With nesting season upon us, RSPB England's Beth Markey explains how to navigate this challenging time of year.
Lighter evenings and twittering alarm clocks signal the start of nesting season, when wild birds – and some smaller mammals and reptiles – partner up and build homes to raise their young.
Running between February and August (with a start date that creeps forward as the climate warms), nesting season adds a weighty level of compliance for those whose livelihood interacts with the natural world – arborists, housing developers and the likes.
You see, all wild bird species, their eggs and nests are protected by law. Birds, much like all other animals, have the right to breed in peace, without risk to their home or family. The onus is on us to find ways to conduct activities in ways that do not disrupt nesting birds during this time.
So what is the law?
Wild bird protections in brief
Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, it is considered breaking the law if a person…
The consequences for the above, even in the event of harm to a single bird, nest or egg, is an unlimited fine, up to six months in jail or both. Suffice to say, it is certainly not a risk worth taking.
Obtaining a license
Extreme circumstances sometimes dictate that there is no other option but to disrupt a wild bird during nesting season. In instances of threats to public health and safety, or air safety, for example, the impact of sticking to those guidelines must be weighed up and, where deemed necessary, a license will be granted.
What is a Schedule 1 species?
Wild birds are categorised into different ‘Schedules’, each of which comes with its own set of regulations. These Schedules stretch from one to four, with Schedule 1 species receiving the tightest of protections. Birds like bitterns, barn owls and ospreys fall under this banner as well as other species that are low in numbers, threatened or in decline.
Whilst the welfare of all wild birds must be considered at all times, it is of increased importance for Schedule 1 species. Intentionally disturbing the nesting area of a Schedule 1 species carries hefty fines and a jail sentence of up to six months.
Where might you see nests?
Some species, like ravens and crossbills, kick off nesting season from the earliest opportune moment, whilst others, like woodpigeons, wait until the weather is in their favour. Many birds in the passerine (perching) family will have several clutches throughout nesting season.
With so many species spanning a huge range of behaviours, you can expect to find nests in most places, from roof rafters and lofts to fields, forests and hedges throughout nesting season. The tell-tale sign is often the chattering of birds as they sing to attract mates, communicate or defend their territory.
Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that any outdoor space, particularly wild areas, could house breeding birds – birdsong or not, always check.
How to know if a nest is active
A nest is considered active if it is in use or being built. The moment it becomes active, it is illegal to destroy it. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for a bird to use a nest once and then never return to it, making it incredibly tricky to tell if it is still in use or not.
If you see a nest, your best bet is to err on the side of caution and assume that it is active.
Finding a baby bird
Throughout spring and summer, baby birds on the ground outside their nest is a frequent, and often distressing sight. But more often than not there’s no reason to be worried.
Nestlings are easily identified by their lack of feathers or a fluffy down. Sometimes nestlings fall out by accident and in these instances it’s okay to gently pick them up and put them back but only if they appear strong and healthy. In some cases, a parent will reject a less healthy chick in order to focus its attention on the ones with a higher chance of survival.
If the nestling isn't in good shape, take it to your nearest vet or RSPCA centre.
On the whole, a fledgling outside of its nest is not a cause for concern. It’s simply doing as nature intended and preparing to make its own way in the world. Most fledglings will spend a day or two on the ground waiting for their flight feathers to grow – the exception being swifts, swallows and house martins, which fly straight from the nest.
If you see a fledgling in a dangerous situation, such as on the road or a footpath, move it a short distance to a safer spot but make sure it is within hearing range of its parents. If you think that a fledgling has been injured or abandoned, your next port of call should be the RSPCA.
Ignorance of the law is no defence.
Important to note: farm hedgerows become "protected habitat" between 1st April to 31st August inclusive. This means that farmers cannot cut / flail hedgerows in that time. In my local area, one farmer used the "health & safety" excuse for flailing 400m of hedgerow either side of a gateway on the 29th July 2019. I had to point out to the local police that there is no health & safety exemption: if a farmer needs to trash a hedgerow in the breeding season they HAVE to get planning permission from their local planning authority.
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