10 rare British garden birds to look out for
If you're lucky, your garden might provide food, shelter or nesting sites for rare bird species. Learn about some of these more unusual garden birds and how to identify them.
The bird species that visit your garden will vary depending on your location, the size of your plot, what type of plants you grow and what supplementary bird food you offer. In some areas of the UK, birds such as tree sparrows and nuthatches might be relatively common in gardens, whereas in other places they are unlikely to be seen. The birds on the list below can be seen in gardens, but none is included in the top 20 species in the last two years of the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch.
How to identify rare British garden birds
When you see a bird that you don’t recognise in your garden, try to get a sense of how it relates to other more common species. Is it bigger or smaller than a blackbird? It is on the hanging feeders or the ground? Does it have a similar body shape or movement to other birds? What are its markings and its song or call? Is it a single bird or one of a flock? In this way you can get a sense of its characteristics and what sort of bird it is.
A photograph or quick sketch can help you identify it afterwards with a field guide or on a website. Apps like Merlin are helpful to identify bird song and joining a local group will introduce you to other people who watch birds in your area. Getting involved in the Big Garden Birdwatch is another great way to develop your ID skills, while joining a citizen science project like the British Trust for Ornithology’s BirdTrack enables you to learn more about different species and contribute to records across the UK.
Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus
With its conspicuous orange-buff crest, black eye stripe and red, white, black and gold markings on the wings and tail, the waxwing is one of our most flamboyant winter visitors. These striking birds travel to the UK in their thousands in ‘irruption’ years when the berry crop is insufficient in their winter feeding grounds in Fennoscandia. They often favour supermarket carparks and industrial estates where they can feed on their favourite food – rowan berries. If you plant a rowan tree in your garden, as well as attracting other berry-eating birds, it's just possible that you might lure in a flock of waxwings one lucky winter’s day.
Tree sparrow, Passer montanus
These dapper birds are slightly smaller than the more common house sparrow and more restricted in their range. Tree sparrows are easily distinguished from house sparrows by their chestnut caps and napes, and a black spot on each white cheek. Tree sparrow populations have declined significantly since the late 1970s and, as a result, they're on the UK Red List of Conservation Concern.
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Brambling, Fringilla montifringilla
Another rarely-seen winter visitor from Scandinavia and Russia, the brambling is a woodland finch that feeds in farmland and open ground in winter and is occasionally seen on garden feeders in cold weather when other food sources are scarce. In winter, males and females look similar with a rusty orange and white breast, white rump and browny-grey head, which is lighter in females. In the breeding season, males have jet black heads and necks.
Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris
Cold winter weather may also bring these winter visitors in from the frozen fields to feed on berries and windfall fruit in well-stocked gardens. Fieldfares are a little bigger than blackbirds, with a light grey head, chestnut-brown wings and back, grey rump and a speckled breast. They've been on the UK Red List of Conservation Concern since 2009 due to a severe decline in breeding numbers.
Goldcrest, Regulus regulus
The goldcrest is the smallest breeding bird in Britain, weighing barely more than a piece of A4 paper. It has a buff body with dull green wings and a vivid yellow stripe on the crest (with an orange centre in males) edged with black. This elusive bird has a high-pitched call and is most often seen bouncing round in trees, feeding on tiny invertebrates.
Bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula
This stout finch is easily distinguished by its black cap extending around the bill and bright rose-red breast and cheeks in the male. Females have similar head markings, but the breast and cheeks are grey-brown. Bullfinches are primarily seed-eaters from summer to winter, but they feed insects to their young and will also eat the buds and blossom of fruit bushes and trees, for which they were persecuted in the past. Numbers have declined significantly since the late 1970s, though populations have recovered slightly in recent years. You may see bullfinches on seed feeders, especially in gardens with lots of trees and shrubs in which these shy birds can take cover, but bullfinches were only seen in 2.7 per cent of gardens in last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch.
Nuthatch, Sitta europaea
Sometimes seen on bird tables or upside down on hanging seed and nut feeders, these elegant birds look like diminutive woodpeckers. About the size of a robin, the nuthatch has a long straight bill, orange-buff underparts, grey-blue cap, back and wings, and a distinctive black eye stripe. You're much more likely to see this sedentary species in your garden if you live close to broadleaf woodland with mature oak trees, their preferred breeding habitat.
Jay, Garrulus glandarius
This brightly-coloured member of the crow family will occasionally visit gardens, but often remains hidden in the trees only revealing its position when it gives a loud call or flies to another tree, flashing the white on its rump. Close up you'll see the beautiful pinky-buff back and underparts, black moustache and iridescent blue and white barring on the wing. If there's an oak tree in your garden, look out for jays in the autumn when they're on the hunt for acorns which they bury to eat later.
Grey wagtail, Motacilla cinerea
If you have a stream or pond in your garden, keep an eye out for this beautiful bobbing bird. The grey wagtail has a grey back, pale stripe above the eye and soft lemon underparts. In breeding plumage, the male has a yellow breast and black throat, and the female has a paler yellow breast and often some black on the throat. Their long black and white tails wag constantly, displaying their bright yellow undertail feathers. Grey wagtails feed on aquatic invertebrates, so running water and ponds with healthy ecosystems are most likely to attract these delightful birds.
Green woodpecker, Picus viridis
Unlike great spotted woodpeckers, green woodpeckers don’t visit hanging feeders, but they can sometimes be seen feeding on ants in lawns. They're Britain’s largest breeding woodpecker and are easily identifiable with green wings, yellow rump and bright red cap and nape. Males can be distinguished by their red and black moustache, which is all black in females. Green woodpeckers make a distinctive laughing call, often referred to as a ‘yaffle’.
Rare British woodland birds unlikely to be seen in gardens
You might be lucky enough to catch sight of one of these rare birds while walking in woodland or scrubland, but you're very unlikely to see them in your garden. Many of these species, along with others that favour habitats such as heathland, marshes, farmland and coastal areas, have been affected by catastrophic population crashes in recent years. Worryingly, over a quarter of British bird species are on the UK Red List of Conservation Concern, including the five birds below:
Nightingale, Luscinia megarhynchos
The iconic songster is actually a fairly nondescript bird with brown wings, a pale whitish-brown body and a rufous tail, but its song has been revered in myth and poetry for many centuries. Nightingales are summer migrants, arriving in the UK around mid-April to breed in scrubby woodland. Populations have been declining for decades, thought to be due to habitat degradation and loss, and many areas where nightingales sang in the past have now fallen silent.
Wood warbler, Phylloscopus sibilatrix
A denizen of deciduous woodland, the wood warbler is primarily found in the oak woods of western Britain, including Wales and counties along the west coast, such as Somerset and Cumbria. Wood warblers have greenish back and wings, a yellow throat, yellow stripe over the eye, and whitish underparts. They arrive in the UK from Africa in spring and can be heard singing from the tree canopy – a series of repeated notes which speed up and end in a trill.
Turtle dove, Streptopelia turtur
This beautiful dove migrates from Africa in the spring and breeds in hedgerows and scrubland. Slightly smaller than a collared dove and with a purring rather than cooing call, the sound of the turtle dove is becoming increasingly rare in the British countryside. There has been a 99 per cent decline in the UK breeding population over the past 53 years and turtle doves are now classed as globally threatened.
Capercaillie, Tetrao urogallus
Another localised and threatened species, this huge grouse lives and breeds in Scottish pine forests, where it feeds on shoots, buds and berries. Males are mostly grey-black with a conspicuous red mark above the eye, a green sheen to the breast, and a pale bill. Females are smaller, with brown, orange, white and black plumage. Having already been reintroduced in Scotland in the 1830s after becoming extinct, they are now at risk of a second extinction.
Cuckoo, Cuculus canorus
We all know the song of the cuckoo, but how many of us still hear its two-note call in spring? If you live near an area of woodland, reedbed or heathland, you might hear one or even see a bird that looks rather like a sparrowhawk, with a grey body, barred black and white belly and long tail. Cuckoos are infamous for laying their eggs in the nests of other bird species, such as reed warblers, meadow pipits and dunnocks, and leaving the unsuspecting foster parents to bring up the cuckoo's offspring to the detriment to their own brood. Cuckoo numbers have reduced by 65 per cent in the last 40 years and, sadly, continue to decline.