Nobody seems quite sure how severe the current cold snap is in the United Kingdom. One thing is certain. As temperatures in parts of the country plunge to a level close to those being recorded at the South Pole and with snow now lying in some areas for over three weeks, the disruption being experienced across the United Kingdom has wider implications than for trains, planes and automobiles. Wildlife – especially birdlife – is suffering too.
What Happens to Birds in Winter?
Despite the extreme temperatures currently being experienced, cold is not usually a problem for birds in the UK. They have several layers of feathers to provide them with insulation – hence the regular sight of birds sitting in trees with feathers fluffed out. Furthermore, many of the species seen in the garden and countryside (such as geese or wading birds) are winter migrants from areas where the weather is regularly even more hostile than at present.
The main problem which the birds are currently experiencing is lack of food and water. Though they can bear the cold they expend a lot more energy than usual in order to do so. For this they need more food, and it is this which causes problems:
-A layer of snow covers normal sources of food, such as fallen seeds or berries, at a time when other elements of their diet – most notably insects – aren’t available
-Frozen ground prevents digging for worms and grubs
-Frozen lakes and ponds severely limit the capability of waterfowl and other water-feeding birds to obtain food
-Water is very limited in a cold period, with normal sources such as puddles or bird baths frozen.
As a result of these shortages, birds are forced to change their behaviour. They become more gregarious, flocking both to keep warm (huddling together at night) and to find food. Many species also leave their normal habitat and move into places where they aren’t not normally seen – the RSPB reports examples of birds such as woodcock, snipe and yellowhammers appearing in gardens while others, such as herons, move from frozen lakes to the sea.
The impacts of these temporary changes to wild bird behaviour are both predictable and problematic. As hungry birds flock to find sources of available food, they place themselves in competition with those which were already there. The result is that even in areas where food should be plentiful, such as gardens, it becomes scarce.
Responses to the Problems of Birds in Winter
Bird watching organisations such as the RSPB, and other organisations with a wildlife or environmental interest, have taken measures to try and ease the plight of the country’s wild birds. One obvious response is to encourage the general public to provide as much food as possible and many organisations provide online guides for this purpose.
These measures alone will be insufficient to avert what has been described by the RSPB as potentially the greatest single wildlife killer of the new millennium. Other measures have been taken by a range of different conservation groups (including the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) and include:
-Emergency feeding targeting threatened species at key locations
-Publicity aimed at encouraging people not to disturb wildlife and frighten them away from areas where they may find food, or cause them to use up unnecessary energy in flight
-Encouraging farmers to spread grain and other agricultural residues so as to help key species.
More direct government action has also been taken. The Scottish Government earlier introduced a temporary (14-day) ban on the shooting of wild bird species – the first of this kind in 13 years. A seven day ban was announced for Northern Ireland and a similar prohibition in England and Wales is likely.
These bans affect different species in different areas, but effectively make it an offence to shoot waterfowl (such as ducks and geese) and wading birds (including woodcock and golden plovers) even where such shooting is normally legal. The bans, which do not extend to game birds, are supplemented by what is described as ‘voluntary restraint’ i.e. requesting wildfowlers not to shoot these birds while harsh conditions persist, even when bans are not actually in force.
With the cold snap predicted to last well into the middle of January, the wild bird population of the UK will be experiencing conditions of unprecedented harshness. By adopting local and national measures, it is hoped that individuals and organisations may provide some relief and prevent large scale damage to bird numbers.
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