Identifying British Birds - Part 1

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This entry will not include all the bird species of The British Isles but the more common ones. By using easily identifiable species the learner will neither get confused by similar looking creatures or overwhelmed by the amount and variety of UK birds, especially with regards to raptors (birds of prey), ducks, waders and warblers.

Firstly, the appearance of a bird makes it the most obvious and easiest way to differentiate between species, subspecies and those of a different species altogether. Also behaviour can help, in that some birds flock together (sparrows, starlings and gulls being the most obvious examples) whereas other are solitary, except during the breeding season. Nest sites and type of nests, is also another clue to species as is the eggs themselves – in a hole in a tree, could be a woodpecker for instance. On the ground and in a big clutch, might be a pheasant. In a tree and made of branches, could be members of the crow family. In the hedge and made of moss, could be a member of the Tit family (long tailed Tits have an entrance in the middle of the nest where others are open at the top). And so on.

Habitat is another decider – in the hedgerow or field? By a river or pond? By the sea or in other large bodies of water? Song is another decider but that cannot be adequately described in a paper like this, except to say that the Skylark’s song is heard in the air and goes on for quite a while and on the ground, the crest adds another pointer to the species (they nest at ground level, which is another clue). Cuckoos calls, sound like the name and are distinguishable from pigeons and doves, that usually just make cooing noises or single notes in combinations.

Form is decided by eating habits. Short, squat beaks means seed eaters. Long, probing beaks, means insect eaters, needing to dig into the soil or leaf litter for worms etc or beneath tree bark and into rotten wood for them. Curved beaks and strong talons, indicates birds of prey, needing to grab and hold onto their victims and mouth parts that can tear flesh to pieces, be it animal, fish or other birds. Carrion eaters do not need such strong beaks for their meals.

Other distinguishing features include the sex or age of the birds in question. Young Blue tits for instance, look like an adult but have feathers that look they have a bleed through of yellow dye, compared with the adult. Female blackbirds are brown but the same size as the males. The young are also brown at the fledgling stage but have spotted chests, to distinguish them from the adult bird. This kind of spotting is also visible in sparrow young. Nestlings (hatched egg young) are bald with big, gawping mouths. When they eventually leave the nest as feather covered flyers, they still retain the yellow lips of youth, until they mature into adults. Young Starlings are the same size as adults but have a drab, brown coat, rather than the iridescent one of the adult, which makes them look like a living oil stain. They resemble female Blackbirds but again are easy to identify because they are sleeker, go round in flocks, accompanying adult birds and try to cadge food off them – flapping their wings in a characteristic begging display and pushing their wide open mouths moves at them, while squawking for food.

BIRDS OF PREY

Birds of prey include buzzards as the most common scavengers, sitting on posts by busy country traffic areas, waiting for road kill. They are brown and white flecked birds with yellow nasal flares and are about the size of chickens. The Golden Eagle has a uniform rich brown coat. Its size, habitat and behaviour make it easy to distinguish from other birds of prey, living as they do in wooded or mountainous areas of Scotland. The recently reintroduced White-Tailed Eagle is usually seen near large bodies of water. This latter bird is a fish eating species like the Osprey that again uses white in its make up, having a mostly white head and underside. Red Kites are reddy/brown in colour and have a distinguished fluked tail, like swifts and swallows, possibly for greater control in flight. Falcons include Peregrines with white flecked undersides and grey back and wings, Merlins are similar but brown underneath, not white and Kestrels are white flecked underneath but brown on the back, with grey heads and grey tails. They are a small bird often seen hovering over the central reservation of motorways.

OWLS

Owls are also birds of prey but seen mostly at night, except for the Little Owl which is the smallest of its kind and which hunts during the day. The Barn Owl, which is distinctly white underneath and tan above, broken up with grey patches, making it look like lichen covered wood, is the most commonly seen UK owl. The Tawny Owl is bigger and browner than the little owl, whose plumage is darker brown, turning almost to black or dark grey. Long Eared Owls are easy to spot because of their orange / brown faces and raised tufts on either side of their heads, resembling ears. They also have noticeable orange eyes. European Eagle Owls have been known to frequent these shores but are much larger and rarer than their British counterpart. Short Eared Owls have much smaller tufts, not always noticeable but yellow eyes that are. They resemble Barn Owls in that they can be light underneath but not as bright white as the former.

THE CROW FAMILY

The members of the Crow family (Corvids) are easier to distinguish from one another through their various characteristics, so I shall start with them. The Raven is the largest and rarest of these birds, resembling a gigantic crow. Its numbers have declined through persecution because of attacks on sheep, which when giving birth to their young leaves them and their offspring exposed to attack, during this process. Crows have black feathers all over their bodies plus black beaks and are solitary creatures, compared to Rooks which feed in flocks and nest together in what are called Rookeries. There bodies, while black all over again have white nostril flares that sets them apart from crows. There is a variation of the former, called the Hooded Crow because its body is grey but the rest of it is the normal black coloration, including the beak. The Jackdaw seems to be wearing a hood and has a light grey body as well but nowhere near as light as the aforementioned, being almost imperceptible depending upon how the light hits its slightly iridescent feathers. Also being smaller and having light blue eyes, sets it apart from the Crows. The Magpie is black and white, plus has a long tail. It is quite common in The West Country (Dorset, Devon and Cornwall) and Scotland. Choughs live by the coast and are also rare, like Ravens. They have bright orange beaks and legs and are quite small, compared to the rest of its species. The Jay is an atypical member of the family, colour wise, being a reddy-brown bird, with white throat and rear end, black tail, black wing tips, white middle section and blue bars on the tops of its wings.

PIGEONS AND DOVES

Next down in size is the Wood Pigeon. It too has a reddy-brown chest, with a grey head and wings with a white bar on them and a white collar round the back of the neck. Other members of this family include rock doves, which are half the size of their wilder cousin and grey in colour with iridescent necks and have black bars on their wings (rarer variations include a brown form). Racing pigeons are actually the domesticated form of these and are not pigeons at all. Collared Doves are also grey but slighter larger and also have a collar like Wood Pigeons but it is black, not white. Lastly comes Turtle Doves which are very rare indeed. They have a grey body with black and white horizontal markings on either side of their neck plus brown and black wings, and back, in a pattern resembling a turtle – hence the name.

GAME BIRDS

Partridges and pheasants are ground dwelling birds. The latter apparently were brought over by the Romans as rabbits reached Britain, thanks to the Normans. They have iridescent green heads and necks, red patches round the eyes, a white ring round the neck and tufts on the back of the head, resembling ears. The body is a chestnut (speckled) brown, with a long tail. The female is more bland, being lighter brown with a speckled back. They nest on the ground with large clutches of eggs. They have a very distinctive call and originally hail from China, where several different varieties exist. Game birds are mostly short tailed and fly close to the ground, which is probably why they hunted. Quail are the smallest of these, being brown flecked on top and white flecked underneath. The Grey Partridge is grey chested with orange heads and darker flecked backs and wings The red legged variety also has a white head to distinguish it from its cousin.

SCOTTISH GAME BIRDS

Grouse are Scottish birds that come in two varieties, brown with distinctive white fluffy legs and black, with white behinds and curled tail feathers in the male. The female of the latter kind resemble female pheasants in their dull brown coats but without the long tail and are of a darker brown colour. Ptarmigan are also related to grouse and are dull brown in colour, changing to white in the winter. Their tails usually stand up more than the other game birds, which tend to point down. The males of all these three birds, have noticeable red patches over their eyes, making it easy to distinguish their sex, if no other clues are available. Capercaillie also have these distinctive eye markings in the male and are the size of turkeys. They are very rare and all over black in appearance in the case of the male and brown with a red neck and top part of the chest, in the female. In the right light the black turns to iridescent green as with the pheasants neck.

All in all the UK has an astonishing variety of birds, given the amount of human destruction of habitat, vandalism and predation by collectors of rare eggs. Game keeping, especially in the Highlands of Scotland, has helped protect game bird species but led to almost total annihilation of some predatory birds, seen as threats to livestock (ravens) or the aforementioned varieties of bird. Also unbelievably, areas owned by the military, have helped protect some wildlife species because of the land being abandoned except for exercise or target practice. This abandonment also applies to old industrial areas, where again nature has had time to reclaim the land and restock it with all kinds of plant and animal life.

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