At the beginning of yet another year, you find me in a rather philosophical mood. Despite what we are continually doing to this planet, nature often finds a way of compensating for the damage, and is certainly quick to take advantage of beneficial changes to the environment. The bird world is full of examples of good and bad things we humans have done, the worst probably being man’s deliberate extinction of the Dodo, Great Auk and Passenger Pigeon among others; on the other hand the saving of the Ne-ne (Hawaiian Goose) and many ongoing efforts to preserve other threatened species around the world does do something to redress the balance.
The good news is that even in our back gardens we can have a positive effect. The marked population growth of Goldfinches over the last 20 years is almost certainly due to the widespread use of nyger seed in garden feeders and something similar is now happening to Blackcaps, but in a subtly different manner.
Blackcaps are warblers of the “Sylvia” family which visit us in summer from the African continent and as such are basically insect eaters, although in the autumn they will take small fruits, such as elderberries, from hedgerows and gardens. More recently they have learnt to make use of garden bird tables, especially if fatballs, suet pellets or similar products are on offer. So it is that we may be lucky enough to get a Blackcap in our gardens in the winter – but that Blackcap will be hiding a secret….
Overwintering Blackcaps in this country are not the same birds that we see here in summer – our summer visitor Blackcaps still migrate to and from Africa. Ringing studies have shown that these winter birds are ones that nest in Central European countries, Germany and points east, and these birds have changed their habits and now migrate here instead of back to Africa for the winter! Now why would they do that? The answer is simple: climate change is making our winters warmer, and that coupled with all the bird-food that we kind humans put out for them now makes the UK a great place to be and certainly much warmer than Eastern Europe.
So add some fatballs or suet pellets to your garden offerings and keep an eye out for Blackcaps. And remember - only the male has a black cap – just to be awkward the female’s is a lovely russet red!