A bird in the hand
Curious to find out more about the birds at your garden feeder? A quick course can open your eyes
Data bank: measuring birds such as the goldfinch helps to provide a mass of scientific data. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty
New experience: Declan Manley shows a goldfinch to Hugo Magee at the Garden Bird Day. Photograph: Eric Dempsey
It is a typically miserable winter afternoon. The ground is wet and cold. After five minutes standing on one spot my feet feel like lumps of dead meat. It is not an ideal moment to learn to love the great outdoors. Our host at this Garden Bird Day in east Co Wicklow, Eric Dempsey, is keenly aware of this, and he announces at least twice that we can go inside to a warm fire and hot drinks at any time. Out of 22 people attending, only three ever go back indoors, and then only briefly. Most remain outside for all of 90 very inclement minutes, and seem very happy to do so.
“How often do you get to be this close to a bird?” asks one of the participants when Dempsey repeats his reminder of home comforts nearby. “You can have hot coffee any day of the week.” She’s right. You can’t get any closer to a wild bird than when you are feeling its heartbeat against your fingers, as you prepare to release it after an expert has ringed it. But that’s how the day ends, not how it begins.
Dempsey is a formidable birder in the traditional sense, with a life list that includes ticks for 106 species of hummingbird alone. He is also the author of several books on Irish birds, as well as being a regular nature panellist on Mooney Goes Wild, on RTÉ Radio 1. You might expect him to be slightly intimidating for anyone who doesn’t know a goldfinch from a greenfinch. But his courses mainly cater to a very general public, most of whom have limited ornithological knowledge when they arrive at his house. At this session only one participant has any birdwatching experience. But almost all have feeders in their gardens and want to learn more about the birds that visit them.
The morning’s indoor presentations focus on the identification and behaviour of common birds such as finches, tits and thrushes. Vivid close-up photographs show every detail of their plumage. We tend to be blind to the familiar, but Dempsey’s shot of a starling in good light shows how much we miss through this myopia: its iridescence is every bit as dazzling as a hummingbird’s.
Visitors are also introduced to less obvious birds, such as treecreepers and goldcrests, which are changing their behaviour and learning to take advantage of feeders.
We also find out how birds’ bills are matched to their food preferences. Finches have stout bills for cracking seeds, tits have beaks like drill bits for boring into nuts, and insect and worm eaters, such as thrushes, warblers and robins, have much finer bills.
This means you need to vary your food offerings to attract a wider variety of birds. You should also clean your feeders regularly. Greenfinch numbers have crashed recently because of a lethal disease apparently spread at unwashed seed dispensers.
Dempsey stresses the pleasure to be derived from learning about bird behaviour. An apparently one-legged perching robin has not suffered an injury, for example; it is retracting one leg into its fluffed-out feathers to conserve warmth in winter.