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February birds, insects and animals

Other February pages: Flowers
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Picture: blackbird. Click here for more February bird photos. For 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 still more or less accurate. While great tits, robins and blue tits have already started singing in January, February sees most of our other common native countryside birds joining in, aiming to attract a partner and carve out breeding territories. With no foliage the birds are (relatively) easy to see, and there are no migrant species to confuse the novice, making this a wonderful month to learn to identify birds.

The fringes of residential areas are a particularly good place to hear birdsong. Here birds take advantage of garden feeders, as well as the mix of scrub, trees and rough grassy places to be found in parks, country parks and other green spaces. By contrast arable fields are largely devoid of songbirds.

Song is stronger in the early morning and before dusk, but is by no means confined to those times. Song thrushes and blackbirds have a propensity to sing towards the end of the day, but can be heard earlier, while blue tits, wrens, greenfinches and chaffinches seem to do most of their singing in the middle of the day. Falling into both categories, robins and great tits are vocal throughout the day, but also join the dusk chorus.

Those birds that are singing in February are particularly loud because they are establishing territories and want to notify rivals a fair distance away of their intentions: once territories are established they only need to produce enough volume to be heard by their immediate neighbours. Similarly, in order to attract a mate they have to project their song over as big a distance as possible.

In some species (for example song thrushes and great tits) they are also aiming to sing creatively to demonstrate their experience to prospective females: the wider the repertoire, the better the male is likely to be as a food provider.

All of this is weather-dependent. Sunny days or ones with mild westerly winds encourage birds to sing, both because they feel spring is just around the corner, and because they have to devote less time to feeding to keep warm. Equally, cold weather, storms, or northerly or easterly winds can reduce birdsong substantially and cause most species to fall silent.

Robins produce what is probably the most common birdsong in February, mainly heard near human habitation though sometimes also in rural woods. They are most persistent around dawn and dusk, but also pipe up fairly often during the day at this time of year, when competition seems to be at its height. Their song 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 more persistently and competitively than in January. Their most characteristic output is a piercing see-saw, often described as "teacher teacher" (with the emphasis on the first note). But there are lots of variations, one more like "duty duty", another an urgently repeated note with the other part of the see-saw barely sounded. The more versions a male great tit can produce, the more attractive he is to females and the less rivals are likely to encroach on his territory.

Great tits also make a variety of contact calls, including a kind of "see-choo-choo", and a double "weep" call that is very like that made by a chaffinch. Single "weeps" can sometimes be joined into an insistent metronome (again similar to chaffinches and possible to confuse with a nuthatch) and there is also a churring contact call. It has been said that if there is a bird song you cannot identify at this time of year, it probably comes from a great tit.

The less common coal tit also makes a see-saw noise, but with a heavy emphasis on the second syllable - "too-TWEE too-TWEE too-TWEE". Confusing the issue is that great tits sometimes make a somewhat similar noise - "pi-CHOO pi-CHOO pi-CHOO" - but one aid to identification is that coal tits favour conifers, albeit that they also come into gardens and parks.

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. Their characteristic social churring can also be heard, distinguished from the almost identical noise made by the great tit by a rising note at the end.

Listen carefully to that blue tit song, however, as if you hear it in woodland it is just possible that it is coming from a nuthatch. A piercing trill - more pronounced and clearly ennunciated than that of the blue tit - is one of several sounds that this bird makes. Much more common at this time of year, however, is a "wit wit" or "de-dit de-dit" call, that sometimes evolves into a "wee wee wee", delivered either rapidly or in a slow measured way (the bird has to stop and tilt its head up to do the latter). In general, nuthatches are limbering up in February, with March being when they start to sing more earnestly.

Joining all these songs is the dunnock, which can be heard throughout the month with a song that has been compared to 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 - usually, but not always, heard near habitation.

A much louder, and so more obvious, explosion of notes, with a trill in the middle, is the hallmark of the wren. It can be heard any time of year but there is a definite pick up towards the end of February, when males start to make several outbursts in a row. Earlier in the month you can hear the birds practising - that is doing only part of the riff.

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 trip over itself. In some years it is heard right from the start of February, but more often it is heard from mid month. In recent years it seems to be becoming less common in the south east, however - a worrying trend. The bird also makes a "chink chink" sound very similar to the double "weep" sound made by great tits, and a repeated "weep" metronome that can be harsher or softer toned (the latter, as mentioned above, hard to distinguish from a similar call made by great tits).

After practising by young males in January, February also sees song thrushes piping up in earnest - easily recognisable because they produce a great variety of phrases, repeating each one several times. They are particularly prominent at dusk, when they are often the last bird to stop singing, but can be heard at other times of the day. As with great tits, the more variations a song thrush male can make in his song, the more attractive he is to females - though at this stage in the year some are more accomplished than others and you can still hear some hesitant performances.

Less easy to identify - and rather rare these days - is the mistle thrush, whose song is like a clipped, more repetitive version of the blackbird's and which has a haunting quality that makes it sound far away even when it is quite close.

If you see a flock of thrushes feeding on the ground or in bushes or trees, then they will either be redwings (who do indeed have a red patch under their wings, along with a light stripe above and below their eyes) or fieldfares (like a thrush, but with a grey head and rump). These are winter visitors from Scandinavia and can be easily distinguished from our native thrushes because song thrushes and mistle thrushes never flock. Both species can congregate in large numbers in trees, where they make a chattering sound. At this time of year, when food sources are getting scarce, they can sometimes come into suburban parks or allotments.

Right from the start of 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 this starts to become common. It is young males in their first mating season who are singing this month, carried away by enthusiasm and so jumping the gun a bit. One can sometimes also hear them quietly practising their song (subvocalising) in a bush. They typically sing towards dusk and one often hears one's first blackbird of the year in a suburban area on a damp mild day. Older more experienced males may still mark their territories at dusk by making a tup-tup-tup call.

If the blackbirds do sing, they do so from high perches such as chimney pots or tree tops 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 (or perhaps look out for) earthworms. The arrival of a walker disturbs all this and they fly off in disgust, uttering their stuttering alarm call.

Among the sociable group-forming birds, long-tailed tits continue to flit restlessly through the branches uttering tiny squeaks (sadly only audible to young ears...) and rasps, and you may hear sparrows cheeping away near buildings (rural as well as suburban), often from within a bush. You can also hear the twittering of goldfinches high up in trees, though they are surprisingly hard to see there despite the bare branches.

Sounding a bit like goldfinches, but much rarer, are siskins, winter visitors which look like yellowy greenfinches and feed in twittering flocks on bushes or alder trees. As for our native greenfinches, their males are now making their mating song - a mix of trilling noises and a characteristic "squeeeezh" sound - nearly always delivered from a high perch near habitation.

Other birds to listen out for in February are green woodpeckers, whose call, known as a "yaffle", is a kind of manic laugh, and great spotted woodpeckers, who drum on trees to attract females, as well as making chik...chik... contact calls. Wood pigeons occasionally make their "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" call, while collared doves (nearly always found near habitation) go "hoo-hooo hoo". Listen out also for the throaty "woo" of the stock dove, which is usually only heard in woodland.

On arable fields, as well as the fieldfares and redwings mentioned above, you get large flocks of rooks or jackdaws (or both mixed in together): they also assemble noisily in tree tops, where they roost. You may see flocks of wood pigeons (probably winter migrants from the continent) or gulls (lesser black-backed, common or black-headed apparently) on farmland too.

In addition, small flocks of starlings are sometimes seen on arable fields or hedgerows: again, mostly these are migrants from the continent, attracted by our milder winters. Before our native population declined it was a common sight to see these birds flying at dusk over towns and cities in hypnotic formations called murmurations. You can still see this at Brighton Pier, where as many as 25,000 starlings have been known to roost at dusk.

Right from the start of the month (though more commonly from mid month) you might be surprised to hear a skylark singing over rough grassland or arable fields - an incongruous summer sound, but quite normal at this time of year. You may observe several of them on the ground, scuffling and making singing forays into the air, presumably competing for territory. Also in February you can still occasionally hear the night time hooting of a tawny owl, while in wetlands you may hear the startling outburst of a Cetti's warbler.

Insects and butterflies

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. There are in fact ten different species of these in the UK and the swarms are their mating dance, which they have evolved to do so at this time of year to avoid predators.

Look out also for early honeybees - for example around crocuses, snowdrops or cherry plum blossom. They live in hives all winter, feeding on the honey they made the previous summer, and so can emerge when conditions are right to search for pollen. In addition on mild days, a loud buzzing may alert you to a queen bumble bee who has emerged from her winter burrow. They are the sole survivors of their species who have mated the previous autumn and then lain dormant. Their task now is to find a nest site, gather pollen and start a new generation. You may just come across a queen wasp on a similar mission. 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. The occasional fly is also not impossible - and maybe even a hoverfly towards the end of the month, if conditions are mild.

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 overwinter 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.

If the weather is exceptionally mild, other hibernating (or rather diapausing) species of butterfly can also wake up. These include the brimstone, small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma. All four were seen in the last week of February 2019, when warm air from the Canaries lifted temperatures to a record 21 degrees, and in the second week of February 2023 when temperatures reached 16 degrees. On 15 February 2024 temperatures of 17 degrees brought out brimstones and peacocks. However it is not usually until the second half of March that these species emerge.


In the second half 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, choosing ones too shallow to have large fish, which might eat their tadpoles.

Any sheep you see in the fields are probably looking rather chubby, since they are about to give birth to lambs. If you see grey squirrels chasing each other around tree trunks, this is part of their mating ritual.

More February pages:

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