Where have all the birds gone?

Where have all the birds gone?

Early summer is one of the peak times to see birds in our gardens. Feeders are full of families taking advantage of easy food - there are six blue tits on one feeder as I write this. And there is still plenty of bird song to enjoy. But just a few weeks later, the garden will be much quieter. What happened?

The main cause is moulting. Birds’ feathers are amazingly tough, but they do wear out. During nesting there’s the physical damage caused by repeated squeezing in and out of small spaces; crowded nests are also good breeding grounds for parasites that may eat feathers or cause them to fall out. You may spot some very scruffy, even balding, individuals at this time. Long tails may be completely folded over.

So, as soon as their chicks can manage without them, many adults shed their old feathers and grow a new set. Summer is a good opportunity, with warm weather and reasonably abundant food to provide the energy needed. Unlike ducks, which do the whole moult at once and lose the ability to fly, garden birds replace feathers gradually. But, even so, moulting makes them less manoeuvrable and less able to avoid predators. So most stay, as far as possible, in hedges or undergrowth, out of our sight as well. Singing would draw attention, and is less important once they aren’t defending a nesting territory, so that tends to stop too.

Some species have a surprisingly quick family breakdown, with fledglings becoming competitors for territory and food soon after they become independent. These may be actively driven away from the nesting location. Even if things aren’t that drastic, late summer countryside may well provide better feeding and shelter than gardens, so both adults and youngsters may move away from our homes.


Moulting goldfinch

Andy Karran

A moulting Goldfinch pictured on teasel.

Moulting blackbird

Andy Karran

This Blackbird is showing signs of moulting.

When will I see birds returning to my garden/local green space?

Don’t worry: the annual cycle will see them returning either in autumn or winter. Indeed those can be the most spectacular seasons of all, as mixed flocks of small birds pass through our gardens once again in search of food. One winter afternoon I counted over a hundred blue tits crossing my garden in ten minutes: definitely a sight to look forward to.

Action blue tits

Blue tits on suet block © Nicholas Watts, Vine House Farm Bird Food