irish Name: Lon dubh
Scientific name: Turdus merula
Bird Family: Thrushes
green
Conservation status

Status

Resident, and winter visitor from Norway, Sweden, Germany & Denmark. One of Ireland's top 20 most widespread garden birds.

Identification

The commonest and most widespread member of the Thrush family In Ireland. The males's all black plumage and bright yellow bill is unmistakable, however females are much browner, with speckles on the upper breast and at first glance resemble a Song Thrush. Often cocks long tail when alarmed or when running along ground.

Voice

One of the favourite songsters. Song is rather slow, mellow and fluty, the notes ranging widely and the sound quite far-carrying. The quality of sound resembles Song thrush, but the phrases do not repeat, but ramble on continually changing slightly. Calls include an agitated "chink, chink, chink" or "chack, chack..", a whinnying horse-like cry and a thin "psew" .

Diet

Insects, especially earthworms. Also berries and other fruit including apples. Comes to bird tables

Breeding

Breeds throughout Ireland in many different habitats - mostly in hedgerows and gardens. Nest in trees or bushes - especially brambles and ivy, but also conifers. Will use large open-fronted nestboxes.

Wintering

Irish breeders are largely sedentary. Migrants from the Continent arrive in autumn

Monitored by

Countryside Bird Survey & Garden Bird Survey

Blog posts about this bird

Garden Birds

'Last Christmas' - Birds in Irish Gardens last winter

There's still time to take part in the Irish Garden Bird Survey!! See here for more details. 

  If you’re a BirdWatch Ireland member you’ll have already read the results of last year’s survey in your winter edition of Wings magazine. If you’re not a member, please join and support our work! But you can catch up on last year’s Irish Garden Bird Survey results with the overview below. If this is your first year to take part in the survey, don’t worry about knowing every single species that might appear in your garden – just familiarise yourself with the most common ones to start off. If you’re a survey veteran, then see how your garden bird list compares to the national average!    

Over 90% of Irish Gardens

The species at the top of the list didn’t change much from previous years. Robin, as per usual, was on top, followed by Blackbird and Blue Tit. Great Tit and Magpie moved up a place each into 4th and 5th, thanks to a fall in the numbers of Chaffinch reported. Robins can still be territorial in the winter, so are pretty evenly spread across the country, while our Blackbird population is topped up by hundreds of thousands of migrants from Scandinavia in the winter, hence their high-ranking each year. Blue Tits and Great Tits are pretty ubiquitous too, and Magpies are very effective at exploiting both urban and rural habitats.  

 

80-90% of Irish Gardens

Chaffinch and Goldfinch fell two and three places to 6th and 10th respectively, since the previous winter, and those declines were greatest in urban and suburban gardens rather than rural ones. On the back of a great breeding season, Coal Tit moved up three places to 7th place. House Sparrows kept 8th position, and Starling made it into the top 10 garden birds for the first time in a decade!  

 

50-80% of Irish Gardens

Wren dropped two places to 11th, while species such as Dunnock (12th), Rook (16th), Collared Dove (17th) all stayed in the same position as the previous winter. When a winter is pretty mild (the occasional storm excluded) we tend to see this stability in the rankings across many species. There was some slight movement for Woodpigeon (14th), Jackdaw (15th) and Hooded Crow (19th), all of which fell one place. The mild weather tends to mean these species aren’t forced to retreat to gardens for food as much as in other winters. Song Thrush increased by around 2% and jumped to places in the rankings to 13th. Pied Wagtail rose up two places to 18th and occurred in >7% more gardens than they did on average over the preceding five year period. Despite being very common in towns, cities and shopping centre carparks, they’re actually seen in twice as many rural gardens as urban or suburban ones. Greenfinch continue to suffer the devastating effects of trichomoniasis (make sure to clean your feeders regularly!) and reached a new low for the species in the survey – 20th place.   Pied Wagtail

 

20-50% of Irish Gardens

While the above species occur in more than 50% of gardens, you’re in the minority if one of the below appears in your garden this winter: Siskin jumped up 7 places (8%) since the previous year. They usually start to appear in gardens from mid-January onwards, but they were making appearances from late November right through to March in most parts of the country last winter. No other species made such a big jump pup the table! One of the bigger losers was Goldcrest - down 5 places to 29th, a decrease of nearly 8%. It was a mild winter, and a good breeding season for most species in 2020, so the reason for this isn’t immediately obvious. Bullfinch dropped three places to 24th, but this might just be due to the mild winter and abundance of feeding options in the wider countryside, as they’re not a bird that visits feeders and so aren’t as associated with gardens as other finches. Other species in the 20-50% band include Blackcap, Long-tailed Tit, Sparrowhawk, Mistle Thrush and Feral Pigeon. Again, not species that tend to avail of bird feeders with any regularity, but species who know how to make a good living in a human-dominated landscape, be it rural, urban or suburban.  

bullfinch-in-shrub-munching-on-berries

buzzard-sitting-in-field

Best of the rest

Despite being a non-native species, Pheasants tend to be seen in 15-20% of gardens each year, which is surprisingly high considering they don’t tend to breed well in the wild, so are reliant on being released by gun clubs every autumn. Buzzards moved two places up the rankings and are seen over 15% of gardens each winter. Herring Gulls were in 11% of gardens, Black-headed Gulls in 4%, and 1.3% of gardens had some sort of gull visiting but weren’t sure what species! Great Spotted Woodpeckers are one of the most recent additions to our bird community, and over 4% of gardens had one visiting their peanut feeders (it’s always peanut feeders!) last winter. They’re now breeding in almost every county in Ireland, so expect to see them charging up the rankings table in the coming years. Last year was a mast year for acorns, which meant Oak trees were providing a huge bounty for species such as Jays, and as a result they were seen in fewer gardens than usual (8%, down 1% from the average). This tends to happen every few years. Lastly, Redwing and Fieldfare, our two wintering thrush species, both dropped a bit, thanks again to the mild winter.   jay-drinking-from-hollow-tree-trunk     See below for the full Top 30 birds in Irish gardens last winter, and their various ups and downs since the previous year. Most gardens record between 10 and 25 species over the course of a winter. Whether you have more or less than that, we still need you do to the survey!  
   

We are hugely grateful to Ballymaloe  for their sponsorship and support of the Irish Garden Bird Survey.

For more details about the Irish Garden Bird Survey click here, or download the survey form below.

 
Garden Birds

Too Close for Comfort - BirdWatch Ireland remind everyone not to photograph bird nests this summer

Looking at a bird nest in close quarters risks disturbing the parents, causing chicks to prematurely leave the nest, and increases the risk of a predator finding a nest. 

 

It’s always an exciting moment when you realise you have birds nesting in your garden, or when you’re out for a walk and spot a bird dashing into a hedge with nest material or food for their young. Of course, bird nests are quite mysterious, with their often-hidden locations and intricate designs, and the prospect of watching the progress from nest to eggs to chicks to fledglings is a tantalising one – a rare glimpse into an important part of the lifecycle of your favourite species. Similarly, thousands of people look forward to the Swallows returning to their sheds year after year, and hopefully rearing multiple successful broods before their return trip to Africa. Unfortunately, though, by looking into that nest, or trying to get some photos to share with family, friends and social media, you could be putting the nesting attempt at risk of failure. And nobody wants to do that! So please, resists the temptation to peek into any nests this summer, but rather watch the adults coming and going from a safe distance, and keep your eye out for healthy fledglings a few weeks later!

A lot of people don’t realise that it’s actually illegal to disturb and/or photograph nesting birds, without a specific licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “Under Section 22 (9)(f) of the Wildlife Act, 1976 (as amended) a licence is required for a person to take… video/pictures of a wild bird of a species… on or near a nest containing eggs or unflown young”. This is a good law and is in place with the best interests of the birds in mind.

blackbird-fledgling-in-grass

Please don't go near nesting birds, eggs or chicks - wait for them to fledge and there'll be loads of opportunities to see them!
 

So, what are the risks? Well first of all, the adults will likely leave the nest as you approach. This means that eggs that need to be incubated, or chicks that need to be kept warm, are exposed and will rapidly lose heat, putting them at risk. If the chicks are more than half-grown, you might find the adult isn’t on the nest as you approach, but your presence will prevent them from feeding their chicks – and those chicks need a lot of food every day if they’re going to fledge successfully! As chicks in the nest get older, there’s a risk that you will cause them to ‘explode’ from the nest. The chicks see you as a predator, so when you approach the nest they think their time is up – so they take a risk and jump from the nest, in the hopes of escaping. By causing them to fledge too early, you’re greatly decreasing their odds of survival. It’s important to remember that birds see humans as predators, so they act accordingly by trying to escape from the predator. In the natural world, there’s nothing good about a large animal trying to seek out your nest – it can only be a bad thing!

In some cases, you might approach a nest and the parent bird stays sitting on it. A lot of people take this as a good sign that no disturbance has been caused and that the bird is content with your presence, but that’s not the case! There are studies that show that birds who remain on the nest like this have greatly elevated heart rates for several hours afterwards. So, they were very stressed as you approached, but they were hoping that by not moving they wouldn’t give away the location of their nest.

swallow-on-ground-with-twig-in-mouth

A Swallow gathering nest material.
 

Lastly, even if you’re in and out quickly – no chicks jump the nest, and the adults return quickly, there can still be disastrous consequences. By approaching a nest, you can give away it’s location to potential predators – cats, Magpies, foxes, dogs, etc. – will either have seen you check the nest and think, “I wonder what they were looking at?” and remember to do their own investigation later, or by approaching the nest you might leave a trail of flattened grass or move branches or briars out of the way, all tipping off potential nest predators too.

So, without wanting to fearmonger, you can potentially put birds and their eggs/chicks in jeopardy by poking your head in to have a look or try and get a photo. But you’ll put them at no risk by observing them come and go from several metres away, and you’ll hopefully have some fledgling chicks to look forward to seeing in a few weeks’ time. So why risk it?!

Nestbox cameras provide the best of both worlds and are perfectly safe and legal if they’re installed early in the year before the birds starting nesting in them. Nests should only be ‘inspected’ by people with the right training and licensing, who are gathering scientific data to advance our understanding of the species in question, with a view to improving conservation efforts.

 

A nestbox camera, that you've installed before the breeding season starts, is a great way to monitor your nesting birds without causing them any disturbance.
 

If you happen accidentally to disturb a nest, the best thing to do is to leave the site immediately. If the chicks jump, and you can safely return them to the nest, then try to do so, but if that’s not possible, putting them somewhere close by in a tree or hedge is the best thing to do. They stand a much better chance of survival if their parents look after them than if they have to be taken into human care. In extreme cases, contact the Irish Wildlife Hospital (http://wildlifehospital.ie/) for advice, but try the above steps first. It’s better to leave them be and watch from a distance to see if the adults return to them than to put them in a box first and ask questions later.

If you see a fledgling on the ground, don't pick it up - watch for an hour or more to see if the adults are tending to it. If they are, leave it be.
 

So, regardless of the law, and no matter how careful you are, it’s really down to ethics and the birds’ welfare being paramount. For this reason, we don’t ‘like’ or share any photos sent to us of birds’ nests or chicks. Even if your photo was taken from 20 metres away with the longest lens money can buy and no disturbance was caused, we feel it’s best not to share these as it may encourage others (who haven’t read this article!) to go get their own photos of their nesting Robins or Swallows, and so the knock-on effects simply aren’t worth it.

 

Play it safe at Seabird Colonies

Arguably the greatest example of this sort of issue is in seabird colonies, such as Great Saltee in Wexford, Ireland’s Eye in Dublin, and others. These islands are easily accessible and provide a fantastic opportunity to see large numbers of amazing seabirds coming and going during the breeding season. Indeed, those of us lucky enough to have done so can probably still remember the first time we saw a Puffin or the sights and smells as we approached a large Gannet colony. Allowing visitors to access these islands is undoubtedly a good thing as it engages people with seabirds, birds and conservation. It makes them care about wildlife, and we need more of that!

Unfortunately, most people don’t realise when they’re causing disturbance in these colonies, and what can look like a fantastic photo of a Gannet, Puffin, Shag or Guillemot might actually be illustrating a bird that is very stressed and in fear for its egg or chick. As above, there’s research on seabirds that show that they have elevated heart rates and stress levels for hours after a human has approached their nest, even though they didn’t fly off and, on the surface, might appear to have been happy to tolerate the human. So, just because a bird is sat on its nest as you approach doesn’t mean that it’s happy for you to do so. Really what they’re thinking is that they’ve put months of work into getting to this stage of nesting, and they don’t want to give that up unless they absolutely have to. Remember, as far as that bird knows you’re a predator!

People frequently get much too close to nesting birds at seabird colonies around the Irish coast.
 

A recent study by Debs Allbrook of UCC found that Gannets nesting on the edge of the main colony on Great Saltee were disturbed the most and had the lowest nest success rate. She also found that it was photographers who ventured the closest (2.6m on average). Many photographers go out to the Saltees armed with huge lenses with eye-watering zoom capabilities, and yet the evidence still shows that this doesn’t result in them sitting further back to get these photos – many still go much closer than they should. The resulting disturbance lead to nest predation by gulls and a waste of months of effort on the part of the Gannets. That wasn’t the gulls’ fault, it was the humans’! Thankfully, Debs’ research also involved the installation of a sign near the Gannet colony, informing visitors to maintain a distance of at least 6m from the nesting birds, and this seems to have improved the behaviour of photographers and other visitors, and resulted in less disturbance as a result. (Note: this distance is suitable for this species and this location but is not a universal constant for all seabirds and all colonies, so learn to read the signs of disturbance and behavioural disruption.)

   

Debs recently summarised her important research in our Wings membership magazine (Summer 2021 issue) and we've that article free to view for non-members too, by clicking this link. 

The full peer-reviewed study in the Journal for Nature Conservation can be read by clicking here.  

 

 

A sign has been erected on Great Saltee, based on Debs Allbrook's research, to encourage best behaviour near the nesting Gannets.
 

Puffins nest in burrows, and after a couple of hours at sea gathering sandeels and sprat they want to fly straight back to their burrow and feed their chicks immediately. If you’re finding that a Puffin is walking around near you, sandeels in bill, seemingly not bothered as it poses for photo after photo, then it’s likely that you’re the reason it’s not returning to its burrow. Basically, if you’re finding it relatively easy to get photos of seabirds, then consider that it might be a bit too easy and you might be unintentionally disturbing the bird in a way that isn’t immediately obvious to you.

All of the above goes for the other seabirds too – Guillemots and Razorbills on the cliffs, Shags nesting between or under boulders, and even gulls nesting on flat and grassy areas of these islands. Gull chicks will run away at the sight of people, and this often results in them running off the side of a cliff, or running towards the nest of another gull, who will attack the intruder.

razorbill-in-flight-descending

Learn to spot the signs of disturbance, which can vary between adults flying away from the nest, to a parent bird sitting tight but becoming agitated.
 

It’s true that seabirds on islands that regularly get visitors can become more habituated to human presence than islands where people never visit, but this still requires a certain minimum distance to be maintained. And many photographers go out to these islands every summer, maintain a healthy distance from birds and their nests, and still come away with stunning photographs! So, don’t be discouraged – just be aware! Learn to spot the signs that your presence is stopping a nesting bird from going about its business as it normally would. It’s inevitable to accidentally ‘flush’ (cause to fly away) a bird when you’re walking around a seabird island or to cause a bird with a food delivery to circle the nest site rather than land, but the important thing is to take these as signs to retreat and ensure the bird can get back to its nest site as soon as possible. Don’t kick yourself when this does happen but use it as an educational moment and vow to avoid making the same mistake twice.

 

So, here are the key points:

  • Don’t seek out nests or photograph them. Just because no harm is intended, doesn’t mean harm isn’t caused.
  • You can get a license to photograph a nesting bird from the NPWS, but this doesn’t confer on you the right to disturb the birds in the process.
  • Nest visits should only be carried out by people who are trained and licensed to minimise the risk, and in order to gather scientific data that is important to the monitoring and study of the species in question. 
  • Take the chance to enjoy the birds around you, visit a seabird colony this summer, and take lots of photos, but be sure to keep your distance from the birds and their nests!
 

Some below for some interesting articles on this topic from other websites and organisations:

Do’s and Don’ts of Nest Photograph (Audobon Society)

Unwitting Tourists Cause Gannet Nests to Fail on Saltee (UCC)

Birding Ethics & Practical Guidelines (incl. Photography) (WorldBirds)

 

 

   

Similar Species

Ring Ouzel

Irish Name:
Lon creige
Scientific name:
Turdus torquatus
Bird Family:
Thrushes