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

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)

 

 

   
Birds of Prey

Irish Garden Birds 2020 - How much do your garden birds weigh?

There's still time to get started with the Irish Garden Bird Survey!  It's the biggest and longest-running survey of it's kind in Ireland. We need as many people as possible all over the country to take part this winter. Taking part couldn't be easier - See here for details on how to participate this winter . See below for information on how much your garden birds weigh, and why feeding them at this time of year is so important! 

 

The Irish Garden Bird Survey is kindly sponsored by Ballymaloe. Click below to learn about taking part this winter.

  The birds in your garden are much more worried about putting on weight this Christmas than you are! If you have a small body, your surface-to-mass ratio is much higher, which means there's more of a surface area for your body heat to escape from - i.e. you can lose heat very quickly. Heat is energy, and if you’re losing heat and burning off more body fuel than you put on each day then you’re in trouble! This is why feeding your garden birds is so worthwhile – not only are you giving them food high in calories, fat and protein, but you’re providing a predictable source of food so they don’t have to waste energy every day traversing the hedgerows of the countryside in search of any morsels that might keep them going. The winter days are short and the nights are long and cold, so anything that saves the birds energy is a gamechanger!   To really hammer home the point it’s worth thinking about just how little our garden birds actually weigh. We know this through bird ringing. Trained and licensed scientists and ornithologists, in a largely voluntary capacity, catch birds and fit them with a small metal ring to get an idea of how many individuals are in an area, how long they live, how far they travel and a whole host of other data which is pooled together to help us learn about some of the intricate details of the lives of our common and rare bird species. One of the standard bits of information recorded during ringing is the weight of the bird. People occasionally email BirdWatch Ireland saying they saw a ‘big Blackbird’ or a ‘small Starling’, but in reality the variation between individuals of the same species is generally quite small (except where males and females are quite different e.g. corvids, pigeons,  birds of prey). See below to get an idea of how much your garden birds weigh, and how much of a difference a few grams of peanuts, seeds or fatballs make to their attempt to survive the winter! And remember, if you're buying bird food, feeders, nestboxes and other bird-related gifts this winter then check out the BirdWatch Ireland Shop here - by buying from us you're also helping to support our conservation work!     Traditionally, one might compare the weight of a small bird to that of a coin or a known amount of coins but given the likelihood that your wallet or purse has more plastic cards than coins in it, lets go with that. So, the average bank or supermarket clubcard weighs 5g – keep that in mind!  

Less than 10 grams (two bank cards)

The smallest bird in Ireland is the Goldcrest – they weigh a mere 6g on average but can range from 4.7g (i.e. less than your bank card!) to 6.1g. Not far behind them, with average weights of 9-10g are Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Treecreeper and Wren. These species will be the most active in your garden over the winter because the days are so short that they literally need to be feeding non-stop throughout the day to maintain their weight and survive the night! Wrens and Long-tailed Tits, amongst others, are known to communally roost during the winter – that is, they find some sheltered location and squeeze in together for the night in an effort to share body heat! In the case of Long-tailed Tits, because they’re all closely related they will take turns in the middle (i.e. warmest part) of the group before moving to the outside to give someone else a turn. For other species, where a roost will comprise of a number of unrelated individuals, they’re less generous, so you don’t want to be the last one in and stuck on the outside of the group!  

10-20g (two to four bank cards)

Some individual Blue Tits and Lesser Redpolls might come in at under 10g, but generally they average around 11g and can range up to 12.5g on a good day! Siskins are only slightly bigger at 13g, and then you have Goldfinch (17g), Great Tit (18g) and Robin (19g). Robins play it smart by staying territorial in the winter, and even the females will guard a territory – sometimes one where there’s suitable food but a lack of nesting space so it wouldn’t have been a core territory during the summer. By identifying somewhere with a suitable food source and aggressively guarding it, they save themselves a lot of energy and trouble having to range far and wide in search of food. Goldfinches do the opposite by flocking, but the more eyes in a flock the more likely you are to find food.

20-30g (four to 6 bank cards, or 3 or 4 € coins)

Despite looking much chunkier and heavier, Bullfinches weigh the same on average as the slimline Pied Wagtail (both 21g), and our wintering Blackcaps are the same. Chaffinch weigh in at 24g on average, and it won’t surprise you that House Sparrow (27g) and Greenfinch (28g) are at the top end of the scale when it comes to ‘small’ garden birds. Still, as heavy as they might be, you’re still talking a few bank cards, or four €1 coins! When you think about the battle for survival that these birds face day in day out, it’s amazing that something so small and slight can achieve so much! Don't forget, in the case of the Chaffinch some of the birds in your garden will have migrated from as far away as Scandinavia, in the hope that their chances of finding food and surviving the winter are better here, even taking into account the pressures of migration. Tipping the Scales Of course, there are some much bigger species that use Irish gardens. Despite all looking roughly the same size, there’s a lot of variation in the Thrush family. Redwings, which migrate here from Iceland and Scandinavia each winter weigh around 63g, our resident (and some migratory..) Song Thrushes range from 64-90g but usually come in around 83g, Blackbirds and Fieldfares both average around 100g and Mistle Thrush is the real heavyweight of the family at 130g.   Once you start looking at bigger birds, there tend to be more of a difference between the sexes, with males generally bigger than females for the crows and pigeons. Amongst the crow species, Jays weigh the least (168g), followed by Magpies and Jackdaws (220g, 230g), then Rooks (450g) and Hooded Crow (510g). In the case of Magpies, males are around 40g heavier than females and for Rooks there’s a 60g difference, with the others showing similar discrepancies. For the pigeons, Collared Doves (205g) weigh around half as much as Woodpigeons (507g). Imagine being a 10g Coal Tit, plucking spilled seeds from under a bird feeder when a Woodpigeon more than 50 times your size lands beside you!
Collared Doves look only a bit smaller than Woodpigeons, but actually Woodpigeons weigh twice as much!
  Lastly there’s the exception to the rule of sexes. Amongst many birds of prey the female is actually bigger than the male, and it’s the same for Sparrowhawks. Females weigh on average 266g (range 186-345g), while males are a third smaller at 151g (range 131-180g). Such a big discrepancy between such specialist birds means that male and female Sparrowhawks will actually target very different-sized prey to each other.   male-sparrowhawk-perching-on-mossy-rock
Male Sparrowhawks are a third smaller than females.
  When you realise just how small most of our garden birds are, you can really appreciate the importance of a reliable food source for them, particularly during the winter! Remember, BirdWatch Ireland needs your support now more than ever, and our annual membership makes for a great christmas gift that will keep on giving throughout the year! See here for full details.  

The Irish Garden Bird Survey is running right now and taking part couldn't be easier! Click here for full details about the survey as well as as advice on caring for your birds through the winter.

This winter we're running a series of blogs like this one, filled with facts and figures about your favourite garden birds, click here for more.

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

 

Click below to download your count form for this year's Irish Garden Bird Survey.

Similar Species

Ring Ouzel

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