What is your favourite bird? It’s a difficult question to answer, and most of us need time to think about it. In my case the Tree Sparrow ranks as the ‘number one’ because I first saw it when I was thirteen and I remember the excitement of finding a small colony in my local park in suburban London. Today it is rare almost everywhere in the UK, and on my new home patch of Hampshire I could find you a Goshawk or Honey-buzzard, but not a Tree Sparrow. So I still get a real ‘buzz’ when one appears.
Way back in 1961 the Robin was voted Britain’s national bird. I am sure that would still be true today if we asked the general public for a view – but what do birdwatchers think about this? Also where does the Robin stand when competing against other birds?
So Bird Watching magazine ran a survey which obtained the opinions of the readership. Everyone was invited to name up to five British birds that they really liked, and well over 100 species were named, although many were mentioned just once or twice. This month we can reveal your favourite birds both here and internationally.
Top 5 birds in Britain according to birdwatching readers
Position 1: Kingfisher
With a UK breeding population of perhaps 6000 pairs, the Kingfisher is doing well following a period of stabilisation. Prior to the mid-1980s it was declining, and a clear connection can be made between prolonged cold periods and population declines. However, with up to three broods of chicks being reared in a good year, the species can make up losses quite quickly. This is a really widespread species being present in well over 100 countries in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. Across that range there are seven different races which differ slightly in appearance.
Did you know? Given a brief view, the male and female may look the same, but the latter has orange tint to the lower mandible.
Position 2: Robin
We can reveal that while the Robin is still a very popular bird, 60% more readers of Bird Watching put the Kingfisher in their top five species. There is no question about one fact, and that is that the Robin appears on more Christmas cards in Britain than any other bird. This affection that we all share for our ‘Robin Redbreast’ is very much a British trait. In many parts of Europe the species appears quite timid and is more easily found in woodlands than gardens. With over 5 million pairs it is a very common bird, and widespread across Europe with nine different races. Many of us think we know our local Robins and assume they stay with us but in fact many move southwards in winter to maximise survival.
Did you know? On average most Robins live for just a few years, and the oldest-known to be ringed in Britain lived for just over eight years.
Position 3: Long-tailed Tit
If you see one Long-tailed Tit it is more than likely that you’re about to see quite a few more because these birds prefer to search for food in groups. Family parties move around non-stop and pass from tree to tree quite quickly. So they appear to be common, but with around 250,000 pairs in Britain it is much less so than the previous species. Here again is a widespread species in Europe and Asia – with no less than 19 subspecies! Cold weather can cause havoc for this small and sensitive bird, with population crashes of up to 80% following severe cold.
Did you know? The Long-tailed Tit’s nest is absolutely packed with moss and feathers, and consists of up to 6000 pieces of material – a third of those being feathers.
Position 4: Peregrine
With around 1400 pairs breeding across Britain, the Peregrine is now relatively easy for anyone to see. Less easy to watch are the occasions when it dives at 150mph to stoop on its prey. Such is the success of this enigmatic raptor that pairs are now nesting in cities across the country, and right in the heart of London in rather public places. In some areas of the country they have taken to nesting on electricity pylons – yet only fifty years ago this was one of our most threatened raptors. Much hated by some pigeon-fanciers and gamekeepers, the Peregrine has as many foes as friends, but the proof is there – this opportunistic falcon will succeed if we give it a chance.
Did you know? Peregrines particularly like to nest on those pylons called tension towers where the power cables change direction. The structure contains several box constructions that are perfect for nesting in.
Position 5: Barn Owl
It is perhaps of little surprise that an owl made it into the top five birds. But although the Tawny Owl is the commonest of the family, the Barn Owl is the one that excites us the most with its hunting flights at dawn and dusk. An indication of this popularity lies in the number of books that have been written about it – and I can see five on my shelf! There does appear to have been an upturn in the species’ breeding success, and with nest box schemes in operation across the country the birds are getting plenty of help. There are now perhaps over 5000 pairs nesting in Britain. Sadly many birds are victims of road traffic collisions and the average age is only 4 years. Warmer winters over the last decade have helped to reduce Barn Owl deaths, so expect to see more of them in the countryside.
Did you know? This is the most widespread land bird in the world, being present in all the major continents.
Most of us now travel abroad more than we used to, and even if you are not able to take foreign holidays you can watch amazing birds on your television. We wanted to know which birds people really liked and admired on a global scale – regardless of whether they’d seen them. So we asked readers to name their top ten worldwide species.
Top five choices
Over 200 species, nominated by you, covering all shapes and sizes from the Arctic to the Antarctic
Position 1: Wandering Albatross
This is often said to be the largest bird in the world, but more precisely it has the largest wingspan of any living bird, reaching up to 3.7 metres! It is also one of the best known and studied species of bird in the world and was first described by Linnaeus in 1758. With a world population of around 26,000 the birds have been declining in each of their main breeding areas on the Antarctic islands. Much of this decline can be attributed to birds getting caught on fishing ‘long-lines’. Reproduction is slow as they breed only every two years, can only lay one egg and their chicks will not breed until they are at least 11 years old!
Did you know? These ocean giants are mainly are night feeders, and at times they eat so much that they can’t fly for a few hours!
Position 2: European Bee-eater
With 30-40 UK records each year this could have been included in your UK votes, but even if you are lucky enough to see a European Bee-eater in the UK it is rare to obtain anything other than a fleeting glimpse from afar. There have been very few breeding attempts in the UK, but the first was in Sussex in 1955 where birds nested successfully in a sand quarry. For most of us this is a bird seen on holiday in the Mediterranean or Africa, and the European population is thought to be up to 600,000 pairs.
Did you know? Bee-eaters require around 225 bees a day when they are raising their young.
Position 3: Emperor Penguin
The interesting aspect of this amazing bird’s popularity is that it has been seen by relatively few of us, but it is much loved. To see this Antarctic giant you will need to spend around £15,000 to visit its breeding grounds. Reaching 122cm in height and weighing up to 45kg these birds undertake incredible hardships in order to rear their one chick each year. This is the only species to breed during the Antarctic winter, and the birds trek up to 120km across the ice to reach their breeding colonies, where the male incubates the egg for eight weeks while the female returns to the sea to feed. These birds are adapted to withstand extreme cold, and while incubating its chick the male may have to stand still despite winds of up to 144kmh with wind temperatures of −40°C. Little wonder then that the birds have a layer of protective fat measuring 3cm in depth!
Did you know? Emperor Penguins can remain submerged up to 18 minutes, diving to a depth of 550 metres.
Position 4: Hoopoe
Again this is a bird that comes to Britain, with over 100 sightings each year. Sadly numbers of this exotic species are declining in many parts of Europe. It certainly is popular where it occurs, and is the national bird of Israel. Particularly in the Middle East the Hoopoe appears in many traditional writings, often being described as a messenger of wisdom. In the Bible (Leviticus 11:13-19) Hoopoes were listed among the animals that are detestable and should not be eaten. Although thin in shape, the Hoopoe’s beak is powerful, and strong muscles in the head this can be opened when it is inserted into the ground to find insects – and most UK sightings seem to be of birds feeding on lawns!
Did you know? Hoopoes have been seen at high altitudes during migration across the Himalayas and were recorded at about 6400 metres by the first Mount Everest Expedition.
Position 5: Lammergeier
With a wingspan of up to 3m and weighing in at 6kg, this is spectacular bird. Ranging across the high mountain passes of southern Europe, central and southern Asia and Africa, this beast has a powerful digestive system so even swallows bones up to 10cm whole! Larger bones are dropped from a height of up to 80m onto rocky surfaces where the impact may expose marrow. Also known as the Bearded Vulture due to its black moustache, it is unlike other vultures in not having a bald head. It is not globally threatened, but some European populations are declining. In captivity they can live for 40 years.
Did you know? It is said that around 456 BC the famous Greek playwright Aeschylus was walking one day when he killed as a tortoise dropped by a Lammergeier hit him on the head!
The great news is that Dave is updating many of his other trip reports and marketing them under the Easybirder brand. Some people may argue that having such exact information takes the fun out birding. Well I can tell you I’ve spent plenty of time not having fun when birding in deserts where I had no information and saw very little as a result! Using the combination of DVD and the booklet you can plan your trip with much greater confidence, knowing that the information is right up to date.
More about Keith
Keith Betton is an avid world birder, having visited 90 countries and seen nearly 7000 species along the way. He is active in bird conservation, and it Chairman of the African Bird Club and County Bird Recorder for Hampshire. He is also a trustee of the British Trust for Ornithology. Professionally he is a public relations consultant, advising travel companies and tourist boards. He is also used by companies as a public speaker, trainer, writer and broadcaster.