Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
See the tabs below for answers to some frequently asked questions on garden birds, baby birds, magpies and avian influenza. Also included are some common questions in relation to accessing your membership account.
Got a question?
See the tabs below for answers to some frequently asked questions on garden birds, baby birds, magpies and avian influenza. Also included are some common questions in relation to accessing your membership account.
There is no single answer to this – each different food type has advantages and disadvantages and will attract a different mix of species to your garden. The golden rule is that a diversity of food types will give you a diversity of bird species.
The two bird foods we tend to recommend first are peanuts and sunflower hearts – they’re both eaten by a variety of species, have high protein and calorie contents, and are readily available in most shops.
See the bottom half of this page for a summary of the different bird foods you can provide, their respective advantages and disadvantages, and a few tips specific to each type of food.
The time of year that the birds really need you to put out food in your garden is during the winter months (roughly November-March). During these months the natural food sources of fruit, berries, nuts and seeds have been depleted, and there are few invertebrates active and available. Furthermore, the weather is cold meaning small birds have to use more energy to stay warm, and the days are shorter meaning there’s less time to find food to recoup lost energy.
That being said, it’s perfectly fine to feed them all year round if you want. During the summer months adults have to feed themselves and their chicks. If there’s food in your garden they will feed themselves on that, and that gives them more time and energy to find protein-rich foods for their chicks. It’s best to avoid fat/suet-based products during the spring and summer months, but do put out mealworms, peanuts and sunflower seeds.
In general, you should put your feeders within a metre or two of a tree or hedge. Our common garden bird species are reluctant to come into open spaces as they’re vulnerable to predation from Sparrowhawks and various mammal predators, so they like to know there’s some shelter (i.e. vegetation) nearby that they can escape into if a predator appears.
This is why the hedgerows in the Irish countryside are so important for many of our birds – it gives them a network of shelter where they feel safe, and also provides them with the berries, seeds and invertebrates they need to feed on. If you want to make your garden more suitable for birds and wildlife, see our ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ section here.
Obviously, you want to get the benefit of seeing activity at your feeders too, so try and find that sweet spot where they’re placed close to vegetation but also in view from your window too!
At certain times of the year birds will be less reliant on your garden. Things get very quiet in gardens for a few weeks in the autumn – the weather isn’t too cold yet and there’s a huge abundance of food in the wider countryside – berries, seeds, nuts, fruit and invertebrates. So, in September, October and November the birds are spoiled for choice! So don’t panic if your garden is very quiet until late November. Similarly, in the late spring and summer birds disperse around the countryside to claim a territory and find a mate, so there will be fewer birds in the general vicinity of your garden at that time of year too – though you’ll have some local regulars who should continue to appear!
See also the question above about where to place the feeders in your garden – if you’re not getting many birds in the winter then it might be down to whereabouts you’ve placed your feeders.
Some species are certainly more dominant at feeders than others – especially the larger species like Magpies, Rooks and Jackdaws, Starlings too, and even the bigger of the ‘small’ birds such as Greenfinches and House Sparrows. Generally, the other smaller species don’t avoid feeders as a result, but they do change their behaviour – they’ll grab some food quickly and go rather than hang around, or they’ll visit your garden earlier and later in the day to get food and avoid the larger species in the process.
If you want to ameliorate things further, the best thing to do is to provide more feeders in a variety of locations, allowing the smaller birds to visit the less-busy feeder(s) throughout the day. It’s better to have two half-full feeders in different parts of the garden, than one large and full feeder in one location as the latter will mean all birds have to visit the same location and will end up arguing with each other!
If your problem is with members of the crow family, some people use squirrel-proof feeders to prevent them accessing food, or tie two hanging baskets around the feeder creating a similar ‘dome’ that larger birds can’t get into.
Because birds congregate in high numbers at bird feeders, there’s potential for the transmission of some bacteria, parasites and other infections. To avoid this, be sure to clean all feeders and water dishes every 1-2 weeks with a veterinary disinfectant or mild bleach (5%) solution. Give the feeders a good scrub, a thorough rinse and allow them to air dry completely before using them again. It’s also worthwhile to switch the location of your feeders from time to time, so that there isn’t a build of droppings in any one location, and to spread your feeders around the garden so birds aren’t all coming together at one location.
Though most of the bacteria and parasites that might affect birds have little impact on humans, it’s important to wash your hands properly after touching and cleaning your feeders – just to be sure!
Rats are present in almost all habitats in Ireland. This generally isn’t a problem until they come close to houses and people. Sometimes rats are attracted to gardens where birds are being fed, so the key to stopping this is to remove what’s attracting them! What’s attracting them is the food, but more specifically the food on the ground. If you can stop your food spillage problem, you’ll stop your rat problem.
Solutions include switching to foods that don’t spill as much (e.g. peanuts), using bird tables where food is out of reach from the ground, or using hanging bird feeders that catch any food that might otherwise be spilled. You can get creative with this by attaching a plastic plate to the base of your feeder to catch any falling seed.
If your feeders are over hard ground its worthwhile cleaning up any spillage on a daily basis too.
This is when the birds really need you! A diversity of foods will allow you to help a diversity of species. High calorie foods like fatballs, suet blocks, peanuts and sunflower seeds are all great. Put the food in multiple locations – in different feeders, but also some on the ground (or roof or on top of a wall to keep away from cats/rats) for species that don’t like hanging from feeders.
One of the most important things during cold weather is to put out fresh water. The icy conditions mean natural water sources might be frozen over, so your birds will need somewhere to drink and wash themselves. Keep an eye throughout the day to make sure the water you put out hasn’t frozen over and top it up with fresh water each day.
It should be kept in mind that the majority of baby birds found outside the nest are not in distress or in need of help. It is not unusual for a baby bird to leave the nest before it is fully capable of flight. For more information – Click Here.
Frequently asked questions about bird nestboxes and putting them up in your garden.
That depends on the type of nestbox you have. If you have a ‘traditional’ type of nestbox then it depends on the size of the entrance hole: Blue Tit and Coal Tit will use nestboxes with a 25mm diameter hole, Great Tit and Tree Sparrow will use it if it has a hole of 28mm and House Sparrows use nestboxes with entrances of 32mm diameter. House Sparrows will also used ‘terraced’ nestboxes – which are essentially two or three nestboxes joined together. Starlings will use nestboxes if they have an entrance of 45mm and are around 25-30% bigger than the average nestbox.
If you have an open-fronted nestbox then it might attract Blackbirds, Robins or Wrens to nest. Blackbirds require a mostly-open front, Robins are okay with something half open, and Wrens will use something a bit more closed up.
In addition to the ‘traditional’ style of nestbox there are specialist nestboxes available for species like Treecreeper, Jackdaw, Barn Owl, Kestrel, Grey Wagtail, Dipper, Swallow, House Martin and Swift.
Many people put their nestboxes up too high – really you want it 2-4m off the ground if it’s a nestbox with a hole. Something around 2m up should be fine once there’s no way for cats to get near it. The exception is for open-fronted nestboxes for Robins, Wrens and Blackbirds which should be lower than 2m but amongst dense vegetation and somewhere cats and other predators won’t easily see or access it.
If you’re attaching it to a tree, don’t drill or nail it as this will damage the tree, but instead use a wire strap wrapped around the tree.
Firstly, make sure it’s facing a direction where it’s not going to bear the brunt of wind, rain or strong sunshine – facing between north and south-east is usually best, though there’s some flexibility here if it’s in a sheltered corner of the garden/house. Tilt the box forward slightly so any rain will run off the top, and a nestbox with some small holes for drainage in the bottom are preferable too – just in case.
After that, somewhere with some surrounding vegetation (ivy, brambles, shrubs, trees) is ideal, but make sure the birds have a clear flight path to access the nestbox hole. For Starlings and House Sparrows (and occasionally other species), boxes placed under the eaves of your house or shed should work well.
Lastly – don’t put your nestbox beside where you feed your birds as any birds looking to nest will waste a lot of energy trying to fend off intruders into their territory!
The best way to tell if your nestbox is being used is to keep a watchful eye from as far away as possible. If you’re standing too close, the parent birds won’t want to give away the location of their nest to a potential predator (i.e. you!), so they won’t fly in. If you open the nestbox there’s a risk that the adults will abandon it – this can happen during nest construction, egg incubation and even chick raising, so don’t risk it! You should never take down a nestbox during the breeding season (i.e. start March – end September) as there may be birds using it without you knowing!
There are a variety of nestbox cameras on the market which allow you to see whats happening in your nestbox without disturbing the birds. See the BirdWatch Ireland shop here for some nextbox cameras.
It often takes a year or two before a nestbox is used, so don’t panic if there aren’t birds nesting in it straight away. If you’ve picked a good location for it then you’re better off leaving it where it is rather than moving it around from year to year. The longer it is in one place, the more the birds get used to it and are more likely to use it down the line. If it hasn’t been used after two years, then it might be worth changing location. Never move a nestbox during the breeding season (start of March to end of September) as there might be birds using it without you realising it!
During the cold winter months, many garden bird species will use nestboxes as somewhere to roost and shelter for the night, so it’s worth leaving your box out all year round.
There’s a variety of more specialist nestboxes available for species of farmland and river habitats, many of which are available here on the BirdWatch Ireland shop.
Treecreepers will use a special sloped nestbox design that mimics a crevice along the trunk of a tree where they would naturally nest. Swallows will use artificial nest cups when placed under the eaves of a house or inside a shed or porch, and there’s a slightly different design for House Martins for the outside of buildings too. If you have a river with Dippers or Grey Wagtails, there’s a custom nestbox that can be attached to bridges to give them somewhere to nest.
Swifts are a species declining in large part due to loss of nest sites in buildings, but by installing and incorporating nestboxes into buildings in towns and cities we can halt their decline. We’ve produced a comprehensive guide to saving swifts which can be downloaded here.
If you have Barn Owls or Kestrels in your area, there are specially designed nestboxes you can provide for these species, further information for which is freely available online.
There’s an old proverb that says something along the lines of “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now!” and the same can be said for nestboxes. If you can get them up in March there’s still a good chance they’ll be used that year, but the further in advance of spring the better.
If you put it up in the middle of the nesting season (summer months) it’s unlikely to be used until the following year as birds will have already established territories and found nesting sites. By putting it up well in advance of the following breeding season you’re giving your local birds a chance to find it, get used to it and check it out ahead of the following year. Also, small birds such as Wrens will often roost (i.e. sleep) in nestboxes during cold winter nights, as somewhere warm and sheltered – so it’s not all about nesting when it comes to nestboxes!
If you are an existing member, or recent member, and you wish to access your account but don’t have an email address – no problem, just contact us and we will locate your new membership number. To assist members who do not have an email address, we have assigned a notional birdwatchireland.ie address. You can update this at any time in My Account. Please check with us before creating a new account.
Click on My Account on the top right hand of any page to login and access your account. If you are a current or recent member enter your new membership number or your email address to access your account.
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Trichomoniasis is the condition caused by Trichomonas gallinae – a protozoan (unicellular) parasite. This parasite has been around for a long time – causing ‘canker’ in pigeons and doves, ‘frounce’ in birds of prey, and is even though to have been a problem for the dinosaurs.
In recent years it has been seen to cause disease in finches – mostly Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch. It has been speculated that the increase in the number of pigeons in gardens brought them into closer proximity with finches than they otherwise would have, providing the opportunity for the parasite to transfer and adapt to a new host (i.e. finches). Following initial reports from the UK in 2005, it has established itself in finch populations across Ireland and many European countries. There is no practical treatment for wild birds with trichomoniasis and it nearly always proves fatal within a couple of weeks.
There is no risk to humans, though we always recommend washing your hands after handling and cleaning feeders.
The birds most susceptible to trichomoniasis are Greenfinches and Chaffinches, though other species (particularly finch species) may also be affected.
The parasite makes it difficult for birds to eat, initially leading to difficulty swallowing but as birds struggle to eat they will become colder and less energetic, with symptoms worsening over several days. Infected birds will be inclined to fluff up their feathers more and be slower than other birds to fly away when disturbed. They often have bits of food stuck around their bill. Unfortunately the bird will eventually succumb to the infection, so the best thing to do is minimise the risk of other birds getting sick.
See below for an image of a Greenfinch with noticeable signs of trichomoniasis.
Unfortunately there is no practical treatment for wild birds. Though medicines do exist for captive birds infected with the parasite, there’s no way to ensure a wild bird receives a suitable dose. Providing the medicine in an uncontrolled way (i.e. in a garden) would also likely create the conditions for a resistant strain of the parasite to evolve and develop, with disastrous consequences for wild bird populations.
If you see a bird in your garden that is likely infected with trichomoniasis, the best thing to do is to remove all feeders and water dishes. They should be cleaned thoroughly with a suitable disinfectant or mild bleach solution (5-10% solution), rinsed and allowed to air dry. The consensus amongst bird conservation experts is that it’s best to then stop feeding or providing water in your garden for two to three weeks. This allows the birds that normally congregate in your garden to disperse more widely in the countryside and means they are less likely to encounter a sick bird. If you keep feeding, you’re attracting the sick bird, other infected birds not yet showing symptoms, and healthy birds, into close proximity, and this will undoubtedly cause the rest of the flock to become infected.
We realise it may seem counterproductive to stop feeding your garden birds completely, but while removing feeders and water may have a temporary and minor negative effect, the birds will die if they contract trichomoniasis, so the further spread of the infection should be avoided at all costs.
After the two weeks are up, gradually reintroduce your feeders one at at time every few days, keeping an eye out for any more sick birds. It’s best to avoid putting out water for another few weeks.
The parasite is transmitted between birds via their saliva, typically at shared food and water sources. It cannot live long outside a host, but can persist longer in damp conditions.
To minimise the spread of infection it is important to clean all feeders and water dishes thoroughly on a regular basis (i.e. at least every two weeks). Feeders should be cleaned with a suitable disinfectant or mild bleach solution (5-10% solution), rinsed thoroughly and allowed to air dry fully before being used again. If you have ‘spare’ feeders it can be good to rotate these when cleaning (i.e. use different feeders every two weeks, giving you plenty of time to clean and dry them).
Other tips include:
Yes – trichomoniasis has had a very devastating impact on Ireland’s Greenfinch population in a few short years.
The Irish Garden Bird Survey has proven important in documenting their decline since trichomoniasis arrived. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Greenfinches were recorded in around 90% of Irish gardens each winter. Since winter 2008/09 their numbers have fallen considerably and by winters 2016/17 and 2017/18 they were only in 70% of gardens. The average size of flocks also dropped considerably, from peak counts of 7 birds visiting gardens each winter in the late 1990’s, to average peak counts of only 3 birds in recent years. The results of last year’s (2018/19) Irish Garden Bird Survey will be published soon, but Greenfinch fell to their lowest ever levels nationwide.
The Irish breeding population of Greenfinches is monitored each summer through the Countryside Bird Survey and Greenfinch are now at around half the levels they were when the survey began in the late 1990’s.
The dramatic declines seen in Irish Greenfinches is reflected in similar declines in the UK and Europe, where trichomoniasis has taken hold. Other finch species, most notably Chaffinch and Goldfinch also suffer from this infection. Chaffinch numbers in the UK took a brief dip when trichomoniasis initially appeared, but they have largely recovered since. Goldfinch numbers have been on the rise for the last two decades in Ireland and further afield, and thankfully trichomoniasis has done little to slow that increase.
Each year we run the ‘Irish Garden Bird Survey‘ as a way to monitor the health and status of Ireland’s garden birds. The survey runs from December to February each winter and this year (2019/20) we are asking participants to record whether or not they noticed any finches in their garden that may have been suffering from trichomoniasis. From a scientific point of view, it’s important that we hear what gardens didn’t have sick finches, as well as those that did, to build an accurate picture of the extent of the problem.
If you haven’t taken part in the Irish Garden Bird Survey before, please consider doing so this year. The survey is easy, very enjoyable, and provides us with really important information to monitor and protect our favourite birds. The Irish Garden Bird Survey page on our website has all the details about taking part – this years survey starts on Monday 2nd December 2019.
Sparrowhawks are Ireland’s most common birds of prey and are frequently observed in both urban and rural gardens, where they sometimes attempt to catch a small garden birds for dinner! Although it might be unpleasant for the smaller garden birds, it is nature and having a diverse range of species is a good sign of the environmental health of your area and studies show that they do not have any impact on population numbers of garden birds.
If you would like to know more about Sparrowhawk, please click here.
These exotic birds are only seen rarely in Ireland, but they do tend to turn up, usually in small numbers, almost every year. They breed across much of southern Europe and winter in Africa. With their pink bodies, black-and-white ‘zebra-striped’ wings and flamboyant crests, they are unlikely to be confused with any other bird.
In an effort to keep track of and better understand these beautiful vagrants, we would be most grateful if you would please register your Hoopoe sighting for us at www.birdtrack.net. You can also register sightings of any other birds that you come across.
Formerly absent from Ireland, around 15 years ago a small number of Great Spotted Woodpeckers appear to have flown across the Irish Sea from Wales to Co. Wicklow and from Scotland to Co. Down. Since then, the species has slowly but surely been increasing its population and expanding into new areas, which has been wonderful to see.
In an effort to keep track of the expansion of these beautiful birds in Ireland and to help us to protect them, we would be most grateful if you would please register your woodpecker sighting for us at www.birdtrack.net. You can also register sightings of any other birds that you come across.
If you would like to know more about Great Spotted Woodpeckers, please click here.
It’s actually quite normal for young birds to leave their nests before they are able to fly, and their parents continue to look after them and feed them. If the chick is well-feathered, alert and appears to be uninjured, it is most likely fine and does not require any help. We would recommend putting it back where you found it as soon as possible, so that its parents can continue to care for it.
If the chick is still blind and helpless, if at all possible we would recommend that you place it back into its nest as soon as possible. Its parents will continue to look after it, and this will give it the very best survival chance possible.
If it is not possible to return the chick to its nest, it will need specialist care. We would recommend contacting one of the excellent wildlife rehabilitators listed at the Irish Wildlife Matters website.
For more information about what to do and how and when to help, please click here.
If you have found a bird that appears to be sick or injured, it will most likely require veterinary treatment. We would not recommend trying to do this yourself, but instead would recommend that you contact one of the experienced wildlife rehabilitators listed at the Irish Wildlife Matters website.
Please note, however, that many baby birds that are thought to have been abandoned by their parents are perfectly fine and do not require assistance. To find more information about what to do and how and when to help, please click here.
It is most likely to have been a Buzzard. Despite this bird pf prey becoming a common sight across most counties, it has had a difficult history in Ireland. Once thought to be a very widespread species, the Buzzard unfortunately went extinct in Ireland by the late 1890’s. At the same time serious population declines led to other raptor species such as the White-tailed Eagle, the Golden Eagle and the Red Kite to also go extinct. However, unlike these birds the Buzzard began to re-colonise Ireland and re-establish itself naturally without and human-led reintroduction.
This natural re-introduction occurred after Scottish Buzzards settled in Co. Antrim in the 1930’s. However, sadly, this attempted re-colonisation failed and the species was once again declared extinct in Ireland. Thankfully, in the 1960’s a breeding population established itself in Counties Antrim, Down and Donegal. Since then the species has continued to expand its range, and it now breeds once again in all 32 counties.
Under the Wildlife Acts, it is against the law to cut, burn or otherwise destroy vegetation including hedges between 1st March and 31st August, but there are exemptions which allow hedge-cutting during the closed period in case of road safety concerns. The ban on hedge-cutting applies to private gardens as much as it does to farms and the wider countryside.
If you witness hedge-cutting between these dates please report it to the local Gardaí and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). You can find contact details for your local NPWS Wildlife Ranger here. We also encourage to get in touch with your local elected representatives to voice your concerns. This helps to encourage that the hedge-cutting ban is enforced and kept in place in the future.
The reason for the hedge-cutting ban is to stop disturbance and destruction of nesting sites of many of our wild bird species. The nesting season for most of our garden and countryside birds begins in March and will continue through the summer months. Our hedges provide a safe space for many birds to nest and an ample food supply for parents and chicks. They are also critical for a range of other invertebrates and mammals, including people.
We tend to get this query quite a lot, but it’s nothing to worry about! At this time of the year, a lot of species have finished nesting and can travel widely as they’re not restricted to the nest site. There is also an abundance of natural food available at the moment – loads of invertebrates of all sorts, and many plants going to seed etc too. And finally, this is the time of year that a lot of species begin their annual moult. Birds tend to keep a low profile during the moult. So for all of these reasons, there’s nothing to worry about regarding the lack of birds in your garden – they’re just exploring and utilising the wider countryside at the moment. Our own staff around the country have noticed their gardens going similarly ‘quiet’ in recent weeks, and a lot of the common garden bird species in moult. Rest assured that your birds will return gradually in the coming weeks and months. If you’re feeding your garden birds, there’s no harm in reducing the number of feeders you put out until you start to noticed the increased demand again!
As the length of the day gets longer in the spring, it triggers hormones in birds that cause them to go into breeding mode. As a result, the males in particular feel compelled to start singing. They normally sing most at dawn, but in many residential and urban areas they are fooled by streetlights, porch lights, etc. These trick their bodies into believing that dawn is breaking, causing them to start singing in the middle of the night.
The bird you saw attacking the glass is full of raging breeding hormones, and most likely a male. He is seeing his reflection in the glass and, not knowing what a reflection is, believes it to be a rival male that has dared to trespass on his territory. What’s worse, rather than fly away, the interloper seems to fight back with equal ferocity, which the bird sees as a serious threat. In addition, the rival never leaves: whenever the bird goes looking for him in that same part of his territory, there he is, waiting to fight.
During the breeding season, when hormones make them very aggressive, male birds can waste hours doing this, neglecting to feed or to look after their mate and their chicks. The most effective way to stop it is to take some cling-film, scrunch it up as much as possible so that it is very wrinkled, then place it over the outside (not the inside) of the glass. The wrinkles will break the bird’s reflection up enough so that it no longer recognises it, and light can still pass through the window as normal. You would only need to do this for a week or two: after that, the bird will forget all about it and will be in a less aggressive mood.
Blackcaps are notorious for this, and there is not much that can be done to deter them. They are very much out of their comfort zone in a cold Irish winter, which they have not really evolved to cope with, so their instincts tell them that they must fight hard to defend a reliable food supply at all costs. Sometimes using a technique called distraction feeding can help, however. If you cut some apples in half and spear them onto some branches (or even wire coat-hangers) as far away from your feeders as possible, the Blackcap may choose to spend more time feeding on those instead, leaving the feeders alone. Blackcaps go crazy for apples.
For more information about Blackcaps, please click here.