Other February pages: Flowers • Trees and shrubs • Weather
For pictures, more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.
In medieval times 14 February - St Valentine's Day - was considered to be the day when birds began to mate, and that is actually fairly accurate to this day. While great tits, robins and blue tits have already started singing in January, mid February sees a definite upsurge in birdsong. By the month's end most of our common native countryside birds are in full voice, singing to attract a mate or to protect their territories, and on a sunny day there can be a positive cacophony. With no foliage, the birds are (relatively) easy to see, and there are no migrant species about to confuse the novice, making February a wonderful month to learn to identify birds or birdsong.
Song is stronger in the early morning and before dusk, though by no means exclusively confined to those times. The fringes of suburban areas are a particularly good place to hear it. Here birds take advantage of garden bird feeders, as well as the scrub and mix of high and low trees on the edge of a wild grassy space that often characterise suburban country parks. By contrast arable fields are relatively devoid of songbirds. Sunny days or ones with mild westerly winds do seem to encourage birds to sing, either because they feel more optimistic or are devoting less time to feeding to keep warm. Equally cold and grey weather or easterly winds can reduce birdsong substantially.
Robins are probably the most common birdsong in February, at least near human habitation, and their song can be heard throughout the month, particularly around dawn and dusk. It is a formless twittering, hard to define, but robins are very easy to see, their boldness making them happy to sit on prominent perches quite close to humans.
Great tits are also stalwart songsters in February, singing throughout the day and for longer periods than in January. There most characteristic output is a piercing see-saw (sometimes described as "teacher-teacher" though this only gives the intonation), but they also make a range of other sounds, including a repeated forceful note, a kind of "see-choo-choo", and a double "weep" call that is very like that made by a chaffinch, and a churring contact call. Even the see-saw sound has variations, but if you hear a "too-TWEE, too-TWEE, too-TWEE" sound, you are listening to a coal tit.
Blue tits also continue to make their soft mating call - a rapid repetition of the same note, which is often delivered between mouthfuls as the bird hops around the branch feeding. The characteristic social churring of the birds can also be heard, distinguished from an almost identical noise made by the great tit by the fact that in the blue tit's case the note rises at the end.
Listen carefully to that blue tit song, however, as it is just possible if you hear it in woodland that it is coming from a nuthatch. A rapid series of notes - more pronounced and clearly ennunciated than that of the blue tit - is one of several sounds that this bird makes, another being a measured "wee...wee....wee". It also does a kind of trill, but its most common sound in February is a "de-dit, de-dit, de-dit" call.
Joining all these songs is the dunnock, which can be heard throughout the month with a song that sounds like a squeaky supermarket trolley. Like the blue tit, it is not a very loud song, but once you get your ear in, it is quite common. A much louder, and so more obvious, explosion of notes, with a trill in the middle, is the hallmark of the wren. It can sing any time of year but there is a definite pick up in frequency sometime around the middle of February, at which time it starts to make several outbursts in a row.
All these songs suggest that spring is on its way, but the real confirmation comes from the mating song of the chaffinch, whose accelerating cascade of notes ends in a flourish that seems to almost trip over itself. In some years it is heard right from the start of February, but more often it is heard from mid month. Occasionally you also hear the bird making a repetitive and slightly raspy "wheep…wheep…wheep" call (with about one wheep per second: known to birders as a "rain call"), though it is easy to confuse this with the repeated single note song of a great tit (the latter is usually more rapid, but sometimes not). The chaffinch also makes a "chink chink" sound very similar to the double "weep" sound made by great tits.
If they have not started already in January, February sees song thrushes starting up – easily recognisable because they produce a great variety of phrases and then repeat each one several times. They are heard particularly often at dusk, when they seem to like to be the last bird to stop singing, but can be heard at other times of the day. Less easy to identify - and much less common - is the mistle thrush, whose song is like a clipped, more repetitive version of the blackbird's and which sounds far away even when it is quite close.
If you see a flock of thrushes feeding on the ground or on bushes, then they will either be redwings (who do indeed have a red patch under their wings) or fieldfares (like a thrush, but somewhat more highly coloured), both of whom are winter visitors from Scandinavia. At the end of the winter, as food sources get scarce, they can sometimes come into suburban parks. It not being their breeding season, they do not sing here.
From mid February you may start to hear some blackbirds, their beautifully measured and melifluous song evocative of spring days to come, but it is not till March that it really starts to become common. One theory I have read is that it is young males in their first mating season who are singing in February, carried away by enthusiasm and so jumping the gun a bit. Older more experienced males still mark their territories at dusk by making the tup-tup-tup call they use throughout the winter.
If the blackbirds do sing, they do so from high perches such as chimney pots and so are relatively easy to see. You sometimes see them silently sitting on such perches towards dusk in February as if trying to remember what they are supposed to do there. The rest of the day they search for worms and bugs on the ground: you can see them cocking their ear to listen for earthworms. The arrival of a walker disturbs all this and they fly off in disgust, uttering their fluttering alarm call.
Among the sociable group-forming birds, long-tailed tits continue to flit restlessly through the branches making an almost inaudible squeak, and you may hear sparrows cheeping away near buildings, sadly much rarer than they used to be. From mid month greenfinch males make their mating song, a repeated "squeeeezh" sound as well as trilling noises. You can also hear the twittering of goldfinches high up in trees, which sounds like communal chatter but may turn out to be a lone male singing away.
Other birds to listen out for in February (you almost never actually see them) are green woodpeckers, whose call is a kind of manic laugh, and greater spotted woodpeckers, who drum on trees to show off to females. On bushes or alder trees you might see (or more often hear) a noisy twittering flock of siskins, another winter visitor, which look like yellowy greenfinches. But if you see a flock of yellowish birds on the ground, look more closely because they might just be yellowhammers, who flock together in winter.
Wood pigeons also occasionally make their "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" call, while collared doves (nearly always found near habitation) go "hoo-hooo hoo". A rarer call is the throaty "woo" of the stock dove, which is only heard in woodland.
In arable fields, as well as the fieldfares and redwings mentioned above, you get large flocks of rooks or jackdaws (or both mixed in together) or starlings, and the latter also can be seen wheeling in formation in huge flocks, many tens of thousands strong, at dusk (Brighton pier is a wonderful place to see this). Many of these starlings are in fact migrants from the continent, attracted here by our milder winters.
Right from the start of the month (though more commonly from mid month) you might be surprised to hear a lark singing over rough grassland or arable fields – an incongruous summer sound, but actually quite normal at this time of year.
One doesn’t associate February with insects, but there are some around. You might catch sight of a cloud of tiny winter gnats on windless days. They are performing their mating dance and presumably evolved to do so at this time of year to avoid predators.
Look out also for early bees - for example around crocuses or cherry plum blossom. There you may see bumble bee queens, who have mated the previous autumn and then lie dormant till spring, or honeybees, which spend all winter in their hives, living on the honey they have made the previous year. Queen wasps may be out looking for nesting spots. All of these, if the weather turns cold again, can simply go back to bed.
Other insect species are dormant - or to be more precise in a state of diapause, where their metabolism is switched off entirely but can be awakened in a moment to deal with a threat. Thus if you turn over a rotting log you might find woodlice or spiders, who will rapidly scuttle off to find shelter again. Ladybirds are also hidden away but may emerge on a warm sunny day.
On a sunny day you may also be surprised to see a red admiral butterfly. Their presence in England at this time of year is an anomaly, as they are normally summer migrants. But a few do over-winter here and may just wake up if the weather is mild. As with bees, they soon realise the error of their ways and go back to sleep.
In theory other hibernating (or rather diapausing) species of butterfly can also wake up. These include the brimstone, small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma. I am told it is not unknown for painted lady (another migrant normally associated with high summer) to pop up too. Having said that, I have never personally observed any of these species in February.
Towards the very end of the month frogs may emerge from their hibernation (which they spend in leaf litter, log piles and underground tunnels or sometimes the mud at the bottom of ponds). They then mate - the male hanging on grimly to the female's back - and lay their eggs - frogspawn - in ponds.
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