THIS coming weekend, Saturday and Sunday, 28th and 29th of January will witness the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. This attracts around half a million people each year and presents a vital picture of the range and variety of wild birds that visit our gardens.

Usually they are seeking food and shelter but some, like blackbirds, thrushes, robins and wrens, look for nesting sites whilst I’ve seen birds of prey in our small garden – eg a goshawk, sparrow hawk and kestrel. A heron was also an unwelcome visitor to our fish pond and buzzards regularly soar overhead, easily identified by mewing calls.

To participate in the Big Garden Birdwatch, all that is required is that each person watches the birds that visit their garden during a single hour that weekend, and list those visits. If people watch for more than an hour, it could result in recording the same bird several times.

That would provide an inaccurate record of the visitors. Although this annual event is not considered a scientific survey, it is an important one and does tell us a lot about the wild birds in our gardens. It is, in fact, the world’s largest Wild Life Survey and last year, some nine million birds were counted.

For those of us with computers, we can visit to obtain a free and helpful pack whilst those of us without computers can obtain more information from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL (Phone 01767 680551). There may also be a local RSPB office in your area.

An ordinary pen and paper record of your count will be acceptable and, of course, you can submit your results to the RSPB via their website. Have a nice hour obtaining your result and as you carry out your survey, you might find it helpful to have a bird recognition book at your side!

What's in a name

CONTINUING the theme of garden birds, as I was settling down to compile these notes, a dunnock decided to visit our bird feeder which is usually the haunt of blue tits, great tits and coal tits. That particular feeder attracts the finch family and other small birds, but also unwanted bullies like starlings, woodpeckers, crows and even a grey squirrel.

For that reason we have placed the feeder inside a protective cage that permits entry by our smaller visitors but which deters the larger and more aggressive ones. Blue tits have no trouble negotiating a route through that cage, and the finches seem equally skilled. The cage does a good job in protecting their peanuts – not even a determined grey squirrel can steal the birds’ food.

To witness a dunnock trying to manoeuvre itself between the narrow bars and then select a peanut was most unusual – they tend to find their food on the ground. Their diet includes worms, beetles, snails and flies but they will eat berries that have fallen to the ground, as well as seeds and grain. They are not usually visitors to bird tables or suspended feeders full of peanuts, although they have the intelligence to seek titbits that have fallen to the ground beneath such feeding stations.

Dunnocks are quiet and unobtrusive birds who spend much of their time creeping around the garden beneath the leaves of garden vegetation, moving stealthily rather like mice. Their colouring – striated brown plumage above and grey beneath – renders them almost invisible beneath hedgerows and among the natural debris of a garden.

Sometimes they utter a shrill squeak-like note but they do have a very pretty song that they may sing on occasions from a high point such as a garage roof, weather vane or tree branch.

When I was a child taking my first steps in bird-watching, this quiet and secretive little bird was known popularly as the Hedge Sparrow, and more seriously as the Hedge Accentor. The modern name of Dunnock was rarely used. My Observer’s Book of British Birds (with no date of publication inside it but probably in the 1940s) stresses that the correct name for this bird is Hedge Accentor, although it does add that the bird was often known as the Dunnock.

My RSPB Handbook of British Birds records it as the Dunnock whilst my Reader’s Digest Field Guide to the Birds of Britain (1981) also features it as the Dunnock, although referring to it as the Hedge Sparrow (it is not related to the sparrow family) albeit adding that it is a member of the Accentor family, many of whom live in mountainous regions.

Now, of course, I wonder when this quiet mousey little bird ceased to be known as the Hedge Sparrow or Hedge Accentor, and was given the name of Dunnock? And I now wonder how our RSPB Birdwatchers will record sightings of it?

Telling them apart

ON the subject of birds’ names, one of the most common errors is to refer to rooks as crows. Rooks and crows are almost identical birds, and an easy way to distinguish them is that rooks generally fly around in flocks whilst crows tend to be more solitary, but often being seen in pairs. Rooks have a white patch on their faces around the base of the beak in addition to rather baggy “trousers” at the top of their legs. Crows do not have those features.

Both belong to the crow family of birds that also includes the raven, jackdaw, magpie, jay and choughs.

Our Yorkshire ancestors solved the problem by referring to both crows and rooks as crukes and a scarecrow was widely known as a flaycruke, thus embracing both birds.

The old dialect word of cruke could also refer to something with a bend in it, like a stick but also the comfortable nook beside a warm fire. An inglenook was sometimes called a cruke.

However, cruke could also mean a hook or bend of some sort, particularly the hinge of a gate but it was also applied to animals which had a deformed leg or back. It might also apply to a small bend in a stream or river and in the vocabulary of some moorfolk, it meant a fad of some kind, referring to a strange characteristic in someone.

So what is a kowscot hawk?