It's May and spring has most definitely sprung. Flowers erupt from dormancy, dazzling us with their infinite beauty. Insects fill the air with an electric buzz. And our birdy friends are busy tending to the next generation of dawn callers. But as they’re so good at keeping their nests hidden, how can you tell if baby birds are around? And if you are lucky enough to spot one, how can you tell what it is?
First things first – how do we work out if baby birds are close by? Well, it’s actually a lot simpler than one might think! All you need to do is watch - there really is no better advice. Set aside a little time and you'll be surprised at just how quickly you start to notice the behaviours commonly associated with nesting season. Things to look out for include:
• Adult birds gathering food for the chicks - this is one of the most obvious clues, as food intended for adult birds would be gobbled up in an instant. Insects and earthworms hanging from the beak (or bill) is a dead giveaway.
• Regular visits to the nest - most chicks will need frequent feeds, approximately every 15-20 minutes, which makes spotting the nesting site a doddle to the trained eye.
• Watch for predator and scavenger birds (aka nest robbers) - if they're any predators in the vicinity, parents will become agitated and you'll notice an obvious change in behaviour. Alarm calls, heightened movement (darting from one spot to the next in an effort to lure the danger away), and even a last ditch attempt by means of a challenge towards the predator are all in a threatened birds' repertoire.
Once you're aware of the location of the nest, there's other clues to help you detect what stage of development the young are at. Officially, the nesting season spans February - August, with a little wiggle room either side - there's no 'one size fits all' in the avian world. Here's some handy definitions that will help you decipher who's in, and around the nest:
You don't see the same faces doing the rounds in the Big Garden Birdwatch results for no reason. Let's take a look at 3 of the characters you're likely to spot nesting in the garden:
1) House sparrow – as the name suggests, house sparrows like to nest in the crevices of buildings, but a tree or nest box will do nicely too. The monogamous pair will start the breeding cycle from May and produce 3 clutches a year with an average of 3-5 eggs in each (white with brown speckles), so there's great potential here to follow the process from beginning to end.
• Type of nest - house sparrow nests are messy affairs, usually fashioned into a cup-shape using paper, straw, fur, feathers, moss and even the odd food wrapper will suffice - anything goes when you're a house sparrow. Don't be surprised if you see them using an old house martin nest either, these guys really aren't fussy and their bullish nature has even seen them push nesting tits from their nest too!
• How to tell if you're looking at a baby house sparrow - if you're looking at what appears to be a female house sparrow that's flapping its wings a lot, opening its beak and staying in the same spot for a while, chances are you've got a fledgling. The other give away? The dull brown of its feathers will make the bright yellow gape patch (the bits at the side of its beak) really pop!
2) Goldfinch - these beauties are a welcome guest in any garden, and if you've got trees and bushes, or even an orchard, you might just be lucky enough to discover you've got a breeding pair.
• Type of nest - in the case of the goldfinch, nest building is left to the female of the species (sounds familiar... ahem!), so if you spot a goldfinch carrying nesting materials such as moss, grass and lichen, chances are it's a female - the male does help with the feeding though. Like the house sparrow, you'll see a cup-shaped design lined with wool and plant down; usually close to the end of a branch. Eggs (3-7) are pale blue with red markings. Expect 2-3 clutches per year.
• How to tell if you're looking at a baby goldfinch - It’s easy to spot an adult goldfinch thanks to its red face, black burglar mask and yellow wing stripe. You only get the first two in adult birds, so keep your eyes peeled for a what looks like a goldfinch, acts like a goldfinch, sounds like a goldfinch, but only has that beautiful bright yellow stripe. If you’re still not sure, the adults won’t be far away so if you spot them, it’s probably a baby goldfinch.
3) Robin - the nation's favourite bird, and it's very easy to understand why. They are friendly and inquisitive by design and if you're UK-based, a welcome visitor to our gardens all year round. It'll likely be the robin who'll guide you through this whole experience first, they're a great gatekeeper species for any introduction into the secret life of birds - just remember to keep your distance, as you don't want to be the cause of any abandoned nests.
• Type of nest - robins win first prize for creativity when it comes to nest building. Old boots, tin cans and potting sheds all make for a 'home tweet home!'. And, In the absence of man, anywhere warm and dry, close to the ground (like a hole in a tree stump, or bank) will suffice. Chosen nesting materials include dried leaves, grass, moss and wool. Breeding starts in late March and will continue for many months as both parent birds work around the clock to raise up to 3 clutches of approx. 3-9 eggs each year - yet another reason why we've listed the robin as a great bird to start with.
• How to tell if you're looking at a baby robin - Despite the outgoing, and often brazen, behaviour of the parents, baby robins are much more adverse to the limelight. They like to sit around in bushes, calling and waiting to be fed. You’re much more likely to hear them than see them. If you are lucky enough to spot one, imagine a robin with over grown eyebrows, covered in spots and no red breast.
All that's left to do now is try... good luck!
We hope there's enough here to get you started, please feel free to ask questions or let us know how you get on in the comment box below, or email us @email@example.com. For information on what to do if you find a baby bird out of the nest, see here, for info about how baby birds survive, see here and for further behavioural and identification info, see our Bird A-Z.
*PLEASE NOTE: it's really important not to disturb nesting birds. In fact, it's so important, that it's actually illegal. Some birds are easily discouraged and will abandon their nests in an instant. Please keep a good distance from any nests you may have. If visibility is hampering your new-found curiosity - there's not much a good pair of binoculars can't overcome!
Images: mistle thrush tending to chicks_Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)/ Adult robin with food_Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)/ Hatchling_Nick Upton (rspb-images.com)/ Song thrush in pine tree with nestlings_Mike Richards (rspb-images.com)/ Wood pigeon fledgling_Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)/ Juvenile blackbird_Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)/ Immature and adult male green woodpecker_Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)/ House sparrow_Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)/ Goldfinch - Juvenile to adult moulting_Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)/ Fledgling robin_Mark Sisson (rspb-images.com) and Robin feeding nestlings video_RSPB (rspb-images.com).
We had a robin nesting in a box on our patio and with minimal disturbance and excitement we watched. She laid five eggs and at the end of last week, we realised they must have hatched as both adult robins were visiting with food. However, 2 days ago, we were devastated to find the nest disturbed and all the babies had gone. We have a good idea that it was magpies as some were seen in the vicinity. How cruel nature can be :-(
Sorry, I didn't mean to put this on twice, but had trouble logging in and hadn't realised the first comment had submitted.
Cruel indeed :( fingers crossed they produce another successful brood this year for you to enjoy to the fullest this time
Let's hope, but I don't think they will return to this nest as its location has been 'discovered'.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654