Apr 2004

What is happening to the birds around us?

by David Nowell, FAO Casa Gazette, April 2004

Have you noticed the changes in the bird communities this spring? Or was it only the birds becoming very vocal again that made you aware of them, or that you seldom notice them at all? As we go about our daily lives at this time of the year, many changes are taking place in the bird communities around us. Spring is a truly remarkable period for birds with much change taking place in these communities, which most of us just take for granted.

The resident birds are welcoming the new season and the prospect of summer by becoming very active in preparing their nests, courting, feasting on fresh food, and breeding. It is during this period that the more observant of us usually notice an increase in birds singing, particularly as the sun comes up. If one looks more carefully during the day there is great activity as birds select and build their nests – European starlings, hooded crows and blackbirds breed in late winter and early spring. Soon they are foraging for food as they have to feed many hungry mouths back in the nests, and there is a continuous food shuttle back and forth to the nest to keep the noisy nestlings temporarily happy. It will not be long before the little birds emerge and start fending for themselves while often being guarded by their agitated and aggressive parents.

Those species that visited us for winter, while their summer home was too cold or had no food during winter, have started moving back inland or further north. Some of these birds species are with us all year, but their numbers can increase a lot in winter. These birds included greenfinch, black redstart, Sardinia warbler, common kestrel and European robin. Other winter visitors are particularly apparent if one visits surrounding water bodies during the winter months e.g. Lago di Bracciano or Lago di Vico. It is possible to see many different water birds during these months, many of them in large numbers (for example, pochard, wigeon, teal, and the ubiquitous mallard), over this period and you may even get lucky and see less common birds for this area such as the bittern. Many of these birds start leaving in February and gradually move north as it begins to warm up.

The big change of course is the migrating birds! What a wonderful time of the year it is with so many different types of birds returning to summer in the northern hemisphere. Many of these return to breed or feed in the city or locally, but an even greater number pass by on their way to northern Europe. We are sometimes lucky to see these migrating birds if and when they stop to rest and feed, before continuing their long journey north (particularly waders in areas outside the city). Some of these birds may only have been to northern Africa, but the majority have travelled much further – even as far south as South Africa. It is incredible that such small animals are able to travel this distance in a short space of time to their old summer feeding and breeding grounds. For central Italy, this migration starts in earnest in March and will last into May.

In Rome, we can soon expect the willow warblers, yellow wagtail, pied and collared flycatcher, amongst many others, to join the house martin and common swift that arrived in late March. Soon they will also start nesting and breeding while there is food and before it gets too hot and dry. This will also give the young time to grow and prepare for the long journey south at the end of summer to start the whole cycle all over again.

When one looks closer at these different birds, it is remarkable to see such variety and beauty (they range is size, shape and colour) in such small creatures that we normally pass without taking any notice. So, when next you are outside, whether it is for a walk or stuck in the traffic, look around for our feathered friends. You may be surprise how much joy they can bring for so little effort........

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