The early bird gets the worm

by Alice Ashcroft, Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

As the frosty veneer of winter melts away and the earth mellows for spring, you may notice little flurries of activity around your garden. Perhaps a robin is collecting leaves, or a song thrush is searching for a suitable place to settle.

A small number of brave garden birds are already making preparations for their young, far before the rest of their kind. You may see them gathering materials for their nests, and some may even have started laying their eggs, flying in the face of their species’ normal nesting patterns.

Early nesting is a risky move, but every year there are a daring few who throw caution to the wind and get started well ahead of time.

The demands of building a nest, laying eggs and rearing young are enormous, and a bird must be at peak physical condition to succeed. Since winter has only just past and the land is still thawing, finding enough food to fuel such an endeavour can be a significant barrier to securing a nest of healthy chicks. We at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust try to give our local birds a helping hand by feeding them protein-rich food such as dried mealworms, and you can too in your own back garden.

So, why take such a risk? Because the earlier that birds start to breed, the more young they can produce in a season, meaning they can spread their genes far and wide. Only the oldest and wisest birds attempt this risky tactic, as they have the knowledge and experience to see them through the challenges it brings. Last year’s hatchlings still have much to learn.

Some species, however, nest early in the year as a matter of course. Rooks and carrion crows, for example, have eggs in the nest by mid-March. One reason for this is that early bird really does get the worm; it is much easier to find earth worms in damp soil than later in the year when the ground warms and dries. Mistle thrushes adopt a similar strategy, and an added benefit for them is that predatory birds such as jays have not yet begun searching for nests and eggs.

Long-tailed tits are also early starters, and a joy to watch at this time of year. Although they have not yet started to lay their eggs, their breeding season is well under way. It is essential that they get an early start, as long-tailed tits are tasked with building what is perhaps the most labour intensive nest in Britain.

These tiny, industrious birds (sometimes called ‘flying teaspoons’ on account of their long tails and small, round bodies) create soft domes from thousands of pieces of moss, which they glue together with strands of sticky cobweb. Lichen fragments are sprinkled on for protection, and the nest is lined with feathers for warmth. It takes around three weeks to build, but the end result is a comfortable, cosy home – the perfect place to start a family.

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