For the birds
The number of some Irish birds seen in the garden is in decline, but we can help them to survive by creating favourable habitats, writes FIONNUALA FALLON
I’ve spent the past few weeks counting birds. Not calling birds, French hens, turtle doves or partridges, I should add, but robins, finches, crows, tits, siskins and blackbirds as well as magpies, treecreepers, wrens and the occasional shy jay. I even, briefly, had a stab at counting the flock of whooper swans that first arrived to graze a neighbouring farmer’s field in early December, their hoarse cries and snowy white forms heralding the arrival of winter proper.
That was until I reread the instructions accompanying Birdwatch Ireland’s garden bird survey 2012/2013 form , and noted the polite request to participants to “please don’t count birds that you see outside the garden”. Oops.
Back inside Irish gardens, the results of the previous year’s Birdwatch survey reveal that despite a decline in population numbers caused by the harsh winters of 2009 and 2010, the robin remains Ireland’s most widespread garden bird, having been spotted by 98.6 per cent of the participants.
Close behind this red-breasted songster (the only Irish bird whose fluting song can be heard throughout the winter months) comes the blackbird, followed by the blue tit, the chaffinch, the great tit and the magpie.
Sadly, the same survey also reveals a decline in the numbers of other Irish garden birds, in particular four species of thrush, namely the resident mistle thrush and song thrush as well as the redwing and the fieldfare, both of which are winter migrants.
Figures for the song thrush, whose “full-hearted evensong of joy unlimited” has inspired countless poets and writers, are perhaps the most shocking. Once ranked in eighth place, it has tumbled to 18th. The results of my own rather informal garden survey of the past few weeks back up these statistics. In a garden where they were once a common sight, I have scarcely spotted a single thrush.
According to Oran O’Sullivan of Birdwatch Ireland, this decline is almost certainly the result of those two previous icy winters. “Harsh conditions in early winter ensured an early clear-out of berry resources in the countryside, and freezing ground conditions cut short a supply of invertebrates in the fields. Although some found sanctuary in gardens, many thrushes and other bird species undertook a mass westerly movement, desperate to find a food source, and many perished flying west out to sea along our Atlantic seaboard.”