Nesting Birds need our help

On the sweetbrier bush, just under the eaves,
See, Robin has built his nest;
And where is the child with hand so rude
As Robin’s home to molest?

Robin Redbreast by Eliza Allen Starr


The bird breeding season is well under way, and all the birds are out making a good old racket. We all enjoy bird song, and it reminds us why we love this time of year. Although in reality, that sweet music is not a song but a more of a  “look how great I am, I’m ready for sex” or “this is my spot, and all these women are MINE!”

Of course with breeding comes eggs, and with eggs come nests, and once the eggs are in the nest the real hard work begins.

On several occasions so far already this spring, I have felt obliged to ask neighbours if they had checked for bird nests before they begin to trim their hedges. In both cases I received the same response.

“Why? Am I supposed to?”

Not a single person realised that nesting birds and their nests are protected by law. Of course what I am referring to about is The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which states that all wild birds, their nests and eggs, are protected by law (and some rare species are afforded further special protection)

The protection of the nest is limited to the time during construction and use, and begins from the moment the first twig is laid. This means that if you reduce or remove a hedgerow, tree or shrub, after you discover a nest, or if you are told that birds are nesting there, it is considered a deliberate act and you are breaking the law. This could mean that the discovery of a nest might stop you from any further work that you are doing in the garden, and you may have to leave the area alone until the breeding season is over.

A wild bird is defined as any bird which is resident in or a visitor to Great Britain (game birds have separate legislation) In certain circumstance it is possible for licences to be issued by specific public bodies which allow landowners or an ‘authorised person’ to take action against certain species for specific reasons (as defined by the licence).

Some species are also afforded a special level of protection. For specific rare, or endangered species (schedule 1 species) it is breaking the law to even disturb these species, as well as any dependent young. For example, a few years ago whilst conducting a survey, I came across a nestling Short-eared owl in the long grass. By not leaving the bird alone immediately I was breaking the law, not even to take a quick photo. I had to retreat to a safe distance and abandon my work in that area.

Many might consider this minor legislation, something that we are obliged to have but not really a “real law” and in some ways they may be right. But with a potential penalty of up to a fine of £5,000, and/or six months’ imprisonment, it’s not a risk worth taking.

Other than bird nests, what can also be a problem during the breeding season is finding baby birds on the ground. There are few things I can think of that is more helpless looking than a baby bird. Whether a naked hatchling or a down covered nestling or a helpless looking fledgling, it is a tragic sight.

So what should you do if you find a bird on the ground? Firstly, does the bird seem to be injured? If so, contact your local wildlife rescue centre. If the bird doesn’t seem to be injured, check whether it has feathers on it. If the bird is well feathered, the bird is a fledgling. Unless it seems to be in immediate danger leave it alone. If you think it might be in danger, then move it to somewhere safe. Fledgling birds will often spend a few days on the ground, stretching and strengthening their flight muscles before flying off.

If the bird doesn’t have feathers, or its feathers are sparse and/or downy, it is a nestling and needs your help or it will die. If you can see the nest, then you can put the bird back in the nest and the parents will continue to care for it, if they are still visiting the nest. If you see an adult bird flying towards the nest with food in its mouth, it is still providing food and the bird can be left there. Birds only carry mouth if they are providing it to young, otherwise they will eat it where they find it (with some exceptions.) If, however you can’t see any parent birds then it is not worth the risk, and you should contact a wildlife rescue centre.

Furthermore, if you see a cat playing with a bird, no matter whether it is a nestling, fledgling or adult, then take it to the wildlife rescue centre. The bird may be badly injured, or even if it’s not hurt the cat could easily find the bird again if you leave it.

The breeding season is a wonderful time of year for people. We love the sudden influx of birds, they release us from the bleakly songless grip of the winter, however it is not as enjoyable for the birds. The breeding season is the most stressful and exhausting time of year for birds. Anything we can do to make their life less difficult will be a benefit.

These legislations are put in place to protect birds, a vital part of our unique natural heritage. However, how can they do any good if nobody knows about them? I feel, as naturalists it is our responsibility to inform the layperson of these laws, and make sure that they are actually put to use. Even if the chance of actually being prosecuted for damaging a bird nest is low, a simple awareness of the potential threat might be enough to make most people consider putting the trimming on hold, or at least keeping an more careful eye out.


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Ben Wright

Ben Wright

I am a consultant ecologist with a special interest in protected species and birds. I have some past experience in science writing. I formally wrote a science column for a local paper, and composed a book based on the column (Science Matters) which has just been published.

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