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January birds and insects

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Picture: robin. Click here for more autumn and winter bird photos. For more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

The slow increase in birdsong that started in December - after the near total silence of late summer and autumn - gathers pace during January, as males of some species respond to the lengthening days by establishing their territories and starting to look for mates. The reason they start now is in order to have territories set up, nests established and young hatched in time to coincide with the greater abundance of food in spring.

Singing is a risky activity, pointing the males out to potential predators. The lack of foliage makes this danger even more acute - though on the plus side for us humans it makes the birds easier to spot than they are later in the year.

Sunny days and mild weather increase birdsong - this is undoubtedly one of the subliminal factors that makes spring seem just around the corner on a fine January day - while snow, cold, or northerly or easterly winds dampen it down. This may be because birds feel the sap rising on milder days, but is also because they have to spend more time feeding when it is cold, to replace the energy they consume keeping warm.

Getting enough to eat is, in fact, a big struggle, especially now when the easier food sources of late autumn have been exhausted. Most birds living in a garden at the end of a summer will be dead within a year, and while predators play a big part, starvation is also a factor. Only a third of blackbirds and half of tits survive the winter, and even those that do are unlikely to see a second one: just a quarter of robins reach their first birthday. This is despite the fact that in captivity (ie in ideal conditions, with adequate food and no predators) tits can live ten years, robins thirteen and blackbirds and starlings up to twenty.

And though smaller birds can go into a kind of partial hibernation on winter nights to save energy, it is still a struggle to keep warm. Some huddle up together - in a line on a branch in the case of the long-tailed tits, in disused house martin nests and other cosy nooks in the case of wrens. But blue tits just sit alone on a twig and shiver. They can lose 5 percent of their bodyweight in one night and then have to spend 85 percent of daylight feeding to recover it.

The signature sound of January is the see-saw song of great tits. This is often described as "teacher, teacher, teacher" (ie, with the emphasis on the first note), but there are lots of variations, one more like "duty, 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. In general you hear brief outbursts of this song early in the month and it gets more persistent from the third week onwards. But if it is cold it remains tentative all month.

Great tits also make a variety of contact calls, including a kind of "see-choo-choo", a churring noise, and cheeps singly, in pairs, or (more rarely) a long irregular series of them. It has been said that if you hear a bird noise at this time of year that you can't identify, 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.

The other very common birdsong at this time of year, at least near houses, is the rather formless twittering of robins. Ruthlessly solitary for much of the year - they will happily kill rivals - this is the month when they must end their isolation and allow a mate into their territory. If you see two robins together that are not fighting, then the pairing up has taken place. Even then it is a tentative affair, the birds tolerating each other's presence for the purpose of raising young rather than showing any affection.

The boldness of these birds - they tend to adopt prominent perches and are relatively unafraid of humans - makes them particularly easy to see. If it has not already done so from the start of the month, robin song becomes widespread in the second half, particularly near human habitation and towards dusk, with competition between rival males obvious. When agitated - or when they just want to signal their presence without singing - they make a clicking noise.

Less prominent mating calls you might hear in January include blue tits - a soft but rapidly repeated note which is an extension of the "zee-zee zit" sound that they make at other times of they year. They also utter churring noises as hop around branches feeding, with their version rising in tone at the end, whereas the similar sound made by great tits is flatter in pitch.

This is the peak time for blue tits to sing, but their song is quite quiet and so easy to overlook. The same might be said for the riff of the dunnock, which has been likened to the sound of a squeaky supermarket trolley. It can be heard even at the start of the month, but sometimes does not become common until later in the month or even early February. They are quite easy to see as they sing from prominent perches. They also have a high-pitched "tseep" call.

Song thrushes are not in full mating mode until February, but you can sometimes hear them practising their song in January, something they start to do as early as the second half of November. What you hear is males (probably first year ones) trying out different riffs, sometimes very quietly and sometimes more confidently, the most varied repertoire being what attracts a female. Occasionally one might burst into a more fluid and organised song (where they sing each riff three times, then move on to another one, and then another), and sometimes a competing male will sing back, but this is usually not sustained.

Other sounds you may hear include the occasional "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" of the wood pigeon (in woods and near houses) or the "hoo-hooo hoo" of collared doves (almost always near houses). Both are more prevalent in milder weather. Also in woods you may just hear the repeated deep-throated "woo" of the stock dove. For all three birds these are mostly brief outbursts, however: limbering up rather than serious mating behaviour.

In some woods nuthatches can be quite vocal. They have a variety of sounds including a "wit wit" (or "de-dit de-dit") call, and a trill that could be mistaken for the song of the blue tit but which is more staccato. Much more rarely the "wit wit" starts to morph into a rapidly repeated "wee" or a more leisurely and emphatic run of three or four: this is the bird practising its mating calls.

You also might hear the drumming of a great spotted woodpecker, the hysterical laugh ("yaffle") of a green woodpecker, a brief outburst of a wren (listen out for the trill in the middle of the phrase, though they have often not perfected this part of the song at this time of year), or (at the very end of the month) the nasal "squeezh" of a greenfinch. All of these birds more usually start in February so what you are hearing in January is probably a youngster practising or jumping the gun. Great spotted woodpeckers also continue to make their year-round "chik..chik.." call as they feed in trees.

Blackbirds should not be singing yet, though just occasionally an over-eager first year male may have a go, particularly late in the month. Otherwise, they sometimes mark their territories at dusk with competitive bouts of "tup-tup-tupping". But in general if you think you hear a blackbird singing, check it is not a mistle thrush. It sounds like a blackbird in a hurry, with very short melodic phrases which are also rather repetitive. It is a peculiar quality of mistle thrush song that it nearly always sounds far away even when it is in fact relatively close. In popular legend it is the stormcock, which sings before bad weather. It traditionally started singing in December or even late November, but sadly these days is quite rare.

Communal birds you may notice in January include goldfinches, who chatter excitedly as they feed in the high branches (though they are surprisingly hard to see: when you look closely what seems like a whole flock of birds chattering often seems to be coming from one male), and fluffy long-tailed tits, which move restlessly through the trees in small groups, uttering high-pitched squeaks (sadly only audible to young ears...) and rasps. Near farms and houses one might hear the incessant cheeping of sparrows (often coming from within a bush).

Redwings and fieldfares sometimes gather in trees in enormous number, a vast chattering sound alerting you to their presence. These Scandinavian thrushes come to our shores in winter to enjoy our milder climate and greater availability of food - especially berries of all kinds, but also insects and worms that they find on grassland. They can be distinguished from our native thrushes by the fact that they are in flocks (song and mistle thrushes never flock). Redwings also have a red tinge under their wings and a light stripe above and below their eye, while fieldfares have grey heads and rumps.

Otherwise, if you hear twittering in trees, particularly alders, it may just be coming from siskins - a yellow-hued Scandinavian finch that overwinters here. (They are not always twittering: sometimes they just feed silently.) Look carefully, though, to make sure they are not goldfinches. Most years colourful waxwings cross over from Scandinavia and Russia in search of berries (they like rowan particularly), but these irruptions down the east coast rarely seem to get to the south east.

On arable fields, the most common flocks are enormous (often 100 plus) gatherings of rooks and jackdaws, not infrequently mixed together. They also assemble noisily in nearby tree tops, and usually have a favoured stand of trees where they roost. In addition on arable fields you can see flocks of wood pigeons (probably winter migrants from the continent) or gulls (lesser black-backed, common or black-headed apparently).

Also swollen by winter migrants from mainland Europe is our much-reduced native starling population: you may see flocks of them on arable fields, or stripping the last remaining berries from hedgerows. Once it was common even in cities to see "murmurations" - a large number of them flying in formation towards sunset. These days you have to go to nature reserves such as Otmoor RSPB near Oxford, or Brighton Pier. As many as 25,000 have been known to roost in the latter place, forming a fabulous spectacle before they do, though numbers have been reduced in recent years. At Otmoor numbers may be more than 100,000, though they tend to be gone by late in the month.

Chaffinches are also supposedly found in flocks in winter, again with numbers swollen by migrants from continental Europe, but if they are around they are very inconspicuous. Even rarer these days is to see flocks of yellowhammers, linnets or corn buntings, though some do still exist. Again, arable land or nearby shrubs seem to be the best places.

Meanwhile on shallow muddy coasts with marshland or arable fields nearby (for example at Benfleet and Leigh-on-Sea near Southend, Birchington-on-Sea and Reculver on the North Kent coast, or in Chichester Harbour) you can see hundreds of brent geese, which overwinter here after breeding on the Siberian tundra. They have an amusing habit of drifting on the sea in great honking flotillas and then taking off en masse to feed on fields inland.

All sorts of other seabirds and waterfowl from the continent also congregate on our flatter coasts and in wetland reserves at this time of year, including oystercatchers, lapwing, ringed plovers, turnstones and dunlin.

At the very end of the month you may come across a skylark practising its song and display flight over arable fields or downland, an incongruous summer sound at this time of year. You can still also occasionally hear the hooting of a tawny owl in January.

At dusk in woodland you may hear the noisy clucking of pheasants as they settle down to roost - something they do all year, but which you tend to only notice in winter when nightfall is so early.


You may think that there are no insects around in January but you would be wrong. Look carefully and you can see swarms of 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. If you look at them under magnification (try focusing binoculars on them - not easy!) they are like minature crane flies or mayflies.

If you turn over a rotting log in woodland you might also be surprised to see woodlice or spiders. These are inactive in winter, but not actually hibernating, a term which only applies to mammals. Instead what the insects are doing is "diapausing": they shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again.

Flies do the same and very very occasionally make an appearance on sunny days, and the same is also true of bumble bee queens. The bee species you are most likely to see in January is a honeybee, however. They live in hives all winter feeding on the honey they made in the summer, but may emerge in January in surprising numbers if there is a food source - for example a winter flowering cherry tree in a garden.

Peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and comma butterflies also diapause as adults, waiting to breed in spring. Second World War pillboxes and garden sheds are apparently popular spots for peacocks and small tortoiseshells, while brimstones hide among bramble leaves. Very occasionally you might see one on the wing on a mild day, but the butterfly you are most likely to see - rather surprisingly - is a red admiral. They should not be here at all at this time of year, since they are a late spring and summer migratory species, but some do seem to hang around, and now and then one gets tempted out by sunny weather. There is no evidence that they go on to breed in spring, but it is just possible that they do, and they may well become another diapausing species in due course.

Insects also overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae, or in the shape of one fertilised queen (as with bumble bees and wasps). Every species has to have some strategy to get through the cold months and populate the world anew in spring and summer.


If you see squirrels chasing each other around a tree trunk in January, it is part of their mating ritual. Notice that the female sheep - ewes - in fields are now getting a bit chubby, as they prepare to give birth to spring lambs.

More January pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2024 • All Rights Reserved

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