• Abi Starr

Urban birds

A longer piece that I wrote as part of an assignment. I really do love writing in this way! My tutor says it can get a bit listy, something I hope he'll expand on and help me to improve upon.


We all see birds, whether it’s that scruffy pigeon with the gammy leg that you see outside work, or that annoying gull that always tries to steal your sandwich in the park. But how many of us actually stop, and look at the birds we see every day?

Although many of us find it hard to get excited about birds living in our urban areas, there is much more to them than it first appears. These birds are interesting in their own right and we need to start paying them the attention they deserve!

Let’s start with gulls (notice I didn’t say seagulls, this is not technically correct). The most common species found in our urban areas are the Herring Gull and Lesser Black Backed Gull. Ever noticed that red patch on their bill? Thought it was just for decoration? Well it actually serves as a target, for the chicks in the nest to aim at. When the youngsters peck or prod at the red spot, this stimulates the parent to regurgitate food which the hungry chicks then gobble up. Whether it’s the natural fishy diet they should be eating, or some poor person’s pasty.

A small bird that can be easily overlooked in the hustle and bustle of the big city, the pied wagtail is as charismatic as it is beautiful. A bird of many habitats, it is apparently equally at home in the city as it is in the countryside. In the context of birds, the word ‘pied’ means ‘two colours’, usually black and white. The pied wagtail is an excellent example of this with striking contrast between crisp whites and sooty blacks. For most of the year, it may be hard to pick out a pied wagtail scurrying among the buildings and vehicles, but in the winter, their numbers increase as they form communal roosts to stave off the cold weather. Trees, buildings and cooling towers all play host to these overnight guests. Interestingly, these roosts are not only a place to spend the night, but they are also used as places to gather information on the best areas to find food. Individuals that have found a good place to feed will be in better condition once the morning rolls around (as they consumed more calories the previous day); the other birds notice this and then follow them to these areas to take advantage of the goodies on offer. A small bird with a big character.

If you’ve got a pond in your local urban park, chances are you are familiar with mallards. In the breeding season, the males, with their bright green heads, are hard to miss. The females however, are much plainer, a jumble of browns and buffs with a flash of purple on their wings. Although these birds seem ordinary to many of us, it does not mean they are uninteresting. For example, did you know that mallards are the most abundant duck in the whole world? Despite spending most of their time on or around water, newly hatched ducklings aren’t themselves, waterproof for several weeks after hatching. But luckily, mummy duck is able to provide the waterproofing for them, she has a special gland near her tail (the preen gland) that secretes waterproof oil. She massages it into her own feathers and when the ducklings hitch a ride, some of this oil transfers onto their down.

Even though ducklings are unable to keep themselves dry, they are independent in a number of other ways. When they hatch, their eyes are open and the down is in place. It takes around 10 hours after hatching for the down to dry and for the ducklings to get the hang of using their legs. After this period of time, their mother leads them away from the nest and to the body of water where they will feed and grow. They are able to feed themselves straight away, but they do need to be taught what is edible and what isn’t. Next time you’re absent-mindedly feeding the ducks in the park, take a minute to look closer and appreciate these fascinating birds.

Up until this point, most of the birds mentioned here are likely to be somewhat familiar to you. But here’s where British urban birds get really interesting. I’m talking parrots. Specifically Ring-necked parakeets. First recorded in London as escapees in 1893, this tropical invader is becoming increasingly prolific in our urban parks. They first bred in the UK in 1969, contributing to them being the worlds’ most northerly breeding parrot. Urban myth claims that they were released by Jimi Hendrix to add a little colour to the drab London skyline; however, there is little evidence to support this theory. In order to be able to coexist alongside our native birds, the parakeets employ interesting breeding tactics. They avoid a great deal of competition for nest sites by nesting early in the year, often in the depths of winter, in January. This might seem a bit mad, but in urban areas, there’s plenty of food to support their growing family, and the benefits of beating woodpeckers, owls and starlings to nesting holes far outweigh the risks.

So, as you can see, bird life in our towns and cities can be just as interesting as that in any far-flung wilderness. It’s important to understand and appreciate these birds in order to be able to conserve them for the future. If at first, you are struggling to see the appeal of these common species, take a while to look at the finer details, you might just see something that has you hooked on urban birdwatching for life!

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