Urban Birds and Tameness

I spent a couple of days in our nation’s capital last week.  The good weather prompted a few al-fresco takeaway meals in some of London’s urban parks – perfect for a trip to the park to spot some birds. The larger parks in London really are great spaces where you can still feel as though you are not actually in the city (even if you can’t really be alone when the sun’s out due to the huge numbers of people that flock there).

Whether it’s Kensington Gardens or the Regent’s Park/Hyde Park complex you’re never far from some urban birdlife either. Relaxing in the sun looking skyward small numbers of Common Swift and House Martins periodically drifted through my line of sight, hawking for insects above the city skies. For a northerner the non-native, but now widespread Rose-ringed Parakeets always provide something a little different to home. Numbering in their thousands now around the capital you don’t have to walk far into any of the larger parks before hearing their piercing calls, eventually followed by small squadrons of fluorescent green pitching through the trees like an avian display team.

Many gardens in London and across the south now get these parakeets visiting feeders and taking advantage of sunflower hearts and peanuts. They can dominate feeders to the exclusion of smaller species at times and they are a little raucous but nonetheless a colourful addition to the garden bird landscape of Britain. While the numbers are much higher in the south they can and do turn up anywhere in England now with breeding records as far north as Northumberland!

You can’t wander through London’s parks and not notice the signs warning “Don’t feed the birds” these days though. With the capital’s Feral Pigeon population showing no signs of decline it is perhaps understandable that we’re asked to ease back a little on leaving food in these places. It’s clear though that many bird species have become accustomed to the presence of humans in the parks, just as they can do in gardens. I noticed a few examples of brazen behaviour that was so different to anything I see at home.

Enjoying the shade afforded by a nearby tree over one lunch we were joined about 5m away by a curious Magpie. Now at home if I walk into the garden while my local Magpie pair are on the lawn they are gone in a flash, but not this individual. After watching us eat for a while I threw a few crumbs about 2m away, expecting that it would wait until we had left, but no, without hesitation it hopped in, almost within touching distance to retrieve the food morsels. Clearly well-fed it swallowed the first and began to cache the remaining food nearby in some longer grass.

Over in Regent’s Park I was amazed to see a Grey Heron, another species that is quick to fly off normally, strolling between picnicking visitors in search of food prey. At one point it appeared to be eyeing a nearby Feral Pigeon and I half expected a horror show of pigeon swallowed whole, thankfully it didn’t happen.

House Sparrow near pool
Common Swift

Birds becoming habituated to the presence of people happens in many species and can lead to some magical garden encounters. I’ve seen and read many stories of Robins hand-fed on Mealworms or Chaffinches and Great Tits flying in to feed on handfuls of sunflower hearts. It’s important to not rush and move slowly if you want to get your garden birds used to your presence. Sit out near feeders so they can see you and gradually become accustomed to you and perhaps you will be lucky enough to get a really close encounter.


Our Garden Birder’s Diary is written by Northumberland-based birder Alan Tilmouth who has been birdwatching for over 30 years and writing about birds in various guises for the last decade. A keen garden birdwatcher, he also manages to unearth the odd rare bird on his travels. You can find Alan on Twitter and his Facebook blog.