Ccording to folklore, many years ago the birds of the world gathered to decide which of them would be king. Whoever could fly the highest would be crowned, and the eagle soon soared highest of all – only to discover upon landing that the little brown wren
Each winter the big freeze consumes northern Europe and our island’s mild maritime climate provides a refuge and a lifeline to birds whose regular food sources lie buried under snow and ice. Blackbirds, bramblings, bitterns, starlings, sanderlings, smew and many other species head here to survive. But last year the winter visitor everyone was looking out for was the hawfinch.
You probably won’t be familiar with the hawfinch so I’ll give you a few key identification features… Aw, forget it. Just look at that massive beak! You can’t miss it. It’s like someone crossbred a chaffinch with a puffin. I’m amazed it can stand up – you’d half expect that ridiculous beak to send it tottering face-first to the floor. This pair of monstrous mandibles combined with powerful jaw muscles can exert a whopping 150 pounds per square inch of pressure and are designed to crack its favoured food; fruit stones and seeds. You know how horrible it is when you bite down on an olive and find there’s a stone inside? Hawfinches would shatter that stone without batting an eyelid.
Last winter, Britain was the holiday destination of choice for hungry hordes of hawfinches. There were an estimated 14 times as many in Sussex than usual. It was a once-in-a-lifetime invasion – the result of a successful breeding year for continental hawfinches followed by a drastic shortage of food; an equation that sends them flocking across Europe in search of seeds and stones.
We have a few pairs of resident hawfinches breeding in Sussex but we don’t know exactly how many because, despite being a bulky-billed bird of bulky build, it is famously hard to observe. Back in 1938, Sussex ornithologist Walpole-bond remarked that the hawfinch was: “the very incarnation of all that is wary and shy” and commented on their propensity to roam far and wide. “Inclined to vagabondage” as he put it. A wonderful phrase, even though these days it sounds like something you’d read on a Tinder dating profile.
For one winter wanderer his travels would end in Sussex. Last January I received a call from a lady who reported a hawfinch had collided with her patio window. Considering that powerful beak, I was surprised that the window wasn’t the victim here, but sadly the bird dropped dead. It was tenderly wrapped and laid to rest alongside some fish-fingers, its journey to escape the big freeze ending in a big freezer. I was asked if I had any use for a frozen hawfinch. Plans for creating a novelty nutcracker sprung to mind but this hawfinch did not die in vain. His body was donated to science and will contribute to current research into the diet and movements of these birds. His death hopefully aiding the conservation of his big-beaked brothers in the future.
Birds are a part of our landscape. Whether it’s a robin signifying that winter is here, the pigeons that are part of our towns, or the seagulls that are an ever-present threat to ice creams at the seaside, our environment seems to be teeming with them. However, keeping track of their species and numbers is no easy feat, which is why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is calling on members of the public to help.
Every January, the organisation holds its Big Garden Birdwatch, a nationwide campaign that asks members of the public to count the birds in their garden over an hour-long period. This year the Birdwatch will be between 26-28 January, but 2019 is extra special because it marks the Birdwatch’s 40th anniversary. “It’s incredible that a wildlife survey has been running for that long,” reflects project manager Emily Kench.
It all began in 1979, when the RSPB was looking for a way to get the younger generation involved with wildlife, so it suggested that children got in touch and told them about the birds they could see in their garden. “The TV producer Biddy Baxter loved the idea so much that she featured it on Blue Peter, and it just took off from there,” Emily explains. The campaign has evolved to encompass all ages, and 40 years on an incredible eight million hours have been spent watching birds across the nation.
A free pack for recording your results is available to download on the RSPB website, and results can then be submitted online or by post. However, crucially you are only counting the maximum number of birds at any one time to avoid recording the same bird more than once.
The RSPB is also encouraging watchers to note down other types of wildlife too, such as badgers, foxes, squirrels and frogs, helping them to gain a more wide-ranging picture of who calls our gardens home.
A parallel event, The Schools Big Garden Birdwatch, will also be taking place throughout this month. “It gets children out into the playground, where they then count the birds they see,” Emily says, with the aim of encouraging our younger generation to take an interest in protecting our birds.
Once the results have been submitted, they will be analysed by a team of scientists and used to direct future conservation. “The data gives us a really good idea of what’s happening with our garden bird numbers so that we can identify crucial trends,” Emily explains.
It is thanks to findings from the Big Garden Birdwatch that the RSPB has been able to identify a decrease in the numbers of the song thrush, for example. “In 1979, the song thrush was in the top ten list of birds, but by 2009 its numbers had halved,” Emily says. “The Birdwatch has also revealed an increase in the number of collared doves and wood pigeons over the past 40