- Dry spells, forecast for the next 9 days across the UK, could be preventing returning migratory birds from building their homes, but thankfully mud pies hold the answer!
- Now is the time that spring migratory birds are returning to the UK, with iconic species such as swallows, house martins and swifts needing your help.
- With many now endangered, thankfully there are simple ways you can help them from your own garden - including leaving out mud for house martins to build nest cups with – of which the RSPB are sharing their top 5 this spring.
With the Met Office predicting a heatwave for the next 9 days across the country, now is the time to help the thousands of migratory birds currently returning to their homes here in the UK. The RSPB explains what to look – and listen – out for, and how we can help them after their epic journeys.
With bird breeding season now well underway, these birds are busy finding mates, building nests and bringing up broods, and there’s a host of ‘new faces’ in our gardens, woodlands, countryside and along our coastlines.
Many of these returning migratory birds have flown hundreds, often thousands, of miles from wintering grounds in more southerly, warmer countries. These include truly iconic species such as house martins and swifts - but sadly, these birds have seen sharp declines in their numbers over the last two decades – in some cases, by more than 50%.
Affected by changes in climate, loss of nesting sites and reduction in food supplies, swifts and house martins having jumped from the green to red list of conservation concern in 2021. As these icons of the skies return to UK shores, here’s the top 5 things you can do to help migratory birds from home:
1. Put up nest boxes or cups – swifts and house martins’ new status sadly means they’re in danger of extinction. They need suitable places to nest when they come back to the UK to breed and so putting up a nest box fit for these birds can really help.
2. Leave out a muddy puddle – as our days get warmer and the ground hardens, less mud is available for house martins to use to build their own mud cup nests. A simple way to help is leaving out a dish of soil and water mixed together – your very own muddy puddle – for these birds to make use of while we enjoy the sunshine.
3. Plant to attract insects – having an insect-friendly lawn, planters or even balcony box will help a range of pollinators and provide much-needed food for birds.
4. Put away the pesticide – using chemicals to kill dandelions and aphids also impacts on a whole range of insects in our gardens. In time, this affects the very things you were trying to protect – plants, soil and wildlife – for example reducing the available food for migratory birds.
5. Watch your step when out and about – lots of people don’t realise many birds nest on the ground. Little terns for example nest on shingle beaches, so putting dogs on leads and watching where you walk can help to reduce the risk of disturbing their nests.
As the RSPB’s Charlotte Ambrose shares: “Now is as good a time as ever to help the wildlife near you. Whether from your garden, balcony, or local greenspace, taking a few simple steps to give the nature on your doorstep a helping hand this spring can really give birds such as swifts, swallows and house martins the boost they need as they grace our skies once more.”
For more ways to help nature this spring, including more simple ideas whatever your outdoor space, visit rspb.org.uk/yourdoorstep.
Unsure how to tell apart a swift from a swallow? The RSPB has all the guides on hand to help you on their website, rspb.org.uk. In the meantime, here’s five migratory birds synonymous with spring – and how to spot them:
1. Cuckoo – everyone knows this beautiful delicate call! Much more likely to be seen than heard. Listen out in woodlands, especially the edges, from mid-April onwards. Renowned for laying eggs in other birds’ nests, they’re one of the first migratory birds to leave again, as they have no chicks to look after!
2. Swift – amazing, aerial acrobats, swifts spend the majority of their lives flying. They like to nest way up high, in nooks and crannies of old buildings, so look up to see them! They have a distinctive crescent shape and make high pitched calls when they’re in a group, searching for nest sites called screaming parties! Look out for them from early May.
3. House martin - sometimes confused with similar looking swifts or swallows, especially when flying high in the sky catching insects. Though both are light underneath, house martins don’t have the long trailing tail of the swallow, whilst swifts have dark undersides and thinner, sickle-shaped wings. House martins return in March and April, and build distinctive round nests made from mud, under eaves.
4. Turtle doves. With such small numbers, you’re only likely to see these migratory birds if you are on the east coast of England or in southern parts, and again, you’re more likely to hear these shy doves. They make a gentle ‘turr turr’ noise and have amazing patterned wings. They favour hedges and scrub, close to farmland.
Little tern. These seabirds are the UK’s smallest terns, found around our coastline where there’s suitable beaches to nest on. They’re noisy when together in colonies and really fast
Image: a house martin collects mud to build a nest with. Credit: Tom Marshall, rspb-images.com